You’re one rank away from reaching managing director at Goldman Sachs and you’ve got there a mere eight years into your banking career.
You stick with the bank, you perform well and MD is on the horizon. Right?
Singaporean Robyn Liang had a different plan as an executive director at Goldman in Hong Kong. She didn’t want to become an MD; she wanted to set up a kids’ clothing company.
Like most people who quit banking for business, Liang says there were both “push and pull factors” behind her decision.
Liang joined Goldman in 2009 after a five-year stint at Deutsche Bank where she’d worked as a fixed income trader covering Southeast Asia.
“Deutsche had a better trading franchise – we could take no position ourselves and still make money from trading flow. But at Goldman it was predominantly proprietary trading,” says Liang.
“I went to Goldman partly because of this, so I could test my trading skills and take more risks. But after three years I realised that prop trading wasn’t for me. It didn’t actually turn out to be challenging enough, not because it wasn’t tough, but because I didn’t feel I was learning new things,” she adds.
Liang’s interest in her new industry was sparked during the many trips she took to China while at Goldman. “There was much talk about China’s one-child policy being abandoned and I could sense this was a huge opportunity for companies making products for children.”
In 2012 Liang wasn’t a mother herself but she was doing a lot of baby shopping. “It was a Dragon Year, so a lot of friends and family were having babies. When I was buying gifts I thought why can’t we have a good quality Asian kids’ clothing brand to compete with the top Western labels?”
“There appeared to be a huge gap in the market – plus online shopping was getting more popular and Asia had the right demographics and access to labour,” says Liang.
Her husband Dylan Ong agreed, and in 2012 they both quit their banking jobs – Ong was an associate director at LGT Bank in Hong Kong – to found their company, Le Petit Society.
The two of them made their share of mistakes at first. “We were turned down by a lot of factories in China. We may have been fairly senior bankers, but they didn’t take us serious without experience in the fashion business.”
When the former financiers eventually found a factory to work with they overestimated the initial production run and struggled to sell their first batch of clothes.
“By 2014 we had two kids ourselves and we’d moved back to Singapore. We couldn’t devote enough time to the business and we had mortgages to pay, so we were questioning what we were doing and we almost returned to banking.”
The turning point for sales came in early 2015 when Liang and Ong took part in large baby fairs in Singapore and started to “gain brand awareness”.
“We’d never gone to these events before because we’d promoted ourselves as an exclusive online product and this was mass-market offline selling – but it worked. Asian parents don’t mind spending on quality kids’ clothes and we’re still cheaper than Western brands.”
Le Petit Society has offices in Singapore and Hong Kong and now employs six full-time staff, including three designers. Liang says most of its sales come from Singapore, although her long-term ambition is to crack the Chinese market by partnering with a mainland firm.
The brand currently caters to newborns and children up to the age of seven, but future collections will include clothes for older kids. “We aim for Le Petit Society to be synonymous with affordable luxury.”
Liang says her and her husband’s banking backgrounds have ultimately helped the business to thrive. “We want to expand internationally and banking gives you exposure to global markets. It also gives you expertise in business valuation, financial planning, intellectual property, and asset allocation. And perhaps most importantly, banking can make you a great networker – that’s a vital ingredient of success in the Asian business world.”