Careers

Why Joey Wat decided to take on a challenging job opportunity — that had a high risk of failure

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The CEO of China's largest restaurant group didn't always work in food retail, let alone the retail industry.

More than a decade ago, Joey Wat at Yum China, was given the chance to take on a massive career challenge that had a high risk of failure — and her decision led Wat into the role she has now.

Rewind to the mid-2000s: Wat had just spent seven years in management consulting and had been promoted to head of strategy at Watson in Europe. Today, A.S. Watson Group is seen as the world's largest international health and beauty retailer, but back in the 2000s, one of its brands was showing signs of struggle: Savers — and Wat had been offered an opportunity to help rescue it.

"Most of the stores were not making money — a very significant portion, and there was an opportunity for me to take this role, but it was very challenging," Joey Wat, CEO of Yum China, said when speaking to CNBC's Akiko Fujita last month.

"To be honest, the failure rate could be quite high. If I made the change from my strategy role to the managing director role of this health and beauty business, I could fail."

A Savers shop in the UK
Credit: © A.S. Watson Group 2017
A Savers shop in the UK

So Wat had a decision to make. Speaking at the Credit Suisse Asian Investment Conference in Hong Kong, the newly-appointed CEO of Yum China described the opportunity of becoming Savers' managing director as "scary", but admitted that there were two aspects that helped her decide: how much of a learning process it would be, and how many jobs were at stake.

"If the business cannot turn around, there's a high chance that a few thousand people might lose their jobs. So if I give it a go, if it didn't work, we still would have the same result. If it worked, then we might save a few thousand people."

As Wat explained, a "significant portion" of the U.K. discount health and beauty chain's stores weren't making enough money. However, fast forward to the present day, and Savers has more than 400 stores across the U.K., with over 3,000 people employed. And Wat was seen as a big part of the turnaround success.

"Of course the downside of (it is) my career might be impacted, but that's the moment that I thought — 'It's time to do the right thing'. Sometimes the right thing, is not the easy path."

Wat made the transition to become Savers' managing director in 2007, and in 2012 she became the managing director of Watson U.K., which took care of two major retail chains: Savers and Superdrug. After 10 years at A.S. Watson, Wat moved back to China in 2014, where she would soon take on a number of leadership positions, including her latest one: CEO of Yum China.

Looking back on this decision to take on the challenge of reviving a struggling business, Wat tells CNBC that whilst it was challenging, it was something she was willing to take a chance on.

"It was something I wanted to do. It was very challenging, it has a high chance that I might not be able to do it, but it was the right thing for me to do for myself and for the few thousand employees – so (I thought) let's give it a chance."

Life Hacks Live is a series produced by CNBC International for Facebook, where tomorrow's leaders get to ask some of the world's biggest influencers for advice. You can watch the full interview here.