Inc. Southeast Asia | Tycoons 2.0
Photo c/o Guiltless
“Always think like the sneakiest version of yourself,” says Yen Kuok in an interview with Inc. Southeast Asia. Sitting comfortably behind her desk at the Hong Kong headquarters of Guiltless—the luxury marketplace selling pre-loved (second-hand) and off-season designer clothing, handbags, shoes, jewelry, watches, and lifestyle products she founded in 2015—Kuok is recalling the one lesson her father, Malaysian sugar baron Robert Kuok, taught her about running a business. “Anticipate and imagine the worst-nightmare customers you could have—those out to get you, cheat you, and manipulate their way around your system. Put yourself in their shoes and if you can beat yourself at that game, then you’re likely set.”
These nuggets of advice are worth their weight in gold, as the older Kuok, whose business empire includes luxury hotel chain Shangri-La, Kerry Properties, and palm oil giant Wilmar International, sits on a fortune estimated by Forbes to be at $12.9 billion. Now the richest man in Malaysia, the founder of the Kuok Group began his fortune trading rice, sugar, and wheat flour in Malaysia in 1949, eventually expanding his business to Singapore in 1953.
Yen, 27, is the youngest of Kuok’s eight children. And, it seems, the most determined to step out of her father’s shadow.
“I’m somewhat the black sheep of the family,” she admits. Kuok says her privileged background has been a chip on her shoulder growing up, driving her to constantly be on the defense each time people presume her to be the stereotypical second-generation rich kid. While her siblings hold executive positions within the Kuok Group—eldest brother Beau was chairman and CEO of Shangri-La Asia before passing the torch to their sister, Kuok Hui Kwong; another brother, Kuok Khoon Ean, now handles most of the day-to-day operations of their father’s businesses as chairman of Kuok Limited and director of Kerry Group Limited and Kerry Holdings Limited—the youngest daughter chose to be an entrepreneur.
But before founding Guiltless, Kuok had considered taking an offer to work in New York in investment banking firm JP Morgan, where she spent her internship the summer of her junior year in Stanford. It was a logical move for a child of privilege—which is why she hesitated. “I’d worked so hard at that point to just take the easy way out, which is what working in banking in Hong Kong represented,” she says.
At her mother’s urging, Kuok instead returned to Hong Kong to spend time with her father, now 94, and even worked the local real estate circuit for three years for Kerry Properties—not as glamorous a choice among second-generation Kuoks as working for luxury hotel chain Shangri-La or the then-family-owned South China Morning Post. “I didn’t want to do what everybody was doing,” she says.
These days, Kuok is channeling her admittedly pent-up second-generation frustrations into more positive outcomes: her lofty goal of elevating Guiltless into “the global destination for pre-bought luxury fashion.” It’s a tricky move in secondhand-phobic Asia, where the concept of buying old and used goods is considered almost sacrilegious. But Kuok insists, “the East is always half a beat slower than the West” and that second-hand shopping, which is all the rage in the United States and Europe, is steadily catching on in Asia.
Demand may only be building up, but the second-hand sector isn’t lacking for supply. According to Samuel Lim, the co-founder of Singapore-based luxury e-commerce platform Reebonz, a huge reserve of pre-owned luxury products has been accumulating over the last 15 years in Asia. In an earlier interview with Inc. Southeast Asia, Lim, who founded Reebonz in 2009, shares that during the global financial crisis, “many luxury brands and distributors were looking for avenues to liquidate their inventories,” and with e-commerce starting to take off, the potential for growth in Asia is vast. But while Lim is seeing increasing demand “for more unique and vintage pre-owned luxury pieces… there is that problem of trust when buying pre-owned luxury online.”
Trust isn’t the only issue. In Asia, where a 2012 Nielsen Global Consumer Survey of 29,000 online respondents across 58 countries reveals “three in five consumers are willing to pay more for designer brands,” perception is the bigger problem. Asians generally favor the latest fashion trends and styles; anything old or off-season, especially for clothing, is still frowned upon and considered taboo.
As a self-confessed shopaholic, whose closet in her Wan Chai apartment is bursting at the seams with both brand new and pre-loved pieces, Kuok is well aware of the PR problem facing her. Guiltless, she responds, will be the platform to change consumer attitudes.
How? By affording Guiltless buyers not only the same accoutrements that shopping in a Louis Vuitton or Gucci flagship store offers—Kuok’s eight-strong team ensures the sellers’ products are authentic, dry-cleaned professionally, before packaging the items in delicately wrapped thin sheets of paper encased in chic and elegant boxes—but also through careful product curation, and their soon-to-launch series of pop-up stores across key cities in Asia. “Unless people see our pre-loved products, they’re not going to find out that the luxury shopping experience we present is at par with that of first-class labels,” she says.
While Kuok is not keen on disclosing numbers, she relates that Guiltless customers’ average basket size is currently at $600, with buyers checking out at least two $150- to $400-worth items at a time. It makes money by drawing a commission on each sale, the percentage of which depends on the country a seller is from. According to Kuok, Guiltless is the only second-hand website taking consignments from all over the world—in any country that its logistics partner DHL services.
If such second-hand luxury fashion businesses as Kuok’s Guiltless play their cards right in Southeast Asia, e-commerce analyst and eBay alumna Teri Canayon states the region could very well follow the path of Japan where the market for secondhand chic is immense. In 2015, a Financial Times report stated that pre-loved designer handbags had even become an unlikely barometer for Japan’s economy. Growth-focused Abenomics has led to improved consumer sentiment, as indicated by a rise in inventories in such businesses as Komehyo, among Japan’s biggest second-hand dealers of high-end products which is currently expanding its footprint in China. A more recent report by Bloomberg last July reveals that “secondhand now accounts for more than 10 percent of Japan’s total [luxury] retail market.”
“There are big warehouses in Tokyo—bigger than the department stores of mammoth malls in Asia—where they house all these pre-loved items,” says Canayon. Demand, she points out, will come from middle class China and Southeast Asia, where people aspiring for luxury items may not necessarily have the spending power to buy brand-new yet, but will gladly spend income on pre-loved items in mint condition.
It’s no secret that Robert Kuok has built a grand legacy for himself not only in Asia but in the global arena, ensuring his heirs a security blanket very comfortably valued at billions. Will his youngest daughter, keen on stepping out of the shadow cast by her industrialist father, succeed?
It’s too early to say. For now, Guiltless’ tenacious founder is happy with bite-sized pieces of success. “Lately I’ve been reading magazines in Hong Kong that talk about Guiltless where they don’t mention my father’s name at all—and I get really happy,” says Kuok. “Finally, I’m important enough to have my own name, and not just be the daughter of so and so….”