Profitable skin game more than bottom lines
There is something about Winnie Fok that does not
quite fit with the business of bulging flesh, greasy pimples, coarse back hair
and balding men.
Her appearance is meticulous, from the royal blue
tailored dress down to the neatly crossed ankles worthy of an entry in a
finishing school textbook.
The office space that surrounds her is a pristine sea
of white and pine. The art is understated, the lighting flattering and there is
a soft hush of voices.
Even the occasional fluffy clouds that dot a tranquil
landscape photograph hanging on the wall seem just a bit too perfect.
It all seems at odds with the world of pot bellies and
receding hairlines. But 18 floors below, the masses are bringing their unwanted
fat, unsightly blemishes and swollen wallets to Ms Fok and her investors in
their own quest for perfection.
Ms Fok is chief executive of Investor Asia, a private
equity fund sponsored by Swedish listed company Investor AB that includes Marie
France Bodyline among its portfolio. The chain of slimming centres is
conspicuous for its pervasive use of celebrity advertising and slightly
disconcerting "before and after" photographs.
Its philosophy is more genteel than the pumping and
grinding of traditional weight-loss techniques. It favours counselling,
education and treatment of target areas over blood, sweat and tears. The
clientele is not really fat, they just want to be more toned and fit into a
smaller dress size.
No mess, no fuss, and definitely no sweating. It is
slimming by persuasion rather than exertion.
"There's no need to do vigorous exercise at
all," Ms Fok explains. Nor is there a set diet. "It means you don't
give people prepackaged meals, you don't say `no carbs' ... you believe in a
healthy way of eating."
Nutritionists go through individual eating habits and
advise accordingly. Throw in a number of sessions with a consultant and a few
body wraps, and in two to three months, you get your desired shape. Or so the
literature says. There is no question clients will be a few dollars lighter.
The brand has its roots in Switzerland and entered the
Hong Kong market about 20 years ago. Investor Asia picked it up from PAMA Group,
one of Asia's oldest private equity firms, in November 2002 for US$96 million.
The deal included three other brands - Bella, Svenson and Harvard. The former
offers skin-care treatments, while the latter two target follically challenged
men and women seeking to defy their genetic fate.
"We never promise miracles because only God can
give miracles," stresses Ms Fok. "At Svenson, we prolong the process.
If [clients] notice something and come to us early, there's a lot of help they
could get." She is equally defiant of Marie France Bodyline sceptics.
"It has been around for nearly 20 years. If it were a hoax, I wouldn't have
a sustainable business."
The extent of this sustainability is, however, not for
public consumption. Ms Fok is tightlipped on the profitability of the company,
except to say that it is "healthy".
It is a sizeable operation: Marie France has 68
centres in Asia, from Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia to the recently opened
Shanghai branch and nine outlets in Switzerland. Marketing is key to the group,
and represents "a large sum" of its outlay, according to Ms Fok.
In the first quarter of this year, Marie France ranked
as the third-largest buyer of fitness centre advertising in spending nearly $6
million, according to industry watcher Admango. As a whole, the industry pumped
nearly $930 million into advertising last year, figures from ACNielsen show.
Given the figure was just $200 million two years ago,
does she account for the seemingly increased allure of the industry to female
"It probably started with the fashion industry.
People are more affluent and fashion-conscious," she notes. She sees the
trend is aspirational and post-materialist rather than strictly health-focused,
in contrast to the United States and Europe. The former in particular has
declared a war on obesity amid heightened awareness of the medical and fiscal
Marie France instead "brings out the concept of
beauty and what is generally accepted as beauty", Ms Fok explains.
"Women want not just to do the best at their job, but to look their best
... we look better, feel more confident."
She visited the slimming centres herself in the name
of due diligence. "Yes, it worked," she says.
Yet she still believes in moderate exercise - Ms Fok
walks for an hour a day - and pooh-poohs potions and pills. "There's lots
of side effects with that. I'm not trying to bad-mouth anyone, but you should be
Likewise, she rolls her eyes at fad diets. When asked
about her brother's experience in weight loss - her famous sibling, Canning Fok
Kin-ning of Hutchison Whampoa was at one point reported to be an advocate of the
Atkins low-carbohydrate diet - she sighs. "He travels a lot and entertains
She describes their relationship as "extremely
close". The youngest of three (her other brother is a paediatrician), Ms
Fok says her background is "a typical middle-class family".
Her parents came to Hong Kong in the late 1940s from
China. Life was initially difficult, but her father got a job in government and
ended up as a primary school headmaster. Her mother was also a teacher.
All the siblings were expected to attend college:
while Canning chose music, Ms Fok opted for commerce.
After some accountancy and advisory work, she
"got talking" with Francis Leung Pak-to at high-flying investment bank
Peregrine. She was asked to take Peregrine Direct Investments under her wing in
1994. The fund was doing deals across Asia, from Korea to Indonesia, home of the
notoriously ill-named Steady Safe taxi firm that brought the bank to its knees
by failing to repay US$280 million in loans in early 1998.
"When they set up [Peregrine] Fixed Income, we
all knew it needed a very strong balance sheet," she recalls. As the Asian
financial crisis began to bite, "we knew liquidity was tight. I was trying
to divest as much as I could.
"We didn't really expect it to go under that
quickly. I thought it was caught up in a terrible time. And it was a very short
It was the toughest period of her career.
"Because we had all these glorious plans in place, we established our track
record, we were going out fund raising ... all of this was going on, and one day
it just went bust. It was hard."
The pace of life at Investor Asia appears to be less
heart-stopping. Her Swedish bosses are "very consensus-driven".
Plans on the boil include a men's skin centre that
will tackle such disfigurations as unruly back hair. "Men feel a bit
intimidated going along to a ladies' slimming place," she explains.
"Yes, they come in - for their mid-section, most of them."
There appears to be no rush to divest the portfolio.
"We will divest. Listing is a route. But not yet. Since we've only started
to approach the China market, we want to establish a foothold there.
"As a fund we cannot fall in love with our
investments. With this one, it's very easy to fall in love."
- 2004 June 21 by Jane Moir SOUTH
CHINA MORNING POST
The Monday Face