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Echo Lu: That’s Why the Two Characters in the Chinese Word Crisis Mean Danger and Opportunity

By Mirela Sula

With the uncertaintyof Covid-19, Echo Lu and her team battled through the lockdowns, and after a year of going back and forth, they have successfully reached the other side of the daunting pitfall of the pandemic. Born and raised in China, Lu attained her first degree there before making the life-changing decision of pursuing a Master’s degree in the US. Since then, her career has been nothing but success after success, as she took on the leading position of CEO for Haulfryn Group, a luxury holiday home and park company, at the start of 2020. Lu shares her impressive journey from the short conversation with an American gentleman to the COO of Tesco to managing director of Homebase and Holland & Barrett to mother and wife. With nothing but optimism and hope, Lu shares her positive experience with the readers of Global Woman Magazine, reassuring us that with crisis comes opportunity.

You are truly a global woman. In the last 10 years, you have travelled to over 20 countries and have developed your career all around the world. Where did this start?  

It started in China when I was doing my University degree in Shanghai at Fudan University. I came across an American gentleman on campus and we struck up a conversation – I had no idea who he was, I thought he was just an international visitor. We had a very pleasant conversation about the economy and the Soviet Union at the time, and at the end of the conversation, he said to me ‘why don’t you come to the US and do an MBA?’. That thought had never crossed my mindbefore because we had no families or friends outside of China, but that sparked the idea.After that conversation, I looked into it and did some research and I said to myself,‘why not, why not go outside of China?’ and so I decided to listen to my innervoice.

Have you always been ambitious in terms of your career, education, and investing in yourself,or did you not know where life was going to guide you?

I never set a specific goal to say that I have to be somewhere by a certain time.  I’m quite a curious person. I get bored easily, so I like variety and breadth. I like learning about new things, new cultures, new countries and new disciplines. I’m also a very optimistic person. 

I can tell, so you see the glass half full, not half empty?

Yes, definitely yes.

This sounds like a great start in a new country. How did you start your life and your career in the US, in such a big country, from scratch?

I actually ended up going to an HR program, not an MBA program. The reason was very simple, they offered me a fullscholarship and it was an easy choice because the alternative was to go to Cornell to do an MBA, and have to pay more than $20,000 a year. At that time, I didn’t want to put that burden on my family. When I got there I didn’t know anyone in the US,except one person, the professor that I spoke with, and I realised I was the only international student in the HR program. That was a bit of a surprise and I think it was a combination of feeling very excited, feeling like the whole world is there for you to take advantage of but on the other hand feeling absolutely terrified.

Ican imagine, but you did it, and very soon after you managed to start your career, you went back and forth to Asia and started investing more in your career, and you became the COO of Tesco. Can you tell us a bit about this stepping stone?

I think the first leadership role was probably in my second year at West Virginia University. I decided to run for student president, and fortunately, I was elected. I had the chance to work closely with the executive alumni. One of them was the senior director at Bristol Myers Squibb, and she recommended me to the business, and that’s how I joined Bristol Myers Squibb as my first company. I was very fortunate that the business was focused on developing international talent, so I had the chance to work for them in the US, spend a year in the UK, and a couple of years in China.Retail then knocked on my door, and Tesco headhunted me as they were looking for people with global skills and Asia experience  to support the ambitious growth plans for the business. I liked the pace of retail and were impressed by the people I met, so that’s how I joined and before you know it, I was in retail for 15 years.

Later on, I decided to really move out of HR and go down the general management path, partly because of my learning curiosity. I felt that it was something I can do, and the business gave me a lot of support and the training needed for me to get there. For most people, careers are not by design, and I think for me, I just simply said yes to a lot of the opportunities that came along.  

You’ve had an amazing journey, from COO of Tesco to managing director of Homebase to managing director of Holland & Barrett International. Has it been hard to get people to notice you and your potential and trust you in leading positions? What would you say to women who are hindered by their lack of confidence but want to break that glass ceiling?

I can only share with you what I wish I knew in the early stages of my career. I would say two things. One – try not to be a perfectionist. I think women are much more critical of themselves than others, and quite often it’s that inner voice that talks you down and makes you feel less confident than you ought to be.In my very first job I got some really helpful constructive feedback that I was too eager to please, which was a big surprise to me. I was totally unaware of it, and so ever since then I think,am I doing something because I believe it’s the right thing to do, or am I doing something because I think that’s what somebody else wants me to do? Secondly, I would say to other women, “as a grown up, the most important words are the ones you say to yourself.”

It’s a women’s syndrome; we have that kind of tendency to please everybody. Women think we are here to support, give, and serve others, and sometimes we forget about ourselves. How did you manage to shift your mindset from pleasing others to doing what you believe is right? 

I must admit it probably took me over 20 years to realise that the most important opinion of you is the one you hold of yourself. If you hear any self-doubts or if you think other people are doubting you, then you got to ask yourself is that what I believe in? Other people can only put you down if you let them. 

In several cultureswe are taught to believe others,to listen to others and we become what other people expect of us, especially as women. We come from a society where women are expected to be submissive, good wives, andaway from the limelight but things have changed.How did you learn to step away from these expectations and when did you start building that confidence?

One of the benefits of working in large successful businesses is you work with a lot of capable, confident people; men and women.You learn from others, how they interact, behave, lead, manage, communicate and influence. I’ve learned a huge amount from my colleagues, especially at Tesco which has produced some fantastic leaders. I think the other thing that has really benefited me was the mentors and coaches I’ve had along the way, including many of the managers who were very honest and open in trying to help me with my personal development. Quite often we are not aware of the impact we have on others or the impact we have on ourselves, and when somebody else points that out to you itsuddenly becomes obvious. I remember when I was in a meeting with our group CEO and at the end of the meeting he said to me, ‘I’ve noticed something during the meeting – you were sitting at the edge of your chair, you were looking really intense’ and he said,‘just sit back, take the full space of the chair and lean back, put your feet on the ground, it would actually make you feel a lot more relaxed and a lot more grounded’ which I thought was absolutely true but then I thought why did I feel the need to sit on the edge of the chair? It’s because I didn’t feel confident enough. I didn’t feel comfortable enough with how I felt and with maybe what I was thinking. So, it’s things like that, that help you really grow and develop as a person and as a leader.  

Personal development definitely impacts the way we become leaders.It’s not something that happensovernight, getting a leading position is one achievement but actually becoming a leader is another. Is there something that leaders have within them from the day they were born or is itsomething we learn on the way?

Leadership skills can definitely be learned, developed and honed. There have been some fantastic leadership development programs with all the businesses I’ve worked with and tools along the way, but leadership is also developed through your own successes and failures. You often learn more from a failure or even a painful experience than a successful experience and as you achieve more along the way, you will build your confidence and resilience as well. When we had to sell Homebase as a business, only I and my finance director were aware of the potential transaction and it was a very challenging period.We were in the process of executing a new strategy, turning the business around, driving new growth so all of that had to continue but in the background, we knew the business could potentially be sold and that would impact lots of people’s jobs and livelihoods.Through that process I learned realleadership – visible communication and engagement were really important in times of uncertainties and changeand finding the right balance between being authentic and truthful but at the same time respecting confidentiality was challenging. It’s through difficult situations that you develop your skills faster and in different ways just like after the pandemic, I’m sure we will all lead and manage slightly differently. 

Absolutely, some people find it hard to change but it is important for us to embrace it. When we see a successful woman like you, developing their career and with big ambitions, how difficult is it to keep that balance – to put the same energy into family, career and yourself?Have you found that balance?

So I’ve been married for 21 years. Unfortunately, we didn’t manage to celebrate our 20th-anniversary last year because of the lockdown. We have 2 girls, 16 and 11, and we come from very different families. All my family is still in China and my husband’s family is in the Midlands. I don’t think I could have done my job without my husband’s support. I think he’s made a lot of sacrifices with his career to support mine so I’m reallylucky. In terms of work-life balance, I think firstlyyou have to look after yourself. Both my husband and I were really into health and well-being, whether it was a healthy diet, exercise, mental health, and well-being. I think this has been highlighted over the last year throughout the pandemic, because if you don’t look after yourself, it’s difficult for you to look after your family and your employees.It’s a bit like the oxygen mask, isn’t it?Youplace the oxygen mask on yourself first before you can help others.

It’s so wonderful to hear that your husband sees your potential and supports your vision. You’re a great model to your daughters, do you see them following your footsteps?

Probably not, I bet they will find their own paths. I’m really proud of the girls, they’re both very independent, they’re both pretty strong-minded, both pretty stubborn as well so I try to treat them more like adults.They will develop their own views of the world and they’re both in girls’ schools and time will tell whether that’s a good thing for their confidence and self-belief.

I can sense the way you approach life; the way you see the potential not only in yourself but also in other people. So now you are the CEO of a luxury UK Holiday Home and Park company, the Haulfryn group, and you took this role just a month before Covid, so what does this mean for you?  

It’s been an absolute roller coaster of a year. We had a great start; I had asix-week induction into the business then we had to close all the holiday parks down with quite short notice. I actually made a decision to close before the government-mandated closure because I felt that was the right thing to do and the writing was on the wall anyway. Throughout the whole year, the holiday business, which was the majority part of our business, closed for almost 6 months out of the 12. It’s been incredibly challenging for the team, for our shareholders, and for our owners who couldn’t really come to their homes on the parks, but I am also extremely impressed and proud of what the teamhas delivered in an extremely turbulent year. People talk a lot about flexible remote working so I’m not going to repeat that, but I think just having the agility to be able to close down a park in 24 hours and reopen, close down again, reopen – we did that three times, and we launched a new online food delivery service in a matter of weeks, just showed how anything can be achieved. It showed that when you really step up to the challenge with the whole team pulling together and you think differently about what you can achieve; it enables breakthrough thinking.That’s why the word crisis in Chinese means danger and opportunity – that’s the two characters. Another thing year has really highlighted for me is the importance of your values. We’re a family-owned business and treating people well, especially in times of difficulty, is important and we have been very generous and supportive to not only our teams and our owners but also our local communities and I think that’s about being true to your values.  

This is probably the most challenging position for you, leading a business in a situation you can’t control. How you are keeping the business alive under these circumstances with it being a holiday business?

So my philosophy is that you focus on what you can control but you have to plan for what you can’t control and we have survived the crisis. I think we come out as a stronger business because one, we took very decisive actions early on in the pandemic to control our cash and costs so that we can preserve the cash to help us survive the pandemic, and secondly, we focused on really engaging with our customers, teams, community suppliers and by stepping up our communications through different channels and engaging in different ways, we can continue to have their loyalty and support. That’s really important because customers vote with their feet. Just because they’ve done business with you before doesn’t mean they have to do business with you again.I am pleased that throughout last year, our Net Promoter score, which is a measure used to measure customer satisfaction, has gone up quite significantly.

What kind of services do you provide to yourcurrent and future customers under these circumstances and how has this changed? 

Not only did we put in really stringent health and safety measures in place when we did reopen but we have also tried to digitize and automate a lot of the customer journeys to make them more efficient. So our marketing campaign last year was very much in tune with how people were feeling, whether it’s addressing safety concerns or whether it’s about what this vacation would look like.So to give you an example; historically people usually come to our reception to check into their holiday lodge and we were one of the first companies that introduced remote check-in, so you can check-in online, go straight to your holiday lodge and get the key out of the key safe and that not only helps us save costs but means that it’s safer for you as a customer.  Since then, we have introduced digital door locks that remove the need for keys and allow customers to unlock with their smart phones.

Do people still travel and hire these opportunities?   

Yes, we all need holidays! We actually had a really good summer last year even though we were only opened for three months. We saw a really strong trading, strong demand and that trading performance helped us survive the second and third lockdown, and this year we’re going to take it one step further to provide further enhancement to the customer experience. 

With lockdown restrictions easing, I believe the business is going to be a boom when we open up. Have you started promoting and preparing for that and what are your expectations? 

I would expect that after restrictions ease, this vacation market will be very buoyant, so after the Prime Minister announced the road maps for unlocking, we saw holiday bookings going up significantly since then. Hoseasons had their busiest week when the announcement was made. Of course, there’s still a lot of uncertainties.

We’re talking to a community of women who are mothers, who are family-oriented.I’m sure they would love to know what kind of advice or guidelines you would give to them if they want to have a weekend away or a break with their families and children. So can you guide us and we can visualize how a holiday with Haulfryn would look like if we were to book it now?

A holiday with Haulfryn is extremely safe – all our holiday lodges are self-catering accommodations so by law, they have to be at least 5 meters apart from the other accommodations and there are no shared facilities with other accommodation units such as shower and laundry, it’s all within your unit. 

If you were to holiday at one of our holiday parks in Devon, Finlake for example, you could check-in online and come to the park through the beautiful entrance with a really impressive driveway that gives you an immediate feeling of spring, if you go right now. Our lodges are designed with the highest standards and quality,like a home away from home.On the park we have restaurants, where you can get a takeaway, we have a coffee shop and a retail shop for daily essentials.There’s also a lot of activities on the park; we have a professional gym, a spa, a water park, horse riding, high ropes, and there are plenty of activities that you can do locally in the area. You can spend time just relaxing and chilling with your family or you can spend time being active and doing all sorts of activities. It’s all very safe.

Now you can see my smile. That’s incredible, and which area would you recommend in the UK? What is your favourite?

I think Devon and Cornwall are my personal favourite just because of the lovely sceneries and you’re close to nature. 

That’s incredible, we can’t wait for that and now I can see how your mind is not focusing on the danger, but instead focusing on the opportunities.You’ve turned the angle to hope and this is the role model and leader that we need in any kind of challenging situation. You started just a month before Covid in such a challenging role and are now preparing to reopenagain with people already booking a holiday to feel some normality.How does that make you feel?

Despite all the Covid challenges, I have actually really enjoyed my job over the last year and I think a crisis like this brings out the best in people. It probably brings out the best in me and I think it’s management’s responsibility to plan for a whole host of scenarios including the good, the bad and the ugly scenarios. But it’s a leader’s responsibility to share the positive energy, to share the hopes and the optimism with people because, in the darkest hours, we all need to feel that things will get better.My advice is to book your summer holiday quickly because they’re going fast!

This is what we need, we need to believe in better, we need that hope and I’m very grateful that you shared this with us because we say everything happens for a reason.Just before you go what is your last message to all the women reading this interview?

My only message would be to believe in yourself and to trust yourself because quite often women are their own biggest enemies.

We see a powerful woman at the top, and that definitely tells us we have come far. How does that make you feel?

But we still have a long way to go, right? Wouldn’t it be great if half of the companies are run by women and half of the households are run by men? On our board we have three women out of eight board members, on my executive team we have three women out of seven members and within the broader leadership team. There is more and more female talent! I think the one area that we are still trying to improve is within our park operations, especially general managers; we just hired our first female general manager in January which is great. She’s a German lady who married a Brazilian and she’s working in Wales, so very diverse.  operational roles are very demanding. It’s a 24/7 job. I see that in hospitality, leisure but also in retail; those roles are much harder I think for female leaders because of just the demand it places on your personal life. We can only make more progress on gender diversity at the senior level, when there are strong female talent at every level.

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