Michael Wong is the creative spark behind California Management Group Asia. The company, founded in 2007 with the aim to “make life better,” now has sixteen brands that include their first venture, California Fitness & Yoga, and newer imprints like UFC Gym, Yoga Plus, the Calikids Academy, and Eri Science of Beauty. Michael joined after swapping a career designing furniture for resorts and hotels in Canada, China, and Honduras for life in Ho Chi Minh City. Since then, he’s seen the company grow from that first California Fitness club into a 3,000-staff, 38-center business and leadership incubator.
At Vietcetera, we seek out inspirational people to profile, but this time one of Michael Wong’s team reached out to ask us to interview him. Always open to suggestions, and duly impressed, we headed over to another of CMG Asia’s new ventures, the California Centuryon flagship club in the Saigon Center, to meet Michael and get his uniquely qualified guide to creativity.
How would you describe what you do?
I’m Chief Creative Officer for CMG Asia. I’m in charge of two divisions: one for club and new concept design and the other for marketing. The second division includes brands like our apparel label, CA Republic. My responsibility is to take designs from A to Z—from the original concept through to sourcing; right up to making the design work physically. That helps us maintain brand consistency in everything we do.
I really think of myself as a visual storyteller. I design stories to evoke an emotional response. That can be through the development of a dynamic club concept, the design of some apparel, or a set of eye-catching graphics.
When are you most creative? And how do you maintain the space and time to feed your creativity?
I travel as much as I can. Inspiration can come from anywhere. For example, I was in Bangkok last weekend and I visited two Michelin-starred restaurants—Gaggan, run by one of the world’s most celebrated Indian chef’s, Gaggan Anand, and the innovative pan-Asian restaurant Gaa, which was set-up next door by Anand’s former sous chef. We also went to Akira Back, another innovative contemporary Japanese-fusion restaurant. I don’t go to these places with any specific intent, but I just know I’m going to leave feeling inspired. The way Gaa, for example, deconstructs normally pungent Indian and strong Thai flavors into something unexpectedly subtle and visually minimalistic filled me with ideas.
Besides that, in my daily life, I think I’m most creative when I’m not focused on a specific project. Then, my mind can just wander. But for me, creativity is an amorphous mashup of ideas, dreams, and far-fetched fantasies which I can access 24 hours a day, anywhere.
Do you think creativity can be learned?
Creativity is in all of us. Since the beginning of mankind, humans have had the instinctive urge to create. I think that was inextricably connected to our need to survive. Whether to feed ourselves or to fend off a predator, creativity was ever-present and in everyone.
What’s the last ingenious idea you had?
As we’re in the health and wellness industry, I had an idea to create an office campus that is completely energy self-sufficient. That would mean integrating kinetic fitness equipment into the office space. We could task each division to generate the energy required by their departments. It would be the perfect combination of work and exercise that has the added environmental benefit of reducing our reliance on external energy providers.
How do you identify and onboard talented creatives? Do you have any stock interview questions you ask?
Every designer I interview must have a sketchbook or portfolio that is representative of current trends in design, interiors, or fashion. For me, that’s the best way I can find to analyze the talents of a prospective candidate. It very quickly reveals to me their strengths and their aesthetic. Then, during interviews, I always ask “What’s your intended outcome?” then “How can you add value to the company?” and finally, “What can I do to help you grow?”
And how do you get the most out of the people around you?
I firmly believe that as a designer and as a leader I must practice what I preach. I love collaborating on projects working alongside the team. I’m always open to their feedback, and I think because I work with them they can see I share their commitment and passion for creativity.
How have you maintained your enthusiasm and energy over a long period with the same company?
CMG Asia is a fully integrated multi-brand platform. Because of that, there’s never a moment that goes by when we don’t need to generate dozens of ideas or build an innovative new facility. My energy comes from our amazing teams—Vietnam’s young, talented new generation. Each one of them is so unique in their skill set and the way they express ideas creatively. I look forward to working with them just to see what they come up with next.
What advice would you give to someone doing business in Vietnam who is new to the country?
I’d give them three simple rules: embrace this amazing culture, add value to everyone you meet, and be authentic. Follow those rules and everything will fall into place. I promise.
Growing and maintaining a network is important too. One of my weekly KPIs is that I have to connect to one new person every week from a variety of fields including the creative industries, investment groups, and the food and beverage industry. I’ll seek them out, or they’ll be referred to me, and I get in touch. You are the result of the five people you surround yourself with. I truly believe that business principle.
Do you read business books? And if you wrote your own, what would it be called and what would it be about?
I’ve been reading much more because I was on a social media detox. I was posting constantly for about three years so it was time for a break although I’m gradually re-engaging now. I frequently read business books, anything I can get my hands on. People tend to believe a book can guarantee their success in business or help them to get rich. It can’t. However, some of them do contain interesting insights. Right now, I’m reading Kim Scott’s “Radical Candor” about how to be a kick-ass boss without losing your humanity.
My own business book would be called “BANH MI” by Michael_Ignite which is my Instagram name. But it wouldn’t be a traditional business book. It would be a tasty tome, something similar to the delicious layers that make up one of Vietnam’s most ubiquitous street foods, banh mi. It would contain information on basic business protocols here in Vietnam, ideas on how to nourish self-confidence, style advice, and how to create a killer CV. There would also be blank pages to inspire creativity where people can ignite their ideas on one page for every day of the week through doodles, scribbles, and sketches.
You have a distinctive style. Where do you get your clothes?
Clothes make me feel good and they make me feel more confident. I typically wear bespoke clothing and footwear gathered on my travels and here in Vietnam. To me, a good tailor is like a good hairdresser—you have to work together to produce a satisfactory result.
And we have to ask, do you work out?
Yes, I exercise around six times a week. And I actually rotate between our different centers. Besides keeping me fit, that gives me crucial insights into the user experience which feeds into the design of our next club or clinic.
Who should we speak to next?
Luka Janich. He formed Red² Digital Agency but he’s originally from Dentsu, Singapore which is one of the biggest agencies in Asia. He’s a great person to connect with.