As Chinese communities across the globe celebrate the arrival of the Year of the Horse this weekend, Jill Glenn meets Lucy Mitchell, Marketing Director of the SeeWoo Group, to talk about the role of women in Chinese businesses, her own career, and the importance of family ties
It's apt that the first few words of my conversation with Lucy Mitchell are about how good a sunny morning makes her feel, because ‘sunny’ is one of the words that sprang instantly to mind when she opened the door. It’s not just the atmosphere of her light, bright Northwood home, but her smile, her demeanour and, it transpires, her approach to life. For a very driven woman, she’s very charming.
Despite being half-Chinese, Lucy, 41, is local through and through. Born in Stanmore, she grew up there until her parents divorced, when she was ten, and then moved with her mother and older brother to Ashfield Avenue, Bushey. The divorce was amicable – “as good as it gets,” she says – and the ties still bind them closely; they all get together at Christmas for big, jolly meals. So close is everyone, in fact, that Lucy’s mother's new husband works for Lucy's father. It’s the first reference to a theme that runs throughout our conversation, a belief she frequently reiterates: the importance of family.
Lucy inherited a strong work ethic from both her parents. Her father, Stanley Tse, now 70, arrived in this country from Hong Kong at 15, his own father having died when he was three. “He came here with nothing,” Lucy stresses. Stanley started his working life here as a pot washer at a French restaurant in Shrewsbury, and, via the drive and determination that I see in his daughter, he and his brother Tony have established a multi-million-pound empire of Oriental food specialist companies: SeeWoo. As well as running their own supermarkets (the flagship store in Lisle Street, Soho, opened in 1975), SeeWoo supplies to around 90 per cent of the Chinese and Oriental restaurants in the South East, and also to other Cash & Carry outlets. They stock not just Chinese products but also Vietnamese, Thai and Malaysian. They manufacture, too, and their Way-On Chilli Oil won a Great Taste award in 2012. Their Park Royal factory is BRC Grade A accredited. I’m told that’s good.
There are also a couple of restaurants: a 500 seater seafood establishment in Glasgow and See Sushi at trendy Paddington Basin in London. This is a side of the business that Lucy would particularly like to expand. “I have plans…” she says, with an enigmatic smile.
Making a career in the family business wasn’t a foregone conclusion, although it was perhaps always on the radar. When she was a child, her family owned the Lantern House on Bushey Heath, and Lucy was in and out of the restaurant regularly. But when she was killing time in the kitchen there or spending her Saturday mornings packing cashew nuts at the age of 12 and 13, it’s unlikely that she could have envisaged the future that she has now.
After school (Northwood College) she took a gap year, during which she travelled and worked, and then headed off to Bristol to study English and Art History. “And I hated it; I only lasted half a term”, she recalls. Eventually she ended up working in IT, specifically in IT marketing for big American software companies – always pushing herself, always moving into jobs where felt out of her depth. She was lucky, she says, but she took chances, too, and generally they paid off.
She did this for ten years, by which time she was married to Dan, a lawyer, and her daughter, Tilly, now 12, had just been born. “And there endeth my IT career,” she laughs. “I was leaving her too much.” Tilly was followed by Charlie, now nine, and by an unexpected career move: after a couple of years’ work in consulting, both for general clients and for SeeWoo, her father invited her to join the company permanently. She works four days a week, school hours. “I have massive flexibility,” she acknowledges, “so for my kids, it's like having a stay-at-home mum… I’m here when they get back from school, I can help with their homework.” Lucy’s big on homework. And manners.
As highly as she values education, though, she feels that far too many young people are going to university with inflated expectations of life. “I see they need to survive,” she says, “but I also want to know – are they a nice person, an all rounder, not just academic? Do they have good social skills [if they're hers I'm sure they do…], can they make conversation?”
She’d like to see Tilly and Charlie playing their part in the business, although her husband thinks they shouldn't be working or helping out at a young age. “And I say, ‘Well, I was.’ I worked as teenager in the shop, going up on the tube with friends on a Saturday and in the summer. I’d like the kids involved.” She’s thinking both short and long term.
Lucy joined SeeWoo as a marketing consultant: a comparatively senior position given that she had no real food industry experience, and a role which she is not ashamed to say came her way because of who she is. The family relationship is a double-edged sword, however: much is given, but much is demanded. Her father, who is company chairman, and her uncle, the MD, “speak differently” to her. “They’re tough, they have high expectations…”
…Expectations that Lucy is evidently satisfying, for she is now Marketing Director, and, as a woman in a Chinese company, even a UK-based Chinese company, unusual at her level. What’s interesting is that she sees women becoming slowly more senior in companies in China but that she herself is still frequently met with bewilderment here, from British Chinese and foreign suppliers. There’s also a sense that women should know their place, she explains, so that even when they are accepted into roles of seniority in China they find it hard to challenge the old order.
Her position is quite isolated. Suppliers are shocked, even aggressive, to find a woman in a senior role. “I try to understand, and I’m respectful, but I'll still get my point across and stand my ground. They've generally come round by the end of the meeting…”
Not only do these Chinese men bring their cultural expectations and prejudices to the table, but they also bring their language. Lucy understands, but can't speak, Cantonese and she doesn't speak Mandarin, although Stanley and Tony can negotiate in both. Some suppliers revert to their own language even if she and her English Finance Director colleague Phil are there. “So rude,” she says. Stanley will always revert to English in this situation, though, and one of Lucy’s team is fluent and can translate. It’s no surprise that her children are already learning Mandarin and that she has encouraged her daughter to take up Spanish. “I’m not having this happen to them,” she says, fiercely. “Wherever their future lies, these are the world languages that are going to matter.”
The family links don’t always work in Lucy’s favour. She hates being introduced as ‘the chairman’s daughter’, for example. “It really undermines me, especially with Chinese suppliers.” It must be hard, sometimes, to be taken seriously. “It is,” she agrees, “but the value I add is real.”
Centre: Lucy’s father, Stanley Tse, then President
of Chinatown, with Chairman C.T. Tang (right)
and London Mayor Boris Johnson (left) at the
Year of the Dragon celebrations, January 2012.
Her father and uncle remain the essence of the business, and she constantly credits their achievements, but she can see how the company needs to develop. “I’m excited by what we can do. I need to take it forward in a western way while being sensitive to them and complementing their style.”
Stanley and Tony like to micro-manage, she tells me. “They go through the warehouse daily and tell people off for leaving bags of rice in the wrong place.” She raises her eyebrows, both amused and exasperated by this. “My father is still in Chinatown on a Sunday with his gloves off selling veg,” she adds. “It’s how he sees what's going on, what customers want.” And do you do the same, I enquire. “No, I don't,” she says, laughing. Her own approach is more arm’s length, more western in both ethos and attitude, as a result of her different experiences, but she doesn’t expect to change the older generation; on certain points, she doesn’t even try. “I pick my battles. I’ve learned what to leave well alone.”
Her father and uncle still do the buying for the company: one or other of them is in China every six weeks, and Lucy hopes to get more involved in this side of the business over the next few years. “He needs to slow down,” she says, sounding like any daughter talking about any father with a rather too ambitious take on life. You can see where she gets her own drive from.
As much as the business fascinates and absorbs her – she’s checking emails from 7am to 10pm, even on her day off – she also has a distinct fondness for the domestic. “I love cooking, baking, making. I’m a frustrated florist at heart…”. She loves eating out, and values service and the whole experience just as highly as the contents of the plate. She also entertains company contacts on her father’s behalf, and attends business dinners with him, shrugging these obligations off with grace. “There’s not a lot of going out, anyway; we’re in hock to the children's social lives.”
The demarcation between home and work may not be quite perfect, but she sees her work-life balance as pretty sorted on the whole. “They’re not separate, though; they’re intertwined. It’s the family connection.”
Being a Tse by birth has brought her almost nothing but good. To hear her talk, it’s evident she thinks her life charmed. She has, she says, always loved being mixed race, always seen the benefits. “My eyes have been opened because of it. It’s never been anything other than positive…”
Chinese women, Lucy explains, are expected to stay at home and be with their children for the first few years, returning to work as soon as can but only in low grade jobs such as a cashier in a shop. Attitudes are slowly changing. “The first generation don't expect or want promotion but the second generation have different expectations.”
Given the challenges she’s faced, I wonder what her message would be to young Chinese women following in her footsteps. She gives it a moment’s thought. “Be thick skinned,” she says. “Think: I'm going to show them, I’m not going to be fazed if they're fazed. Respect me because I can. And learn through your mistakes. Don’t be afraid of making them. I tell my kids ‘accept, admit and move on’.”
It’s a philosophy that has stood her in good stead so far; I can’t see it letting her down now.
www.seesushi.com • West End Quay, 4D Praed St, London W2 • 020 7724 7358