Don't tell Marjorie Yang that garment manufacturing is a sunset industry. She doesn't buy it. As chairman of the Esquel Group of Companies, a privately held, $400 million Hong Kong textile company started by her father in 1978, the 45-year-old Yang offers top-notch clothing to designer-label retailers. But rather than simple garment contracting, her company provides everything from design work to production to packaging ideas, working with customers from beginning to end to give them exactly what they want. To survive in the global economy, more Asian companies must adopt Yang's blend of production and services.
Yang has a long list of world-class clients to back up her claims. Tommy Hilfiger, Abercrombie & Fitch, Nordstrom, Marks & Spencer, and others are regular buyers of Esquel's cotton apparel. Yang owns plants in China, Jamaica, Malaysia, and Sri Lanka, and she recently spent $50 million for a cotton farm and 30,000 spindles in western China's Xinjiang province. Yang's company even makes its own accessories.
By owning the entire process, Yang believes she can guarantee a superior product that customers will pay a premium for. For dress shirts, for instance, Ralph Lauren wanted a pearl-type button that wouldn't crack. Yang's company devised one made partly of plastic that kept the sheen of a pearl. "We're a one-stop shop," Yang says at her cluttered headquarters, where sales staff and designers buzz in and out of fabric libraries and showrooms.
As a young woman, Yang had no intention of going into the family business. She wanted to be an investment banker when she enrolled at Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study math in 1970. Then she went for an MBA at Harvard business school, where men outnumbered women 8 to 1. "I never felt bullied," she says, referring to recent reports of sexual harassment there. After graduation, she worked for an investment bank in New York, where she felt like "master of the universe." A year later, in 1995, her father got cancer, so Yang returned to Hong Kong to help out--and has never looked back.
"OVERBOOKED." Yang credits her father, Y.L. Yang, who has a degree in textile chemistry and still works part-time, with making Esquel the success it is today. But she is the one who brought in modern management and the latest technology. "I spend a lot of time cultivating people, recruiting them, and doing career development," she says. That hasn't been easy in Hong Kong, where graduates preferred to go into the highly speculative--but once lucrative--property and finance markets rather than industry. In recent years, she has been recruiting in China. She'll pay for talent, but she'll also "sack people who don't live up to the standard."
The Asian crisis, Yang says, hasn't hurt the company. With about 85% of her goods going to the robust U.S. market, orders are stronger than ever. "We're overbooked for the upcoming season," she says. She also believes that the downturn spells opportunity. Asians who once craved Italian designer labels may now opt for lower-priced, quality goods made in other countries. Her team has developed a men's all-cotton dress shirt for Marks & Spencer in Hong Kong that's far less costly than the polyester-and-cotton one the company was making in Europe. And Nike, which has been under fire for worker abuses in Asia, has now turned to the reputable Esquel for some of its men's fashion.
At the office, Yang is no fashion plate. She prefers to wear jeans and no make-up. But she can look glamorous as well. Photos of Yang, who was once married to upscale retailer Dickson Poon, can often be seen in the society column.
Will Yang take the company public? Probably not. She wants to continue investing in Esquel's growth rather than worry about quarterly returns. "Shareholders would have thought I was crazy going into farming in Xinjiang," she says. With dreams of expanding more aggressively into women's clothing and doing printing on fabrics, Yang's full-service company shows how textiles are hardly an industry of the past.