How Esprit CEO William Pak pivoted from the law to fashion

Esprit CEO William Pak is one of those lucky few who doesn’t need a lot of sleep. That comes in handy, given the enormous task of turning around the iconic fashion brand, which lost its way in recent years. Here’s a closer look at Pak’s career journey thus far.  Inside Retail: Tell me about your career journey. How did you get into the industry, what are some of the different roles you’ve held along the way? William Pak: I started my career as an attorney in the United States, f

tes, first with Ernst & Young and later with White & Case, where I worked with them in the investment funds practice in New York and later moved with the firm to Hong Kong. 

Along the way, I got into starting up asset management businesses, which include private equity investments, and helping companies to identify and revitalise underperforming areas and driving favourable results while ensuring sustainable growth. 

After several different industry types of deals, ranging from the financial industry, manufacturing, and mining to technology, my last project was to reform the Esprit business, and it opened an opportunity for me to be in the fashion industry. 

I saw huge potential in the company and decided to dive deep into the fashion sector which has opened a new chapter in my career journey and brought me a lot of excitement thus far.

IR: What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in your career and how have you dealt with them?

WP: I do not perceive “challenges” negatively. Instead, I would see it as a driving force to motivate me to go further and beyond. In my current role as the CEO of Esprit, my biggest goal was to bring the brand back internationally. 

There were some historical issues with the company,  and it was teetering on the brink of liquidation. The brand was established in 1968 with 54 years of rich history. Like many other companies of this age, it has legacy issues that might not reflect the changing business environment of modern society. 

Before I was on board, the company was clouded by changes in top management. We are now at a critical turning point to focus on our own business priorities, streamline internal structure and highlight our new strategy and direction.

As part of my Esprit 3.0 strategy of restructuring, rebranding and repositioning the brand, I’ve basically broken down those legacy barriers to reorganise the company to be a lot more streamlined and react faster internally to meet the ever-changing needs of customers. 

Some people might find it unusual for a lawyer and banker who was always working with traditional industries to run an international fashion house. In the past few years since I have been at the helm, I was able to bring in outside views to the company. 

I manage the company as it should be managed, and at the same time, allow the creative part of the business to remain as such. We are open to innovative ideas and also design departments to remain free in their creativity, including the apparel design, photography and imagery. 

For the business side, I ensure the brand reacts quickly to the market landscape, that we can bring in a new perspective for the Esprit brand. 

IR: What are some of the key leadership lessons you’ve picked up over the course of your career?

WP: While letting the team explore and implement their own ideas, I formulate a clear long-term vision for the company so that the team can embark on the same journey together. It is important to trust colleagues and delegate duties to achieve a larger scale business efficient operation. 

This, however, does not mean delegating without doing a quality check on the processes as it goes along. 

For me, I get myself fully involved in the day-to-day operations to ensure constant monitoring and provide timely advice whenever needed because Esprit is engaged in a quickly changing business environment, and we are not only hoping to improve, but make changes to the industry. 

I am building a lean organisation at Esprit to maximise our efficiency; I ensure all business units are given adequate resources and support to be high performing. I have implemented fewer meetings, conference calls and presentations to enhance our colleagues’ efficiency. 

I believe every meeting should be summarised in one page with clear focus and direction so that every colleague in the company is clear with what we are doing and how to reach our goals together.

IR: What advice would you give to someone who wants to move up the corporate ladder?

WP: Working hard is a prerequisite. You must really understand your stuff and study any relevant materials in your free time to get ahead. You must be clear that your competitors are doing the same, and if you’re not doing it, they will move up faster than you. 

Second, you need to have a clear goal. You must plan things out during your academic stage and remove anything that might prohibit you from getting success. Getting top grades is important to better position yourself for the next stage. Then, once you’re in the working steam, you must work harder than others around you – there is no other way to outshine others.

On pivoting careers, this is not always planned, but the best way to prepare for it is to build networks of contacts in various industries and cultivate trust over time. For me, I always spend time connecting with different people within and outside of my network. In the business world, everything is indeed tied together, and when an opportunity arises, people can quickly capitalise on the network and reach out to the connections to gain an advantage in the new situation.

IR: What’s your approach to work-life balance?

WP: For me, everything is connected. I try to maximise my time and leverage the timezone difference as Esprit is expanding rapidly around the globe. I don’t sleep long. I usually end my day at 4am and start at 7am or 8am – but I do not always sit at my desk. 

There is a unique situation at Esprit as we have business presence across all major continents. 

If we do not finish the work in Asia by midnight, we can still pass it off to the other side of the world so that whatever needs to be done is well managed by colleagues in different timezones, and we can have 730 days in a year’s time – this is especially important in a corporate turnaround as we are trying to stay abreast of the market over our competitors. 

As a helmsman to embark on a business turnaround journey for Esprit, I tried to maximise my productivity without wasting a single second during the day. 

However, I still have my leisure time out of my busy work schedule to get balanced from work and stay connected with my personal network. 

I enjoy outdoor activities like tennis, hiking, golf or going out drinking after work – most of them are group activities and most of my counterparts are also the people with whom I closely work together. 

In fact, many people whom I know from work have become best friends in my life – we encourage and motivate each other on personal growth or from a business perspective. 

To me, connection is very important in running a business, and it could provide a strong support network and allow me to engage with people for mutual benefit and for improving business growth.