What if moving halfway around the world wasn’t a grand departure into the unknown but, rather, a return to the familiar?
When Johnson & Johnson (J&J) executive and 1992 MBA grad Wendy Smith took her family to Singapore in 2012—relocating to an office twelve time zones ahead of her previous one at the company’s global headquarters in New Brunswick, New Jersey—she certainly faced challenges and surprises. But she also experienced a homecoming of sorts.
“I’m Chinese,” she explains, born in Taiwan and raised in Provo, arriving with her parents and brother at the age of twelve. “I’ve always wanted to come back to Asia.”
As CFO and vice president of finance for consumer business in the Asia Pacific region, Smith oversees a portfolio of businesses with billions of dollars in annual sales. And while opportunities for professional growth abound, she says career development wasn’t the only advantage of a new role overseas.
“For family reasons, I wanted my children to gain exposure to Asia to learn about that part of their heritage,” she says.
Smith and her husband, Jeremy, have three young boys—Jordan, who is eight, and five-year-old twins, Walker and Connor. The family is quite at ease in Singapore, a bustling city-state that ranks among the world’s largest financial centers. Like many expatriates (some say as many as half of the tiny island nation’s residents are foreign workers), the Smiths enjoy comfortable living standards, top international schools, and quick and easy access to some of Asia’s most popular tourist destinations. As a bonus, the boys now speak fluent Mandarin—the language of Smith’s own childhood.
Remembering the Past
As she describes her journey from Asia to America and back, Smith begins with a time of spiritual restlessness for her family—and a chance encounter with foreign missionaries.
“My mother was soul-searching,” Smith says. “I was nine or ten at the time, and I remember going to all these churches with her. She was mostly looking to be a Christian, but I think she tried many different religions.”
One day as they crossed the street in Taiwan, they saw two young men in a dispute with an elderly merchant who accused them of not paying for a meal, she remembers.
“My mother was an English professor, and she thought, ‘Oh, these are Americans,’ and quickly figured out that their Chinese wasn’t so great. So she stopped and was able to help them resolve their dispute.”
“These two guys were missionaries, of course,” she continues. “They wanted to thank us, so they walked us home and later came to visit. My mother felt very strongly that theirs was the right church.”
Wendy and her mother were baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a short time later. Though her brother followed suit, her father did not. A retired principal, he nonetheless moved his family to America when his wife found employment at BYU a year later.
Smith says attending BYU was an easy decision after growing up in Provo “and supporting all the sports teams.” She earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and enrolled in a PhD program in hopes of becoming a teacher like her parents.
“There was no hesitation for me to do my undergraduate work at BYU,” she says, “but I considered other schools for my graduate work. In the end, it felt right to stay at BYU. I was really happy with my experiences there.”
After the first semester, however, Smith realized she wasn’t passionate enough about mathematics and discontinued the program. “At the time I thought, ‘I’m still a very analytical person. How can I use these skills in a more practical manner?’ That’s why I decided to get my MBA,” she says.
At the Marriott School, she discovered a love for corporate finance, combining mathematics with strategic thinking. “I really like looking at the big picture and making decisions that help the business grow,” she says.
Her first job out of college was with Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati, where she met her husband, who also studied at BYU and later transferred to the University of Cincinnati. Today they are both senior executives at J&J.
Forging the Future
Since joining the multinational in 2001, Smith has climbed her way to the top of one of three divisions in Asia Pacific: consumer products, which includes Band-Aid, Neutrogena, Aveeno, Listerine, and other well-known brands. J&J’s other divisions are medical devices and pharmaceuticals. Smith has industry experience in all three.
“There was no hesitation for me to do my undergraduate work at BYU, but I considered other schools for my graduate work. In the end, it felt rightto stay at BYU. I was really happy with my experiences there.”
In her current role, the corporate finance maven leads efforts to gain market share and achieve long-term growth in the region. “Opportunity-wise, Asia is the place to be,” she says from her office in Singapore, “especially the emerging markets.”
Need proof? It’s in the demographics, she says. Asia boasts 40 percent of the world’s newborns, and that’s a huge opportunity for Johnson’s Baby, one of the company’s biggest brands. Asia also claims 40 percent of the world’s teenagers, a potential boon for Clean & Clear, a line of skin products for adolescents.
What’s more, as these populations mature, governments are exploring ways to lower healthcare costs through over-the-counter treatments. That has allowed J&J—with its offering of medicines such as Tylenol, Sudafed, and Nicorette—to positively impact patients and consumers in Asia.
Helping others achieve healthy, vibrant lives, Smith says, is the best part about working at J&J. “It’s been great journey for me,” she says. “You can truly make a difference.”
Of course, no company succeeds without compliance—and that’s where Smith’s expert knowledge of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and healthcare compliance comes in.
“It’s the one thing that can break the camel’s back,” she says. “You can work on all kinds of cool, sexy projects, but they mean nothing if you don’t have a strong culture of compliance across your organization.”
Beyond her fiduciary responsibilities, Smith tackles business partnering and strategic issues, such as recent acquisitions in India and China. She also manages close to 200 people, including top finance associates from nations as disparate as Australia, Indonesia, and Japan. Imagine coaching a World Cup soccer team with eleven nationalities instead of one—only Smith’s team has a much bigger roster.
“The cultural differences between markets are vast,” she says. “Even though we have a corporate culture at J&J, a basic set of standards and expectations, what also drives employees is their local culture and norms. Deciphering those cultural differences has been the greatest challenge for me and the biggest source of learning.”
On its website, J&J calls diversity one of its most important competitive advantages and a process for connecting with the health needs of people in communities worldwide.
Smith has met that diversity with a good deal of empathy and curiosity. “It really makes me appreciate what it means to read between the lines,” she says, “what it means to respect others’ opinions and to get others to speak up and share their opinions.”
Relishing the Present
It helps that Smith often extends herself through frequent family travel, connecting with and learning about different cultures wherever she goes.
Having visited Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, China, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and Indonesia, Smith says the family’s favorite destination has been Bali, where, aside from relaxing at the beach, they took a jungle trek, toured rice fields, and had afternoon tea and cookies with a local Indonesian family.
It was a teaching moment, Smith says. The family had a son whose only toys were a pail of water and some rocks. “My oldest son was really touched by that,” she remembers. “We were walking around—there were all these wild chickens—and he told me that he wanted to try to catch a chicken so the family could eat it for dinner, because he felt so bad that they didn’t have any money. It was quite sweet. He didn’t catch any chickens, of course.”
The Smiths bought some wares from the family and returned home with a renewed sense of gratitude. “It really makes you realize how blessed and fortunate you are when you’re from a developed country and you have a good job and a good family life,” Smith says.
As a working mother in Singapore, Smith says she is also blessed to have the support of her husband and a good live-in nanny, as well as a ward where “people welcome you with open arms and try to make your life easy.”
And she also raves about the local cuisine.
“Honestly it’s been paradise for me,” she says. “As regional CFO, I try to make myself available to our different offices at least once a quarter. And I have to say, in every single country I’ve visited, I’ve tremendously enjoyed the food. I feel very lucky. That will be the thing I miss most when I leave Asia—the food.”
Her favorite dish is soup dumplings. It’s her boys’ favorite too.
Putting Others First
Having found success, Smith enjoys empowering others through succession planning, mentoring, and executive sponsorships. “Working with people is a personal passion,” she says.
Two affinity groups that Smith supports are the Finance Women Leadership Initiative and the Women Leaders in Finance, including an Asia Pacific chapter that she founded early last year. J&J’s global CFO was in Singapore to help kick off the effort.
And though she mentors as many men as women, Smith says she feels well positioned to help women support and empower one another in the workplace.
“Women bring great assets to J&J,” she says. “For our consumer products company, women in most families and households make the day-to-day purchasing decisions, so they’re the most important consumers to our company.”
Every professional struggles for work-life balance, but Smith says working mothers face particular challenges. In her own experience, she has found success in establishing boundaries. She leaves the office by 5:30 p.m. in order to spend time with her children before their bedtime. If she needs to get back online after 8 p.m. or go to work early, she will. She also devotes weekends to family when she’s not traveling.
“If you know what your personal priorities are, then you can set expectations at work—because hopefully we all work for good companies with managers and partners who support our goals,” she says.
“Be true to yourself,” Smith adds, whether you’re male or female, married or single, raising children or supporting parents. “At the end of the day, a job is just a job. Your family stays with you.”
It really makes you realize how blessed and fortunate you are when you’re from a developed country and you have a good job and a good family life.
So what’s next for Wendy Smith? It’s too early to say, she says. Singapore feels like a good fit for now.
The only thing missing is more Marriott School alumni.
Article written by Bremen Leak
Photography by Logan Havens
About the Author
Bremen Leak, a 2005 BYU graduate, has written for Marriott Alumni Magazine since 2006. He lives and works in New York City.