In our long-running series "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.
For Forevermark CEO Nancy Liu, late-night phone calls are a typical part of her day. For instance, our conversation takes place at 8:30 a.m. Eastern Time — which means I'm reaching her at 9:30 p.m. in Shanghai, where she's based. It's a time of day you can expect someone to still be awake and possibly social, but way past the typical nine-to-five workday. Liu seems unaffected by this, of course: As a longtime leader of the luxury fashion space in Asia, the hours are a small fraction of her typical duties. And, in looking closer at her career path, it's far from the most unconventional part of her story.
April 2020 will mark 12 years since Liu joined Forevermark and one year since being named its CEO. The Taipei-born, Chicago-bred executive launched her career from a degree in mass communications and broadcasting. She says it was by chance she fell into advertising and, following several years working with consumer goods and beauty at L'Oréal, she also serendipitously entered the luxury jewelry space at LVMH. Before joining Forevermark in 2008, Liu accepted a role at Boston Consulting Group where she once again worked with luxury clients, albeit not exclusively: "My first few assignments were quite far away from luxury. My first case was in Inner Mongolia and I was like, You’ve got to be kidding me? I ended up on a milk farm."
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It wasn't the farm that inspired Liu to head back to a luxury brand — "it turned out fine," she says, for the record — but more so the overall consulting experience: "The primary thing that I found very different working in consulting than working for a brand was the lack of teams. Two to four people is considered a large team and you're embedded with your clients. You never see anyone. I hadn't realized that side of the job."
About a year into consulting, Liu was approached by Forevermark about a role she calls a "marketer's dream." She became President for the Asia Pacific market and continued to forge a path at the company, specifically using a thoughtful, holistic and fail fast approach.
"The way we operate is in conjunction with our site holders or our diamantaires," she explains of Forevermark's operations, which focus on supplying some of the most rare, beautiful diamonds in the world to its market partners worldwide. "These are our partners who buy, cut and polish our rough diamonds. They then sell these polished diamonds onto our retailers and we work with them to create concepts, merchandise collections, and help market and sell to the end consumer."
Ahead, some of the highlights from our conversation with the CEO.
What did you study in school to prepare you for a career today?
In university, I started out as pre-law then discovered I hated law. I then went on to anthropology. My mother said, 'Unless you want to do a dissertation in Papua New Guinea, what exactly will you do with a degree in anthropology?' It was a good question. I got into mass communications and broadcasting and finished in that major.
After graduation, I spent about 10 years in Europe, living primary between London, Paris and Milan. I came back to Asia Pacific in the late '80s. It was a very interesting time because Asia was kind of just waking up [in the market] and in the '90s it had the financial crisis. Just by chance I fell into advertising and started my corporate career in working for McCann Erickson [now McCann], servicing a number of different clients in the business-to-business area. It was instant coffee, milk powders, family cars — an array of things, but one of my clients at the time was the L'Oréal Group. When I hit my fifth year in advertising, I decided to join the client side and went from McCann into L'Oréal.
How did you come to focus your career in the luxury jewelry space?
I had a chance to join LVMH. This [was the] early 2000s, and LVMH took its first foray into the luxury jewelry sector. It was a bold move because it was known primarily for leather goods. From LVMH watches and jewelry, I joined Louis Vuitton, helping them launch the jewelry business in the Asia Pacific market, and then from there all the other categories under the department of merchandising. They were repositioning the brand because, up until then, there was a struggle for it to acquire young, millennial, hip consumers. The strategy at the time was quite bold and there were financial risks. In the three years, I assisted in positioning each of the categories so they can run on their own but also in tandem with the brand.
What initially drew you to Forevermark when you started there nearly 12 years ago?
When I heard about Forevermark, I thought, 'This is a marketer’s dream,' because it's so innovative. Back then, even, there was no one in the market doing anything addressing the whole provenance issue. It just seemed like such a great idea. I joined on April 1, 2008 — by June, we had a press conference in London to reposition the brand. Up until then, we were the marketing arm for De Beers Group under the Diamond Trading Company, and the conclusion was that we would start Forevermark's repositioning as a consumer confidence building program only. It was to give our partners clarity and transparency on our quality of diamonds.
What are some of the unique challenges you face working in the luxury jewelry market?
One of the challenges we face in the diamond jewelry industry is that the pace at which change is happening is slightly slower versus other luxury sectors. This is the primary reason we have pilot programs that we're running. We hope to, through data, explain to our retailer that bridal is not the only offer you should be selling — you should think about love gifting, self purchase, birthdays and anniversaries and personal milestones; you should think about the women who work today and who are not going to wait around for someone else to give them a gift. These are the kind of data points we're hoping to capture so that we can share them with our retailers and they can then market their diamond jewelry.
Since transition from COO to CEO at Forevermark this past April, what's been the biggest change?
I think the biggest challenge is we're changing business models, so there's a lot of legacy to cut through at this point. We're trying to pivot — what we call 'fail fast': If it doesn't work, cut it and move on to the next thing. We're moving into new business areas including wholesale, retail and e-commerce. And ultimately one day we'll see how the retail business pans out. Assuming we get better traction, we'll think about how we might franchise the business out. That's probably the most exciting part: the fact that we can transition and grow the business in all these different directions.
You've taken a few left turns in your career before landing at Forevermark over a decade ago. Were any of these pivots especially eye-opening?
I'm happy to put the one with the milk farm in Inner Mongolia far away — that's probably at the bottom of the list. Moving from retail into consulting, a lot of my friends at the time were like, 'Seriously, we need to take you to see a doctor. You already have no life and you want to join consulting?' And I took a pay cut to join consulting. There are times in your life that you need to take a step back to move forward. And the time I spent at BCG was probably one of the most intellectually-stimulating times in my career, without question.
What do your day-to-day responsibilities look like in your role?
A lot of late-night calls because we try to deal with all timezones, but that's a small bit of it. In particular for the next 18 to 24 months, the mission for Forevermark is to fine-tune its position. The day-to-day is about brand building, tweaking and ensuring the retail environment will improve going forward. We know that the diamond jewelry business has predominantly been focused on bridal, but women are buying for themselves more and the types of pieces she’s looking for are different. We're hoping to address the new self-purchase market. This is the kind of conversation we'll start with our jewelers in 2020.
How do you measure success and how will you go about achieving it?
I tend to lead from the back. There are some leaders that like to be out there and under the limelight — I tend to keep under the radar. I think in the next 24 months, the primary areas I'll be focusing on, I call 'fixing the plumbing in the house.' In other words, I want to get the backend of the business nice and robust so we can really put the pedal to the metal.
It sounds like you're playing the long game.
Exactly. We have to have the right infrastructure and people. As we transform the business we will be bringing in new profiles of people because that's what the business will require: different skill sets and different chemistries. And I'm really excited about that because it means we're going to evolve. What's a sign of success? In 24 months, if I can see the key markets — the U.S., China, India, Japan, etc. — get traction with some of the new models, then I think we'll be on track to gain a bit of momentum by year three.
How did you form your own leadership habits? Have you always lead from back?
The main reason I was so attached to this brand was the sense of entrepreneurial freedom to create the kind of business that we know can benefit De Beers Group and also our partners. They've entrusted the brand to the team to build the next generation of business.
In many of the mature brands, it's so rigid — you just have to follow policy and procedure. It's very difficult to come up with new ideas. But at Forevermark, especially now more than ever, the sky's the limit. The team members today come from the luxury sector, the diamond sector, the auto industry, the beauty industry, etc. It's because of that diversity that Forevermark is such an amazing place to work. Because you have such an interesting mix of people, it also changes the way you lead. I'm more inclined to hear what they have to say first.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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