“Believe it or not, before I joined, I had every Bulgari book,” says Jeffrey Hang, regional managing director of Bulgari South Asia Pacific covering Southeast Asia, India and Oceania. Hang immediately adds that his collection of books numbers an astounding 14,858.
“I bury myself in books. My interests vary from jewellery to equestrian pursuits, not that I am an equestrian but it’s more about the imagery. I guess you can call them coffee table books, but when I travel it is a must that I carve out some time to find a book,” he says.
Considering that Hang has worked all over the world — his 27 years at LVMH have taken him from North America and France to China, Macau and Southeast Asia — it is no wonder that his collection has grown to this incredible number. “I’ve been very privileged. One thing that LVMH does, if you’re willing, is give you opportunities that abound. With more than 70 brands represented on every continent, if you want something, just reach out and tell somebody and you’re going to get that opportunity. With each move, I have covered every single segment of the business, from cosmetics and fashion to watches and jewellery,” he explains.
Born in Singapore and having migrated to the US at a young age, Hang dreamt early on of teaching English literature, which explains his extensive personal library. Although his social nature led him to retail, Hang says, his passion for storytelling still comes through with each new role he takes on. “Just by virtue of that kind of bicultural upbringing, there was a big part of me trying to discover myself while growing up. And the best way I knew to actualise this was by being very social. I knew that whatever I did had to involve people and interacting with them constantly. To be honest, falling into retail was actually that: I fell into it; I didn’t choose it. But here I am, 29 years later, still doing it.”
One of Hang’s career highlights was being appointed senior vice-president and CEO of Louis Vuitton China, a position he held before his current one. “I spent 15 years in China. In 2006, when the group sent me there, we had seven stores and were barely making €2 million a year. When I left at 2019 end, we had 38 stores, and I think [the figure is now] 51 stores. We exceeded expectations as well; China represented almost 30% of the global business for the brand [in 2019]. So, that evolution was tremendous.”
Based in Singapore again — his third professional stint in the city he calls home — this is the first time since joining Bulgari that Hang has been able to travel, and he has brought along a new collection of high jewellery pieces to tour the region. Malaysia is the first stop. For the interview, we are seated in the Bulgari boutique in Pavilion Kuala Lumpur, surrounded by furnishings in soft orange shades and vibrant bouquets. There is an energy that is unique to the Italian luxury brand, represented by the colour and sparkle of its high jewellery pieces and the passion of its people.
According to Hang, this energy emanates throughout the entire business. “It’s the warmth of this organisation, in terms of the products and the whole spirit of being Italian and Roman, and you really see it in the people,” he says. “Compared to my previous experiences, this is the first organisation I’ve been in where everyone lives and breathes Bulgari in a very sincere way. They’re not there because it is the right thing to do, but because they feel passionate about it.”
Quick to laugh and with an easy smile, Hang exudes an excitement over Bulgari’s pieces that is quite infectious. Drawn to Serpenti designs that feature the Tubogas construction and the stories about Elizabeth Taylor commissioning a Serpenti piece for the movie Cleopatra, he expresses his adoration for Bulgari’s expertise with colour. “What Bulgari does with coloured stones is what we’re all about. It is the identity of the brand, but that’s also the spirit; and when you see the coloured gems, especially when they’re in a combination of multiple colours on a single piece, it is powerful. No one else is able to duplicate that and create this harmony in the colours.”
Bulgari’s high jewellery pieces speaks of the jeweller’s rich history in exquisite craftsmanship and vibrant designs. While its legacy is in jewellery, the maison has also made a name for itself in the high watchmaking world. Competing with storied names and having achieved world records, Bulgari is slowly expanding its market. In Singapore, the brand has even been approached by a large watch retailer who wants to stock its pieces. “The clients trust these sorts of establishments; so, to be in that environment is something that’s complimentary for us. It’s not really competition because these clients wouldn’t necessarily walk into our boutiques,” explains Hang.
When it comes to his leadership style, Hang has a succinct analogy. “I hold a very long and loose leash,” he says. “The leash is there, [but] it’s up to the individual to tug a bit harder if they want to let me know they need help. I see my duty as being at the helm to set the direction.”
With his wealth of experience, Hang has learnt quite a few key lessons that guide his management style. “Coming into general management, I’ve found that it’s not about being a generalist and knowing everything, but it’s how you manage your team,” he says. Managing his team also means paying attention to what they are saying, which was especially important during lockdowns. “Over the course of the last year, I’ve had to listen to each of the teams in the markets and there was no way that we could manage or even lead remotely without listening to what was going on out there. And, now, as we’re able to go back out, it’s even more. There’s a tremendous level of trust in the local teams. And we’re seeing this across the board, especially within LVMH. There’s much more emphasis placed on what local teams and clients are telling the company.”
Covid-19 and the current state of the world have transformed all industries, and the luxury sector is no exception. Hang explains it quite simply: “Luxury is evolving. Twenty-five years ago, luxury was for mature, elite profiles; today, it’s much more democratic. It’s about aspiration and creating relationships and, obviously, for a lot of our clients, to feel the best they can about themselves through products and also the relationships we establish with them. The challenge is that people are always changing.”
Not only are individuals constantly in motion but, he says, in South Asia Pacific, every market is also drastically different. Before Covid-19 wreaked havoc, tourists were the main buyers in much of the luxury sector. Once lockdowns were in place, Bulgari — like most retailers — had to turn its attention to the local markets. Hang explains: “All brands have pivoted to focus foremost on locals. Eventually, the tourists will return and, of course, that’s a welcome part of what we’re doing, but it’s not what we are aiming for. It’s going to be the cherry on the cake as opposed to a slice [of the cake], if you will.”
He talks about how the company went all out to host a special event exclusively for Bulgari’s Malaysian clients. “We transformed The Estate on Federal Hill, which is magnificent in terms of its vantage point of Kuala Lumpur. We staged a showcase of the new pieces with models. We had Datuk Syafinaz Selamat singing for the clients, and a spectacular French-inspired meal that was truly interactive. This was all for about 40 of our best clients. The experience culminated in fireworks.” After the festivities, clients were, naturally, eager to touch, feel and buy some of the stunning Bulgari jewellery.
This event is a great example of Bulgari’s focus on listening to local clients in each sector. Hang notes that each client is different and it is difficult to generalise each of their needs; so, finding individual preferences has been paramount. “But therein lies, again, what we call the challenge or the opportunity. And what I found fascinating was [clients’] stories about how they’re connected to Bulgari. For some, it’s a movie they’d seen or music they’d heard, or there is something about the piece that resonates [with them]. If you were simply selling a product you would never know these touch points. There is beauty in the jewellery, especially high jewellery. Yes, these are beautiful pieces to behold, but if they don’t touch an individual in a certain way, people are not going to be shelling out thousands, if not millions, of dollars, right?”
In addition to the personal connection, Bulgari also aims to understand how customers want to connect with the brand. Hang intends to bring together brick-and-mortar stores and e-commerce in a cohesive way, focusing on individual wants and preferences. “The answer is in listening to the client in terms of how they want to transact with us. And we have truly gone into that mode of not calling it omnichannel but channel-less,” he says.
Another key lesson learnt from the pandemic is being adaptable. Referring again to the event for its Malaysian clients, Hang recalls how the skies suddenly opened up, forcing the team to immediately alter its plans — and they did it so seamlessly that the guests were none the wiser. The pandemic has taught everyone that plans, while useful and important, do not always pan out. Therefore, it is paramount to be open to change.
Hang discloses that another exciting event is in the works, one that — if Covid-19 permits — will be an unforgettable experience. “The big thing coming up in Asia is an exhibition that will be staged in the Palace Museum, in the Forbidden City in Beijing, from the end of August. The collaboration is not just for Bulgari but is between the Italian and Chinese governments, which will embody the partnership of two countries. It will be the largest collection of vintage heritage pieces that Bulgari has ever put together. It’s almost 1,000 Bulgari pieces and will be in the context of Chinese culture and Imperial China.”
We conclude our interview with a closer look at Bulgari’s high jewellery range which will be touring the region with Hang. From the dazzling Serpenti watches to the elaborate Colour Treasures necklaces, each piece tells an incredible story using carefully chosen flawless gems as words. Considering how highly sought after they are, having a chance to touch and feel them is a true honour, and one can only hope to be in the presence of such magnificence again in the future.
This article first appeared on Mar 28, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.