Kering APAC president Carlo Imo’s legal training has given him the edge in building brands and creating capital
There is a widespread perception that an accountancy qualification or MBA is the passport to a position in the higher echelons of international business, but Carlo Imo knows that conventions are there to be broken.
The Hong Kong-based president of Kering Asia Pacific, which oversees the regional activities of 20-plus luxury, sports and lifestyle brands, is a lawyer by training. But that background and the experience gained in a series of testing roles as an in-house general counsel have been ideal preparation for guiding a complex portfolio of companies, each with a distinct identity and ambitious plans for expansion.
“I was always interested in law and the judicial system,” says Imo, who took up his current post in December last year. “But while studying that, I also became more interested in areas like competition, distribution, market structures, and how a company actually operates. I saw that, with legal training, there was a way to add value.”
He now does just that by co-ordinating support and shared services for big-name brands like Gucci, Saint Laurent, Puma, Brioni and Balenciaga. Working largely behind the scenes, Kering’s teams assist with everything from real estate negotiations and information systems to media buying, human resources, and advice on legal matters and intellectual property. They pay close attention to the specific needs of brands such as Stella McCartney, Alexander McQueen and Volcom, which may be well known elsewhere, but are still relatively new to Asia. And they remain on the lookout for potential efficiencies, chances to replicate best practices, and new uses for digital and social media expertise.
“The group has enormous human and technical capital, so the aim is to leverage these assets and connections as much as possible,” Imo says. “We are always trying to enhance the quality and frequency of what we share between the brands. In fact, we have even become industry pioneers in open sourcing and making methodology on natural capital accounting available, so the market can see how we achieve results.”
Originally from Venice, Imo read law at the University of Padova in the mid-1980s before taking a master’s at King’s College London. While there, he focused on aspects of competition law, and the 18-month course served to confirm his interest in working directly for a company in the commercial sector, rather than going into practice. Therefore, when an offer came to join Benetton back in Italy, he didn’t hesitate in accepting.
“As an in-house counsel, you have proximity to the business and get to understand all the key processes. That is essential if you are going to deliver quality work for your internal clients and has equal weight with your technical expertise. But I am very curious by nature so, when time allowed, I would also take note of the leadership skills, management decisions, questions to ask, and day-to-day feedback needed to get better business results.”
Over the next 10 years, at a time when Benetton was growing fast and provoking a lot of comment for its calculated use of controversial advertising images, there was no shortage of action. Imo might find himself deflecting litigation and resolving disputes, but was also deeply involved in setting up joint ventures with local partners in India and Latin America, where both the culture and practical requirements could present all kinds of challenges.
“You have to learn as you go, but I really enjoyed the work and the exposure to different legal systems in real-life situations,” he says. “I was also reporting to the board on a regular basis on both internal and external matters. Fashion may not be a highly regulated business but, as a listed company, we had to maintain a strong focus on compliance and following the rules.”
When the time came for a change, Imo opted to join a merchant bank in Rome, again as general counsel. The switch into financial services proved a steep learning curve and, initially, saw him spending a lot of time on the trading floor peering at flashing screens and fast-moving numbers.
“I would observe and then go back after trading hours with questions about what they were doing and why,” he says. “There were regulations to study, but that was really the best way.”
After this two-year hiatus, a return to retail beckoned. It led to joining Gucci in 2001, a transfer to Hong Kong six years later and, subsequently, an ever wider brief.
For instance, before stepping up to his current role, Imo took on responsibility for HR in Asia for three years, an experience which gave new perspectives and served as invaluable preparation for what lay ahead. In particular, it introduced him to the challenges of people management on a large scale and showed how effective talent development enabled the organisation to adapt and evolve.
“I believe that if HR is done skilfully, it has much more than transactional value,” he says. “It also involves counselling, looking for growth opportunities, seeing how a company can be better organised and, especially in Asia, leveraging the diversity angle.”
In other respects, he is putting his weight behind far-sighted initiatives to empower women in the workplace and promote a commitment to sustainability. On the one hand, the aim is to build mentoring and networking programmes and improve processes for hiring and retention. On the other, it is to set and achieve targets for reducing CO2 emissions, water consumption and general waste.
“The group has given me a great opportunity to bring positive change,” Imo says. “We are now very focused on the concept of sustainable luxury.”