January 6, 2006
Clothes make the man
But the way U of A alumnus Bernie Mah sees it, they can also change a nation
by Richard Cairney
If you've any doubt that it's a small world, consider the case of Bernie Mah. One of the highest-ranking executives with Giordano, China's answer to the GAP, Mah spent the first two weeks of December travelling the world. From his offices in Hong Kong, he set out across most of China, with meetings in Guangzhou in the south, Beijing, then Shenyang in the north. The tour included presenting 15 Giordano scholarships to students at Dr. Sun Yat Sen University.
The trips were capped off by longer journeys: first to Oakland, California, to visit his mother, then on to Vancouver to scout potential locations for Giordano 's first North American outlets, and finally to Edmonton to visit his daughters Tangie and Tannie, students at the University of Alberta, their father's alma mater.
It's difficult to say where home is for Mah. But it's clear to see the way the U of A has influenced his life, the lives of his colleagues and modern-day China.
Mah was brought to the U of A by his uncle, Vic Mah, in 1971. "That first winter taught me that I could survive and even like it if I stopped thinking about this place as a foreign place and started thinking of it as home. If I embraced my new life rather than resist it or compare it to Hong Kong all the time, I would adapt, and it would all work out."
It did. He and Peter Lau – who is Giordano's chairman and chief executive officer – studied together at the U of A School of Business.
"It's a small world and it's getting smaller," said Mah. "Peter and I didn't know each other in Hong Kong, but we did come to know each other in a far-away place, at the University of Alberta. He made the dean's list and earned a Board of Governor's Scholarship.
"I was glad to be in Edmonton, and to have an uncle who was willing to pay for my air fare and tuition," he said. "I was fortunate."
After graduating, Mah worked as an accountant with the Alberta government. When his old classmate, Lau, offered him a position with Giordano, Mah leapt at it.
"I couldn't have predicted that I'd be working in Asia, doing this kind of work at Giordano. I'm grateful to Peter for the chance to march in the retail battlefield."
That battlefield contains a number of conquests. With more than 1,600 stores in 30 countries, Giordano is the largest casual clothing retailer in Asia, excluding Japan.
The U of A, he says, provided more than technical foundations of business. It also infused in Mah valuable lessons in leadership. "As much as business is about numbers, it is also about relationships and your responsibility to others, and to purposes other than your own," he said.
Mah is responsible for global business development at Giordano but also feels responsible for ensuring that the work environment draws the best people.
"It's my job to ensure that the work environment encourages communication and solid relationships, that people feel their needs are being met and that they can pursue their own career goals and build solid friendships."
One notable team-building exercise Mah was instrumental in was putting a company team in the SmarTone-Vodafone Ferrari Pit Stop Challenge, in which Giordano employees competed as a racing pit crew, besting its challengers by changing the tires of a race car in 9.23 seconds flat.
"When work becomes fun, the workplace becomes a place where people come to pursue their own goals and the larger business goals. These are not just my employees, but my friends, who I rely on," said Mah, who also has a philosophical take on fashion itself.
"I think it was Anatole France (the Nobel Prize-winning author) who said, 'show me the clothes of a country and I can write its history.' He probably meant it in a slightly different context, but I take it to mean that the growth of Giordano in a place like China illustrates how far China has come, as a people and as an economic power. Casual wear is bought by people who have the wealth and time for leisure pursuits other than basic survival."
Back to that 'small-world' scenario: in trying to schedule an interview with Folio, it happened that both Mah and a Folio editor would be in San Francisco on the same day. Sitting in a coffee shop in the trendy Polk Street nieghbourhood, Mah speaks fondly of his family, having spent the previous day with his mother.
"I always tell people, 'respect your mother. And respect your mother university.' I think the U of A and Giordano have the same goals, to really be international, to be the very best."