Listen to this article
David Sancho’s office at Mango sits in the sprawling Chinese headquarters building in the bustling Jing’an district of Shanghai. From here he oversees 200-plus stores that make up the Spanish clothing retailer’s East Asian and Indian operations.
But our interview is conducted in Hong Kong, as he walks the aisles of Mango’s flagship outlet in the city’s lively southern Kowloon neighbourhood of Tsim Sha Tsui. He walks the shop floor, observing the behaviour of those browsing the merchandise, watching what items attract the most attention and pausing to meet sales staff and check the displays.
This is the first leg of a month-long trip covering most of Mango’s outlets across mainland China. “My top priority is to make sure that the customer is happy,” he says.
It is a long way from Barcelona, where Mango is based and where Sancho was born into a family of lawyers. His parents co-founded a firm of solicitors specialising in property, which is now run by his two sisters. He started down the same route, taking a degree in law at Barcelona-based Esade Business and Law School. After a stint of pro bono work on criminal cases with one of his law professors, he got a job in a multinational law firm in Barcelona, practising property law, but quickly realised that this was not right for him.
Then Sancho broke up with his long-term girlfriend and decided that he should also no longer stay in a role where his heart was not in the work. “I decided to turn it into an opportunity,” he says. “I made a decision to push forward with my life to a job that I loved and being in a law firm was not that dream job.”
Sancho joined the legal department at Mango, primarily as a way of getting into the corporate world and retail, which he saw at the time as changing from a traditional industry to a more exciting disruptive one, and after six months switched to a role in the business development team. “At that time Mango made me an offer. I didn’t know anything about fashion and I didn’t even know that it was so related to real estate.”
It was here that he got his first taste of China, when he volunteered for a month-long trip to travel between Hong Kong and Beijing in 2006 to assess the market opportunity for Mango, which only had a small presence there at the time.
“Everyone was talking about China but it was amazing the difference between being in my office in Barcelona and seeing it with my own eyes,” he says. “At that moment, when I arrived in Hong Kong, I knew I would end up in China. I just fell in love with the place. It was the vibe of the people. I just didn’t know how I would do it.”
His abiding memory of the time was how positive people were, from the person holding the door open for him at his hotel to people he met through business. “Everyone was looking to the future in a very positive way,” he recalls.
Five years later, the opportunity arose to move permanently to China. Mango wanted someone from head office to relocate to run the Asian operations locally. Sancho, who was head of property at the time, took the role of vice-president for international expansion. A few months later he was offered the job of chief executive for Mango China, leading a small team with just 10 managers. “It was like a start-up,” Sancho recalls. He enjoyed building something from scratch. “It just felt like the right timing.”
Mango’s East Asia and India operations now account for about 5 per cent of Mango’s global sales, which were €2.26bn in 2016. It employs more than 1,000 people in 200 stores and an online business, with 100 people administering the division from its Shanghai base. Most of Mango’s outlets in China and Asia were in department stores when he started in the region; now the majority are in shopping malls.
He started the EMBA a year later at the China Europe International Business School (Ceibs) in Shanghai after reading articles about the school by Pedro Nueno, a professor at Iese business school in Barcelona who is also president of Ceibs. The plan was to use the course to immerse himself in Chinese culture while increasing his hard skills in areas such as finance and marketing.
“It helped to open my eyes,” he says of the diverse course, where half of the 56 students were Chinese nationals, 15 per cent were from outside Asia, and his fellow students were aged from 29 to over 60. “It helped me to be surrounded by so many people with so many viewpoints.”
Sancho says he liked the flexibility of the course, studied part-time over 22 months, which he was able to complete by taking long weekends, using his holiday allowance. “I like to learn about business and there were a lot of very nice people on the course, so for me it was like going on holiday,” he says.
The programme taught him vital soft skills, such as working in teams and dealing with complex challenges, that Sancho was able to put into use immediately. It also introduced him to a network of people from different backgrounds and at different stages in their careers who have become close friends, something he particularly valued at the time as a new arrival in China.
“It is not easy for someone coming from so far away, from a completely different culture, to make friends with people from China, so I have to say that this changed my life,” he says.
This was important to Sancho, who admits that the hardest thing about being based in China is being far away from his family. It was possible because the EMBA course was relatively small, with 56 students on his cohort, and he made good friends. “I stay in China because of those personal ties,” he says.
One the most important lessons from the EMBA at Ceibs was discovering the Chinese approach to learning, which, he says, benefits from being more “humble” than in Europe and not so willing to accept the received wisdom on business problems.
Yet putting other people first is one of the cultural strengths of Mango, he says, and one of the reasons he claims he has remained with the company for 13 years.
Building the best team he can is a priority, he says, stressing the importance of “remembering that everyone is a human being first, not just a worker. One of the things I like about Mango is that they hire . . . first because of what kind of people they are. I want the best professionals on my team but they also have to be nice people.”
His main goal at Mango, he says, is to transmit its culture to those around him.
“You grow as a person when you are connected with amazing people, particularly those who are just starting out in their careers, and we have a lot of those at Mango.”