Elizabeth Ryu

Elizabeth has led HappyTel to be the largest smart device accessory retailer in Australia.

Proud of her family business and her colleagues, Elizabeth shares how difficult times and strong faith have made her team stronger and successful.

If we look back at your time at school, when did you attend PLC Sydney and what did you plan to do after school?

I attended PLC Sydney when you could describe yourself by identifying as a Spice Girl, Nokia Snake was the only form of mobile phone entertainment, and John Howard was PM. I have such fond memories of life inside the green gates. They were fun times with the teachers who were all very caring, friendly, some stricter than others but generally a very lovely environment to spend your days.

After PLC I planned to go to university, preferably one where my friends were going, and study business or economics, then go into the big corporate world or go overseas and live the life of an expat in London or Hong Kong and work for a multinational. Well, that was the plan...

Please briefly tell us what you did after finishing school?

To everyone’s surprise, I got into university. I went to UNSW and studied Economics but didn’t end up going into the big corporate world or going abroad, instead, I stayed in Sydney and started my career at Happytel. Happytel is a retail business that my parents founded when phones were the size of bricks. In 1996, they were the first to sell mobile phone accessories in shopping centres, they were Westfield Burwood and Parramatta. When I joined Happytel in 2004 we had less than 10 stores. Now, Happytel is the largest retailer of smart device accessories and smart device repairs with 60 stores in every capital city and major shopping centre in Australia and New Zealand.

I then decided to do a Law degree, 3 years into HappyteI, but part-time so that I could continue to work. Studying law was a major turning point in my life because it made me think differently, think broadly and logically. It made me a generalist and highlighted the importance of understanding/knowledge. I managed to finish in 4 years (6 year degree) because I enjoyed studying so much (which shocked my parents, family and friends). I surprised myself by making time to study, learning was fun, which led to good grades, gave me the motivation to learn more. Ever since then, I’ve been a bit of a nerd. I’m always reading, studying, or listening to people in the hope of learning something. Whether it’s a professor from Harvard or a taxi-driver, I’m always riveted by the conversation and the takeaways I get from that interaction.

This love of learning led me to another degree - MBA degree from the London School of Economics, New York University Stern, and HEC Paris (3rd highest ranked Executive MBA program in the world). The 18 month global program cohort consisted of executives, CEOs, and leaders from Europe, US, Africa, South America and UK. It was a life changing experience which broadened my perspective. I met so many amazing, successful but humble people who I still stay in contact with.

Currently, I am the CEO of Happytel, Director of Active Golf, Director of medical and health building, and other companies which own and manage real estate, funds, and online businesses.

What does a typical 'work' day look like for you

A typical workday involves many meetings with various stakeholders of the various entities regarding, management, strategising, sharing ideas, checking on their well-being in fact anything. In between meetings, I'm on the email, zoom or calls. Pre-covid, a lot of the meetings were held in the city, however, since covid zoom or Microsoft team meetings have taken over requiring less travel and flexibility.

I try my best to fit in a walk during lunch. I quite enjoy this time as it gives me the chance to take in the weather, listen to sermons, podcasts or the news.

What are the positives of working in a family business?

The positives of working in a family business are flexibility, maintaining a good culture and closeness to staff. Being less bureaucratic, we are more nimble, cohesive and decisive despite the limited information in an ever-changing environment as we have experienced/experiencing during the pandemic. Quicker decisions means faster implementation and improvement.

Whilst I say it is a family business, my parents moved on many years ago so the only family I work with is my brother and 350 staff members. Contrary to popular belief, it’s great working with my brother. He is highly intelligent, understanding and open-minded. We have great discussions about the economy, life, politics, and everything else. He is often sending me podcasts about technology, innovation, future industries and markets which challenge my thought process and I adopt later in work and life. We make a great team.

Could you tell us about any mistakes you have made and what did you learn from that mistake?

I’ve made a lot of mistakes!

Some of these include;

  • Making key investment decisions on gut feel or past data.
  • Hiring people without proper analysis of their capabilities.
  • Underestimating a problem and trying to solve it the easy way.

I’ll share a one story. About 7 years ago, I made the call on the biggest one-off purchase order. Unfortunately, that resulted in a multimillion-dollar loss and almost cost the entire company and took years and years to recover. The lesson I learned from that was decisions need to be holistic; based on facts, research, data, reports, and information on the ground, not on gut feel. At the time my parents were still working in the business, but instead of scrutinizing the decision I made, they let me be, and observed the mistake from the sideline.

Now everything that we do across all our businesses is based around data. We analyse reports, foot traffic data, the market conditions, where the niche is, pricing models, trends, demographic data. We look closely at how we increase the value proposition so that when customers look at the product or service on offer, the price tag is less than their perceived value. Most of the time if it’s less, they end up buying it and become a loyal customer. To get that repeat customer, it takes a lot of investment. This comes from excellent stakeholder collaboration, rather than relying on one person to make big decisions.

We are a future-orientated business - the leader in the category. We often go out to shopping centre landlords (Westfield, Vicinity, Lendlease), and educate them on what the category was, where the category is and where the category is going. We are a company which disrupt the market to bring positive change.

What has been the proudest moment in your life so far?

Being able to serve God and helping others. Every morning I wake up at 4.30am to attend 5.30am church service. Whilst it is often difficult to wake up, especially if I’ve had a big night, I get so much assurance, inspiration, and growth through God’s teachings and guidance. His words bring so much optimism to my day.

I’m also very proud of my staff because they teach me so much and bring positive change to this world. I’m proud of the culture and collaboration that we have. COVID has made our teams more cohesive. When you’re in a crisis, you stick together and get through it. This has seen great success, with better profitability post COVID.

If you could travel back in time, what would you say to your younger self?

Always go in with an open mind, learn from others and just experience it.

Invest in relationships, find out about people and what their talents are. Always try to connect with people and see how you can empower them, then elevate them to serve something greater than themselves.

“If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

What tools (apps, books, podcasts, etc.) or activities do you go to for inspiration/ideas/productivity/balance?

My biggest inspiration is God. Hearing God’s word first thing in the morning keeps my values in check, makes me feel great and inspires me to serve the community and God.

I also enjoy listening to audiobooks, podcasts, ABC Business, as well as reading articles and books. Talking with mum, my brother Max, and my soulmate who is highly intelligent and big picture minded have shaped my thinking. I love walking – it gives me peace and quiet to reflect and think.

Golf is something I used to do a lot during COVID, it’s so challenging and fun at the same time. Golf is mentally and physically stimulating, and every time I play, I can’t help but think how much it mirrors life. There are ups, downs, variables, hints of joy, and when you think you’re on track you start going backwards, but all in all, very rewarding 😊

What are some of the values that PLC instilled in you that have made an impact in your life?

Good values, balance, and respect.

Good values were instilled through religion and the school culture. We all cared and looked after each other, whether it were your classmates or the girls with special needs. There was a great sense of inclusiveness and community.

Balance was instilled through the encouragement of extra-curricular activities such as sport, music and arts. Whilst academia was important, we were not graded purely on this, because outside the green gates, the world values people who are well rounded.

PLC instilled the importance of respect. I think that was why manners were strictly enforced. Good manners to teachers, fellow students and to the community. Whilst I didn’t understand at the time, presentation was important at all times, both inside and outside the green gates.

Please share some of your most vivid, favourite or amusing memories from school.

Some of my favourite and amusing memories would have to include two favourite teachers; Mr Daniel, my maths teacher and Miss Hayek, my economics teacher - the two of them had a hard time because of me!

One time in math class, I noticed that the clock on the wall was an hour behind, obviously it hasn’t been corrected for daylight savings. As usual Mr Daniel gave us math problems to do, “ok girls, please do these problems on the board” so I thought ok. However, when the class went quiet, when everyone's head was down solving the complex maths problem, for me the clock on the wall kept bothering me. So, I got up, walked up to the front of the class, pulled up a chair and reached for the clock behind the whiteboard, pulled the clock down, adjusted the time and put it back up, then walked back to my seat. Mr Daniel was completely flabbergasted but didn’t say anything and just looked at me in amusement. He was a great teacher, a bit “different” as all highly intelligent people are, but a very caring and witty teacher. I really enjoyed his classes and was sad to see him pass away, but I’m glad I was able to say goodbye at his funeral.

Miss Hayek was a beautiful, caring and fun teacher. When she gave us tasks to do and I didn’t want to do them, I would ask her about her family. One time I said “Miss Hayek, I know you have a big family, are you able to name all your cousins including their last names?” She had many many cousins lol. Being Miss Hayek, she would oblige and started listing them one by one, and with my encouragement she kept going and going and for me that made the class go faster :)

Elizabeth Ryu

Class of 2000

House: Kinross

Follow @beHappyTel on Instagram.

Back to Graduate Stories

You might also like to read this graduate stories...