Millie’s (妙麗)– the Iconic Handbag and Shoes Brand
York Lo: Millie’s (妙麗)– the Iconic Handbag and Shoes Brand
Left: the iconic Millie’s neon sign on Nathan Road at night; Right: Millie’s founder Alan Lau on the cover of Economic Digest at the height of his success in 1982
In the 1970s and early 1980s, Millie’s was the leading handbag and shoes manufacturer and retailer in Hong Kong. Its giant peacock neon sign in its flagship store on Nathan Road had become an iconic cultural symbol. The brainchild of Alan Lau Tin-chao (劉天就), a flamboyant and daring entrepreneur who named the group after his wife, Millie’s at its peak was a multinational business empire of 30 companies that went beyond shoes and bags – it was also involved in finance, laundry, watch, fast foods, trading, publishing (Tin Tin Daily News), travel agency, property and hotels and was one of the earliest and largest investors in the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone when it first opened. After the Group’s collapse in 1984, the popular shoes and handbags brand endured and after several changes of ownership, today it is owned by the listed Belle International and operate hundreds of stores in HK, Macau and mainland China.
There are a number of different versions regarding Lau’s early life. According to his entry in the Who’s Who in Hong Kong, he was born in 1926 in Macau. One article claimed that he studied business administration at the prestigious St. John’s University in Shanghai and another said he had an engineering background. One article which has interviewed a Mr. Kwok from San Francisco who was allegedly Lau’s middle school classmate claimed that Lau started his first business at the age of 13 trading goods in Shanghai and worked as a driving instructor and garage operator when he moved to Hong Kong. According to William Chiang who knew Lau and his Cantonese wife Millie Woo (胡月娥) from Shanghai in the 1940s, the couple started out selling American surplus goods on the sidewalk of Cosmopolitan Apartments (designed in 1934 by Chinese American architect Poy-Gum Lee) on Nanking Road in Shanghai. Chiang remembered Lau as a hardworking and driven entrepreneur who always dutifully took his wooden display box outside of the compound to sell his goods on Seymour Road regardless of the weather conditions and later he and his wife operated an ice cream shack for his wife’s Eurasian aunt Mrs. Ruby Edwards with most customers being foreigners from the neighborhood.
After the Communists took over Shanghai in 1949, Lau and his family went to HK. In 1957, he was photographed next to Peter H.T. Woo (see my article on him as the father of HK electronics industry) and the Filipino consulate general at the opening reception of Woo’s Champagne Engineering which distributed Blaupunkt radios. Exact nature of Lau’s connection with Peter Woo and Champagne is unclear but one article mentioned Lau was involved in electronics and cameras in addition to handbags and shoes. 3 years later in 1960, his name appeared again in the press, although in a not so positive light. Lau (listed as a businessman) and his wife Millie (mother of six at the time), who were both Portugese passport holders at the time, were arrested at 39 Mody Road in Tsim Sha Tsui and were charged with possession of illegal drugs and overstaying in HK without proper visa respectively.
Alan Lau (second from right) and Peter Woo (third from left) with Filipino consul general (first from left) and others at the opening ceremony of Champagne Engineering in 1957. (Source: Wah Kiu Yat Po, 1957-8-3)
Article about the arrest of Alan Lau and Millie Woo in 1960 (Wah Kiu Yat Po, 1960-3-26)
Various sources claim Millie’s was founded around this time (1955-60), although two key subsidiaries of the Group – Millie’s Handbag & Shoes Factory Limited (妙麗手袋皮鞋製造有限公司) and Alan Lau & Company Ltd were not incorporated until 1966. Starting with 6 staff at the original store and factory at 9 Hanoi Road in Tsim Sha Tsui and HK$10000 in working capital, the company was one of the first firms in HK dedicated to the retailing and manufacturing of ladies’ handbags and shoes.
By 1968, Alan Lau was listed as the chairman of the HK Handbags Manufacturers Association (香港手袋業商會) and had established a subsidiary in Los Angeles the previous year (1967, the year of the riots) to help market his bags in America. He migrated to Canada where he became a citizen but returned to HK in 1971 as domestic consumption in the colony was about to take off and Millie’s became enormously successful. Millie’s success in the 1970s was built on its mastery of the 4Ps of marketing. In terms of products, Millie’s emphasized on variety and touted 10 news styles per week as early as 1966 (HK Trade Bulletin). In terms of price, the firm promoted everyday low price and would reimburse anyone five times the difference if they can bring in the same good that was priced lower. In terms of promotion, it was very aggressive with marketing with TV commercials featuring Lydia Shum and the catchy tagline such as “Millie’s Handbag New Style Every Day, Millie’s Shoes Stand out from the Crowd” (妙麗手袋天天新款，妙麗皮鞋與眾不同). It sponsored many beauty pageants such as the Miss Universe in 1976 and even held its own Miss Millie’s contest in 1969. As for place, it chose to locate its stores in the busy shopping district in Tsim Sha Tsui, Jordan, Causeway Bay and Central. By offering high quality, fashionable yet affordable handbags and shoes to the mass, Millie’s also picked the right market segment as large number of females joined the workforce in the 1960s and 1970s, providing many new customers for Millie’s. Millie’s opened its flagship store with the iconic peacock neon sign on Nathan Road which included a food court known as “Gweilo Dai Pai Dong” (鬼佬大牌檔, translate to “Westerners Food Stall”)
Left: Millie’s original store on Hanoi Road in TST in 1970 (Source: Gwulo); Right: Article about Millie’s sponsoring all the shoes worn by Miss Universe contestants in 1976. The pageant was held in HK at the Lee Theatre in Causeway Bay that year. Left to right: Millie Woo, Lau Ten-Lung, Lam Leung-wai (Miss HK 1976) (Source: Kung Sheung Evening News, 1976-6-12)
In 1974, Lau complained to the press that certain schools were asking for kickback on shoes for their students and he urged the Consumer Council to investigate the situation.
With his success in handbags, Lau decided to go into other areas. In 1976, he ran for Parliament in British Columbia but lost. In 1977, Alan Lau went into the media business by buying Tin Tin Daily News (天天日報) for a token HK$600 and assumption of HK$1.9 million of debt. Founded in 1960 by the Wai family of Yee Tin Tong medicine and printing, the newspaper was the first newspaper to be printed in color in the world and #3 in HK but by 1977 was a money losing business. Through drastic reforms and aggressive marketing technique which are detailed in the article below, Tin Tin’s daily circulation increased from 10,000 to 90,000 within a year and reclaimed its position as one of top six newspapers in HK.
Article about Alan Lau’s foray into the newspaper business via Tin Tin Daily News
In 1978, Alan Lau visited the new Special Economic Zone in Shenzhen for the first time. His initial interest was to set up low cost manufacturing operations to supply shoes and handbags to the Millie’s chain. Over time, he set up 5 factories in Shenzhen including Sum Chun High Quality Shoes Factory which was incorporated in 1981, making him one of the first HK manufacturers to set up shop in Shenzhen. The factories were not very successful as 4 of them changed hands or closed after 1-2 years of unsuccessful operations. But that did not deter Lau from investing more in the new SEZ. Sensing an opportunity for hotel accommodations in the new Zone, Lau formed Millie’s Industrial Development and Services (MIDAS) which formed a JV with the stated owned Shenzhen City Service Co to build the Bamboo Garden Hotel (竹園賓館) in 1979 and the hotel opened in 1981 with 200 rooms. It was also one of the first firms to introduce incentive-based pay in China since 1989. In January 1980, Alan Lau made history when he became the first foreign real estate developer in Shenzhen by signing a joint venture agreement to develop the residential project East Lake Millie’s Garden (東湖麗苑, 108 units) which was the first real estate joint venture project in China and the first land lease from the government in China since 1949. The project was quickly sold out in HK. In 1982, the Millie’s Group announced an even bigger property project in the Buji district of Shenzhen in an industrial zone development joint venture with Bao-An County Trust & Trading Co. Millie’s planned to invest HK$15 million and build six 2 story factory buildings and two 3 story office buildings.
Alan Lau (white suit and red tie, second from the right) meeting with his partners in the real estate side in Shenzhen in the early 1980s.
Back home in HK, Millie’s continued to innovate by launching Millie’s Wholesale Center (妙麗批發中心), a discount store located at Peninsula Centre in the newly developed TST East area that offers daily price reductions on 85,000 items (sourced directly from manufacturers), in June 1982. The store used the aging principle of marketing, where goods are marked lower every day within a 7-day period. It also used a membership system similar to Costco in the US. This novel concept caught on very quickly and Millie’s signed up 20,000 members with 80% of them being other retailers/distributors. To drive traffic to the new store, Millie’s collaborated with the MTR and provided free shuttle bus service between the TST MTR station and the store.
In 1983, Alan Lau and Millie’s were on top of the world – its over 30 subsidiaries were generating revenues of close to HK$400 million. He even announced to the press that he planned to retire in 1985 to become a Protestant missionary and sell all the business units to its managers. But underneath the surface, over-expansion and the volatile economic and political environment was catching up with the Group. In early December 1984, right around the time of the Christmas shopping season, the doors of Millie’s 10 stores including three Millie’s outlets in TST and 3 branches in HK island on Stanley Street and Wellington Street in Central and Lan Fong Road in Causeway Bay, its 3 wholesale centers and 2 factories (one in Hunghom) closed its doors as the Millie’s Group (specifically six subsidiaries) announced its voluntary liquidation with Ernst & Whinney (now EY) as liquidator. Months before, auditors were brought in to examine the company’s finance and it turned out that the Group had piles of debt and was HK$200 million in the hole with the biggest creditor being Nanyang Commercial Bank which had lent the Group up to HK$30 mil. Allegedly Lau seek the help of the Xinhua News Agency leveraging his status as a pro-China newspaper publisher to secure financing from Kincheng Banking Corp but it was too late. (Tin Tin was taken over by the pro-China contractor Ho Sai-chu and after a series of owners closed in 2000)
Headline about Millie’s liquidation in 1984 (Wah Kiu Yat Po 1984-12-2)
Rescue came in the form of Well Effect Finance (富而達財務), a company controlled by Kwan Yan-ming (關恩明) and his family, which acquired the Millie’s brand and its 10 retail stores the same month. The Kwan family had interests in jewelry, real estate and hotels (e.g. Sun Sun Hotel in Macau) in HK and Macau and Kwan himself would later become the distributor of the Australian fashion brand Mango and French fashion brand Morgan in HK. One of Well Effect’s first actions was conducting clearance sales at Millie’s Central and Hanoi Road stores and 100 out of 600 Millie’s employees managed to keep their jobs. Well Effect invested $20 million into the business to re-focus Millie’s in the business of women’s fashion retailing and in April 1985, Millie’s resumed its business with a 10,000 sq ft store on Ice House Street in Central in a ceremony which included Stanley Ho, Kwan’s brother in law Ronnie Wong Man-chiu (then chairman of Po Leung Kuk) and TV stars Barbara Yung (翁美玲, one month before her suicide), Jaime Chik and Carina Lau. The flagship store on Nathan Road was closed and with its attractive location, the landlord – the Au Shu-hung family did not have difficulty leasing it to other tenants.
In January 1987, the Chung Wah Shipbuilding Group, which was aggressively expanding into different fields under the leadership of the second generation (one of which is Kwan’s wife), acquired Millie’s. A year later, it announced that the Millie’s business was generating over $10 million in profits thanks to strong retail sales and was looking to expand to Singapore after opening 4 stores in Taiwan. When Chung Wah got into trouble a few years later, Millie’s was acquired in 1991 by the Japanese department store chain Yaohan in conjunction with the Taiwanese stock guru in Japan – Chiu Yung-han (邱永漢, he held 10%). At the time, Millie’s had 34 stores in HK and Taiwan and largely focused on imported shoes. When the Yaohan group got into trouble in 1997, the company changed hands yet again.
In 2007, Belle International, the largest shoe retailer in China founded in 1978 by the Tang family in HK, acquired the China, HK and Macau business of Millie’s.
As for the entrepreneurial Alan Lau, he moved to Vancouver where he became a social entrepreneur, founding the Canadian Low-Income Seniors Affordable Housing Society (now known as Richmond Community Benefit Centre) in 2003 and even won an award from the Canadian Race Relations Board for his efforts in 2014. In 2016 however, the British Columbia Securities Commission ruled that the 90 years old Alan Lau committed fraud against a society volunteer and permanently banned him from capital markets in the province.
Lines of taxis in front of Millie’s Centre in 1984, across the street from Yue Hwa department store which is still there.
This article was first posted on 2nd October 2017.
- Withdrawing Gracefully After 30 Years of Building Businesses, International Management, May 1983
- 華僑日報: 1968-4-7, 1970-01-01, 1974-11-09 , 1975-10-24, 1984-12-15, 1988-10-1
- 大公報, 1982-2-4, 1982-06-02, 1985-4-24