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How Havaianas’ Robert Esser built a career bringing global brands to Asia

Robert Esser has a long track record of running global brands in Asia. Following stints at drinks giant Anheuser-Busch InBev and music retailer HMV, he is now president of APAC & China for Alpargatas S.A, Brazil’s largest footwear company, where he oversees the operations for flip-flop brand Havaianas. We recently sat down with him to get his thoughts on his career, leadership and just what makes him tick.

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?

Robert Esser: I was a graduate student in China in the early ‘90s, which was a somewhat unusual thing to do at that time. I came down to Hong Kong for a one-year fellowship at LingNan Uni, and ended up going to work for a local wine company, first as a salesman, then as a sales manager.  

Anheuser-Busch InBev (ABI) had just opened its first regional office with a bunch of expats and I was the first local commercial hire they made.  I ran the Hong Kong and Macau markets and in 1994 I was actually the first foreign hire made by Budweiser China. In those days WFOEs [wholly foreign-owned enterprises] were not yet a thing and hiring expats via a China JV was always tricky, so I was the guinea pig.

I moved on to be region director of Southeast Asia for ABI, and that job also included Taiwan which was the largest market for us at the time, so we set up the regional headquarters there.  

This was Budweiser’s first real foray into Asia and we opened or restructured distributor and brewer relationships in all the markets in the region.  

They were great times, and I remember working extremely hard and being on the road for weeks at a time. I had to report my days in Taiwan for tax purposes and still remember spending over 200 days in travel in one year. 

I still have key distributor relationships who have become good friends from that time. In fact when I founded Pantry Magic in 2005, two of them became investors and board members.

I was headhunted by Egon Zehnder to come back to Hong Kong with Unilever in 2000 and spent a few years there doing a very similar role as regional director, but this time for an expanded territory that included all of East Asia, including China and Japan.  

In 2005, I founded Pantry Magic, a regional chain of lifestyle kitchenware stores, which grew out of an accidental find I made at Canton Fair a few years previously.  

The basic idea was 100 per cent own-label supply of product direct from Chinese factories to our franchisees in the region. This brought prices down dramatically and expanded margins for the reduced layers in the system. We built almost 30 stores in the next eight years.

In 2015, Kelvin Wu, a well-known and well-funded PE guy in Hong Kong had come in to rescue HMV as a white knight, and he asked me if I would be CEO and help him turn it around.  

Our goal was to pivot to lifestyle retailer and trade on the huge equity and goodwill to move us to a mega-store curating very cool products that had an affinity to that historic brand and packaged in great stores that had F&B as lifestyle as well.  

We were quite successful and while our target was to exit in 36 months, in fact we managed to sell it on to a China PLC in just over two years.  

I was rather fortunate to be introduced to Havaianas in 2017 via one of the more insightful recruiters that I know and set about opening our first APAC office here, starting as the only employee in the region working from a hotdesk.  

That was five years ago and we now have two entities, offices in Hong Kong and Shanghai, and have built almost 300 Havaianas stores in that time plus e-commerce operations  in every market. Direct-to-consumer is now about two-thirds of our total business.  

IR: What does a typical day look like for you? Do you have any “work hacks” for getting things done?

RE: I roll these two questions into one because my typical day does include what some might call “work hacks”. I try to get into the office by 7-7:30 each day, and I guess for me this qualifies as a hack, because it gives me about three uninterrupted hours every day to work on things before people arrive in any numbers and my day gets carried away.

Working for a Brazilian company, we are on the phone usually until 9-10pm some nights, although sometimes I manage to squeeze in calls early morning. Sao Paulo has an 11-hour time difference [with Hong Kong], so we have to make it work somehow. Most of my senior management team have the same juggle.  

Pre-Covid (and now post) we have quite a busy travel schedule as well, with 21 counties to cover. I believe in being in markets and working with the teams as much as possible. I try to approve all of our retail sites myself and give as much input as I think can be helpful.  

Our current new global retail identity – and the one before that – both came out from APAC and we are the region opening the most retail stores by far so it is a rewarding piece of the business for me. It does help that places like Bali and Phuket are some of our best markets. 

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