Cover Story: Vision 20: Brave heart - Helen Read, founder of Ms. Read

This article first appeared in Options, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on May 8, 2017 - May 14, 2017.
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Meeting Helen Read for the first time, it is easy to mistake her for one of your friends’ bubbly and affectionate mothers, but this unassuming-looking woman has been a retail force to be reckoned with for the last 20 years. The founder of the Ms. Read chain — specialising in full-figured fashion catering for curvaceous women looking for quality pieces with refined, timeless designs — Read’s entry into business was mostly serendipity.

“Actually, it was by chance. In 1979, I started Q Corporation, a contract manufacturer or supplier for department stores, with a friend (who sold her share of the business to Read two years later) in a workshop with eight seamstresses. I was selling most of my clothes to stores like Isetan under their own label, and became known as a manufacturer of jackets. Then, in December 1996, a Japanese buyer from AEON asked me to develop a career range, which I always believe was a God-given moment of granting me the space to develop the Ms. Read line. That’s how I got my foot in with them, giving me a space for career-wear called Ms. Read.”

Eventually, Read was enticed by the potential of plus-size fashion after doing contract manufacturing for a plus-size label. She stood outside the department store for two weeks and upon observing that most shoppers were size 12 and above, she became convinced that she should start her own plus-size label. She successfully negotiated a deal with the department store, starting with four sizes: 12, 14, 16 and 18. Her hunch paid off handsomely — expanding from one rack to four racks, her space eventually grew to a 1,000 sq ft area where she was the only supplier manufacturing plus-size fashion locally.

Surprisingly, she says, “I don’t know much about anything. A lot of things happened by accident. Actually when you start, you have no idea; but just start and do it because you don’t know where it will take you. Like Ms. Read, when I began the business, it was just to fulfil the need of the career line, and look where it took me.”

Today, the Ms. Read brand has 19 stores spread out across the Klang Valley, Penang, Pahang, Johore,  Sarawak and Singapore, with orders from Indonesia for a wholesale deal. How big a team does Ms. Read have? She replies: “We run the business with quite a small team, and when you include Q Corporation, it’s about 220 people. The factory employs about 70, so the balance belongs to Ms. Read’s team at the stores and headquarters.”

But the path to success was not always a straightforward one as Read recalls. The common challenges have always been cash flow and staffing, where the hiring of the right people has been the greatest challenge. One unforgettable moment happened during the Asian financial crisis in July 1997, when all the department stores cancelled their orders with Q Corporation, leaving it with nothing to manufacture. In spite of that, the workshop in Q Corporation only closed for a day during the period.

“Which is why I say we really need the grace of God because that tiny Ms. Read outlet kept our factory running. I could still do sales from that little shop located in Jusco during the crisis. It opened in March 1997 and sales grew while other department stores had their budgets cancelled. Eventually, the department store offered me space on a consignment basis, where we only paid based on what we sold. Then Mid Valley Megamall offered us a freestanding shop. If everything had been good, nobody would have offered an unknown brand a space. In 1998, we opened our first Ms. Read standalone shop and it’s still there today.”

Today, Read is grooming her daughter, Kristy Yong, to succeed her. She says, “I’ve been planning to have someone take over and if she doesn’t do it, we’ll have to sell the business. What else can you do? I don’t have the energy like before.” And what Kristy possesses aplenty is the drive and gumption that has taken Ms. Read to new levels while developing a new team by herself.  “The online business was already there when she joined six years ago, but the turnover was only about RM3,000 per month. I run the production or manufacturing more at Q Corporation, which I actually prefer. I can spend the whole day doing sampling because I enjoy that and the fabrics, and of course, I take care of the finance,” adds Read.

Read’s husband, Edmund, has been working at the brand that carries his surname since 2000, in human resources matters, projects, new shops and so on. Son Benjamin Yong also used to help out in the marketing department of the business where he is credited with launching the Ms. Read books and catalogues. With a team that presently comprises a designer and a few merchandisers, Read is relinquishing design directions and leaving them in the hands of her young and capable staff with their new ideas.

Read heaps praise on her team, saying, “The campaign pics are so beautiful and the pics of our online store are also so different. I have such a thrill in my heart each time I see those visuals, and that’s why I say each season is even better than the last. They (the team) don’t need that much input from me.”

Helming a business that has continued to grow over the last 20 years has given Read many insights, but she is someone who continues to keep things uncomplicated and effortless. “I think in business, what’s most important is who you are and what you bring to it. That is one important thing because as you go about your work, it will test your character and shape the decisions you make. It’s always to live a life that’s authentic and not being caught up with anything. If you live your life correctly based on the right values … being kind and passionate about what you do, that’s the most important thing you can bring to the business.”

When asked what makes her proud after two decades of building the business, without hesitation, she names her team and the fact that her daughter has joined her in the business to continue growing it. Another milestone of her 20-year fashion business is starting the brand’s online business about five to six years ago, which has grown exponentially after her daughter joined.

So, what lies ahead, for the next 20 years perhaps? Read smiles and remarks: “There’s this statement: to continue to grow the business … one outfit at a time.”