Bruce Rockowitz seems an unlikely purveyor of American apparel brands. First of all, he’s Canadian. Secondly, he arrived in Hong Kong not as someone dreaming of breaking into the fashion world but as a semi-pro tennis player who decided to take a year off from college and kick around on the circuit before heading back to North America.
But that year turned into more than 30, and Rockowitz’s tennis background led him into the apparel world, where his career trajectory propelled him to chief executive officer of Hong Kong-based sourcing giant Li & Fung. In 2014, Li & Fung spun off its branding and licensing business into Global Brands Group, which Rockowitz now heads. As ceo, he focuses on growing American brands such as Frye, Spyder and Juicy Couture into global names while building David Beckham into a worldwide fashion force via their joint venture.
“My interest has always been more on aesthetics, the brand. I’m in a place I like,” Rockowitz, 56, said in an interview at his spacious office in Li Fung Tower in Kowloon.
He still has the same office from when he was heading Li & Fung. Decorated in neutral shades with a few punches of color, the office has two desks — one an L-shape with a desktop computer and a phone and the other a tall, round table with a computer screen, keyboard and phone. The two computers are synced so that he can seamlessly switch between the two desks — one for standing, one for sitting.
“When I move the cursor on the screen, you can see it move on the other screen,” he demonstrated.
His office is literally a stone’s throw away from that of William Fung, group chairman of Li & Fung. “I like it here so we can talk,” he said. Though his priorities are different now, Rockowitz still chats every day with William and Spencer Fung, Li & Fung’s group chairman and group ceo, respectively. Now that his focus is on growing his own brands instead of sourcing for others, Rockowitz has big plans, particularly in opening stores and e-commerce.
“We were always afraid of what [opening stores] would mean. We didn’t do e-commerce. All these things are very important if you’re going to be a true brand company,” he said. “We always were very careful about doing things that brand customers of the sourcing business would see as a conflict.
“We’re a $3.5 billion brand company with only four stores. That’s incredibly unusual,” he continued. “The future of our business is to replicate the whole licensed business in Europe and Asia. So you see a lot of growth because of the globalization of that. On the controlled side of the business, we want to grow as a vertical and we’re going to grow internationally when the time is right for that brand.”
Like many expatriates who end up making a life for themselves in Hong Kong, Rockowitz originally came for only a short time. He was a sophomore at the University of Vermont when both his parents — a mathematician and a computer expert — moved from Boston to Kwajalein, part of the Marshall Islands in the South Pacific, to work for the military. With no home to go back to, he decided to travel and play tennis tournaments professionally for a year. Hong Kong was one of the stops on the tournament schedule and Rockowitz arrived in the city in May 1979.
“I just saw how incredible what was going on in Hong Kong was. I saw a whole other world and it was inspirational,” he said.
He was soon offered a job at the Hong Kong Country Club, one of the most exclusive in the city, which today has a 30-year waiting list. During his year, he met Allan Zeman, a Canadian businessman who had just started a sourcing company, Colby International Group. By chance, Zeman was looking for someone young to join the business.
“He asked me, ‘Do I know somebody’ and the next day I called him back and said, ‘What about me?'” Rockowitz recalled.
He started at Colby when China had opened its borders and Hong Kong manufacturers were flocking across to take advantage of the lower-cost labor. Colby was among the first to source apparel from China. As other markets opened to manufacturing in Asia, Colby opened offices in Taiwan, Korea and the Philippines.
By 1999, Colby had become the third-largest trading company in the world after Li & Fung and Rockowitz was ceo. After an ill-fated attempt to go public in 1999 in the midst of the Internet crash, Li & Fung acquired Colby for 2.2 billion Hong Kong dollars, or $283.9 million at current exchange, in November 2000. Rockowitz stayed on, thinking that it would be temporary.
During the first two years after the acquisition, Rockowitz recalled lots of arguments with William Fung over the direction of the company. While Rockowitz was more interested in the marketing and branded side of the business, Fung was more driven by the factory and manufacturing part. Despite the differences, the two got along and by 2003, Rockowitz was named ceo of Li & Fung — the first one not from the Fung family.
One of the most prominent Western businessmen in Hong Kong, Rockowitz says developing and nurturing brands plays an important role in his life. “I feel and understand brands. I created brands outside on the private side of my life as well,” he said.
In addition to his role at GBG, Rockowitz is cofounder of The Pure Group, a yoga, fitness and lifestyle brand with studios in Hong Kong, Singapore, Taipei, Shanghai and New York. He started Pure with a friend, Colin Grant, after the two of them took a hot yoga class together when rain forced them to cancel a game of golf. Today Pure includes not only gyms and yoga studios but also restaurants, a line of juices and health foods and yoga apparel.
He also last June cofounded Rock Media, whose initial project will be a luxury lifestyle magazine with an e-commerce component. The magazine, #Legend, will unveil its Web site and e-commerce operations this month. A print issue of the monthly title will launch in March. Rockowitz enlisted his younger brother Steve to head the new venture.
But while he remains anchored in Hong Kong, building global brands requires a worldwide viewpoint and Rockowitz now spends about 30 percent of his time in the U.S. talking to companies looking to expand their brands. He focuses exclusively on brands in the “affordable luxury” space, ones like Michael Kors, Calvin Klein or Tommy Hilfiger.
This focus on affordable luxury was a lesson learned the hard way. While he was at Li & Fung, its American division LF USA had to undertake a costly restructuring after a failed attempt to create a business for Millennials. After buying a raft of smaller brands targeting the age group, LF USA learned “Millennials don’t care about brands,” he said.
“They’re not attached to Rihanna or Beyoncé or any of them. They go from song to song and DJ to DJ. It’s the same thing with brands and fashion. I think in the end, with Millennials, it has to be a platform, not a brand,” he said. “That was a big mistake for us and we paid a lot of money to get out of it. A lot, a lot.
“Sounded good on paper,” he added.
The affordable luxury space, on the other hand, is much more loyal.
Rockowitz’s comparison to the music business is perhaps appropriate. He says he has learned a lot about that industry through his wife, Hong Kong-based Chinese-American pop star Coco Lee. With her focus on music and his on fashion, “both of these industries intersect,” so they know many of the same people, he said.
The two married in 2011 in a lavish wedding that was covered extensively in the Asian press and featured performances by Bruno Mars and the Black Eyed Peas. The wedding took place on one of the top floors of the International Commerce Centre, the tallest building in Hong Kong. Sky100, the observation floor in the building, now rents out space for weddings. A local paper recently noted this and wrote about “How to have a wedding like Coco Lee and Bruce Rockowitz.”
Coco Lee has been a glamorous presence at some of Global Brands’ events, such as the company’s spin-off and initial public offering as well as its partnership announcement with David Beckham in December 2014. She has also helped her husband promote Pure Yoga and Pure Fitness.
Analyzing brands is a combination of both numbers and subjective sense, according to Rockowitz. On the numbers side, brands need to be of a certain size — generally with at least $100 million in sales — and have gained some traction. As a public company, Global Brands doesn’t have time to start brands from scratch — a process that could easily take 10 years just to gain traction. In addition, brands also need to have some recognition outside of the U.S. and have to have potential to become a multicategory lifestyle brand.
On the more subjective side, Rockowitz said it’s important to look at what’s behind a brand.
“Is this about a person, is this about a brand, is it about a design team? You better be very sure that if you buy that brand, you’re going to get the keys to keeping that brand intact,” he explained.
Many companies buy brands thinking they can cut the design team or get rid of a certain person but he or she may be the DNA of the brand, he warned. He cited one well-known example: Esprit. Founders Susie and Doug Tompkins were the “DNA” of the brand and “when they left everything changed. If you knew that, you either don’t buy that brand or make sure they don’t leave,” he said.
Though Rockowitz has spent a career working with Western brands, he says he is optimistic that Asia will export some of its own brands with time. “Look at Pure,” he said as an example of an original Asia-based brand.
Asian brands are becoming more prominent on the world stage, he said, singling out Samsung.
That said, it will take a long time to build up Asian brands with global significance, Rockowitz believes. While South Korea is the most advanced in this, other countries are opening up and becoming more creative as well, he noted. He pointed out that Hong Kong, where he has lived for more than 30 years, is becoming more of a center of creativity than it used to be. It is attracting an increasing number of designers and creative people.
Another big change Rockowitz has observed in the city has been the development of nightlife, which “was fairly nonexistent 30 years ago.” He attributes the change to the growing creative scene with more restaurants and music. He also noted a growing yoga and fitness lifestyle, which is in turn attracting more creative and spiritual people.
“All of these changes have contributed to the city becoming more creative and open,” he said.
While Rockowitz has made a career out of producing goods in Asia for export to U.S. retailers, today his focus is also very much on the Asian consumer. One of the important criteria for Global Brands in buying a brand is how well-received it can be in Asia and China.
While the U.S. contributes the majority of Global Brands’ revenue, growth in Asia is expected to become more important in the future. The company has design hubs around the world, including in Shanghai and South Korea. The world may be getting more flat and luxury brands say that they are finding the same trends around the world, but that’s not necessarily the case in affordable luxury, which has a far less homogeneous customer base than luxury.
For example, for skiwear brand Spyder, the company has a team of designers in Korea tweaking designs for the market there. In Shanghai, the company has a team that designs primarily children’s wear and character wear. Asia generally follows European design more than American, he pointed out.
The growing importance of Asian consumers means that the world could see more Asian design in the future.
“It’s all changing,” said Rockowitz. “People never think of Hong Kong as a design center, [but] there’s a whole new group of kids coming in. There’s a whole new alternative world that wasn’t here before at all.”