Published: 11:42, May 4, 2020 | Updated: 03:17, June 6, 2023
Chinese labels go global with their workforces
By Wang Zhouqiong

The new children's wear of Chinese sportswear company Anta Group is released at the New York Fashion Week's Spring/Summer 2020 collection in Sept 2019. (PHOTO / XINHUA)

It took six months for French designer Sandra Romboli to get fully on board with the logic and rhythms at Chinese sportswear company Anta Group in Xiamen, Fujian province, in East China.

Romboli, who previously worked with sports international brands like Reebok and Adidas, said Anta is a company that is moving and changing fast.

She is now the creative director for sport style footwear in Anta.

Having been in China for about a year, Romboli said she found the Chinese footwear market "surprising by the quality and the amount of products".

"In Europe, people are more loyal to brands and franchises. In China, consumers are loyal to a brand but they need freshness every time," she said.

That's a big change for Romboli although she has adapted quickly.

A visitor learns about Anta products at the Jinjiang Footwear and Sports Industry International Exposition, China. (PHOTO / XINHUA)

For creative teams, we want to keep that motivation and confidence amid constant changes. That's why we need clear and tangible directions one at a time

Sandra Romboli, French designer

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"For creative teams, we want to keep that motivation and confidence amid constant changes. That's why we need clear and tangible directions one at a time."

Bringing to the table some global experiences, storytelling techniques and methodologies she had used in big sportswear names, Romboli has gradually learned how to work with young creative teams, by "giving them the creative tools and directions, rather than telling them what to do."

"In the Chinese culture, you have to gain respect," said Romboli."Humility, understanding and adaptability are the most important things to learn so far."

Romboli is among a rising number of global professionals attracted to the Chinese sportswear conglomerate, which rose from a shoe maker founded in 1991 to an owner of world renowned sports brands including Fila, Salomon and Arc' Teryx.

Currently, Anta has about 500 international employees. The company has used the best global professionals and resources to rejuvenate its domestic markets and attract younger consumers.

Starting from 2017, Anta Group has begun to recruit international employees in sizable numbers systematically, said Xiong Ling, chief human resources officer of the company.

Xiong said international professionals are brought to the company for the purpose of improving design capacity and branding power.

"The integration of international personnel could be painstaking," said Xiong, who has over 20 years of working experience at multinationals. "It requires taking patience and investing for the long term."

With more Chinese brands going global, there will be more international professionals joining Chinese companies. This is a trend, she said.

Adam Zhang, founder of Key-Solution Sports Consulting Company, said the application of global resources in domestic sportswear brands has played an even more significant role in winning local consumers.

For example, leading domestic sports brand Li Ning has recovered from a continuous decline since 2018 thanks to its adaptation of Chinese character elements with global design techniques and a promotion campaign on the international fashion stage.

Last year, Li Ning recorded a net profit of 1.49 billion yuan (US$210.4 million), up 109.6 percent year-on-year. The firm was boosted by reshaping its branded images through the introduction of Chinese cultural elements.

Its revenue in global markets dropped from 2.4 percent in 2018 to 1.9 percent last year, a sign the company has focused more on the domestic market.

Since participating in New York Fashion Week in 2018, the company has gradually discovered the connection between Li Ning's DNA that is rooted in the rise of the Chinese sports sector and its link to Chinese culture, said Li Ning Co Ltd.

Li Ning's management has decided to unleash the potential of local designers to explore their breakthroughs in the professional, technological and most trendy fields.

Professionalism and fashion are two features for the single-brand-focused sportswear producer, which has multiple categories ranging from basketball, running, training, badminton and casual wear, to get more engaged with younger consumers, allowing it to enhance collaboration with top designers and other trendy brands.

"Simply adding some international designs and calling them innovations are far from enough," said Zhang from Key-Solution Sports Consulting.

Generation Z (people born between the mid-1990s and the early 2000s) consumers have synced with global information, but they have a high interest in Chinese culture and possess a strong sense of pride.

"Brands have to recreate by organically mixing global narratives with localized elements," he said.

Visitors shop at a Li Ning store in Fuzhou, Fujian province. (ZHOU DAOXIAN / FOR CHINA DAILY)

Best practices at Fila

The internationalization of Anta is most visible at Fila, the Italian active wear and fashion style brand whose Chinese business was acquired by Anta over 10 years ago.

The deal has turned around Fila's performance in the country to one of the fastest-rising sports and fashion brands, beloved by many trend-loving young customers.

Fila's revenue reached 14.77 billion yuan, up 73.9 percent, or 43 percent of the group's total revenue, in fiscal year 2019.

Brian Yiu, the CEO of Fila China, said a key contributor to Fila's soaring financial results is the joint efforts between its international and local team.

From management to operations, the international gene is at the core of Fila China, said Yiu.

Keeping the Italian character and DNA in its operations is done through store displays and products design. In China, that means relying heavily on the subtle balance between its internationalized design and management team, especially since the Chinese team has extensive knowledge and understanding of local consumers.

"We took the best designs from Fila Italy. Not all of their products fit Chinese consumers. Our innovations must have a connection, combining global design elements and local demands," said Yiu. His slogan is "think local, act global". It translates into "adopting global resources, operated with local strategies".

For instance, Fila's Year of the Rat collection was designed by renowned Spanish illustrator Ignasi Monreal who picked up Chinese elements of mouse and peony to celebrate the Chinese Lunar New Year.

Yiu himself, having previously worked in Hong Kong, is among the first group of overseas professionals who joined Fila's senior management team.

With rapid growth in the past four years, Fila China has recruited more expats from South Korea, Japan, Europe and North America.

To help the large number of international employees quickly adapt to a foreign environment, Anta has formed an international human resource unit under the HR department last year.

They coordinate about 130 foreigners who work at Anta, providing them with one-stop solutions and advice regarding matters such as being picked up from the airport, housing, financial services and setting-up of mobile applications to make their lives more convenient in China. They also counsel them on their performance appraisal and tax matters.

Angie Li, head of this unit, said they have set up several cross-cultural communication seminars, inviting experienced foreign nationals and Chinese employees who understand Anta to share their experiences with the newcomers.

Some recently-recruited foreign employee have a "buddy"-usually a Chinese colleague who speaks English-to accompany the expat during the orientation process.

Integration of culture

The internationalization of Anta has been fueled by the large number of people in senior management with prior experience in multinational companies. Half of the people who are director-level or higher have worked in multinational outfits.

Christina Li, vice-president of Anta Group, said she is proud of having Anta as the peak of her career after two decades working at Fortune Global 500 multinational firms such as Walmart and Pepsi.

"As a Chinese, I am very proud to be part of the internationalization drive of this Chinese company. I am very willing to contribute the rest of my career to a Chinese brand," said Li, who joined Anta in 2017.

Li has witnessed the increasing integration and success of overseas employees in the country, with many of them playing a major role in the progress of the company in recent years.

She said the self-evolving culture of this family business-turned corporation centered by inclusiveness and openness is major incentive in keeping the international staff.

Since 2017, the Xiamen-based sportswear maker has started to transform into a global player, challenging sportswear giants Nike and Adidas.

"The fact that Ding Shizhong, the founder, chairman of the board and CEO of Anta Group, is able to update the mindsets and management models to connect constantly with the market dynamics, that the running of the company has been offered to more professional executives rather than just family successors, has made professionals feel accepted and trusted, as well as empowered," Li said.

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She said what impressed her most is how Anta is capable of clearly setting up goals each month, strictly following the execution of each goal and targets with timely adjustments based on market trends and supply chain dynamics.

It is a different way of doing things compared with the lengthy decision making process of multinational corporations which requires approvals from headquarters in the United States or Europe, she said.

"That's how Anta can win and win it fast," she said.

On the integration of Amer Sports, which Anta acquired in 2019, Li said mutual respect has characterized the working relationship of each side. There is recognition from Amer of Anta's quality growth concepts without interfering in the management of their firm.