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Change is always worthwhile: A conversation with Zach Duane

Written by

Jessica Marrazzo

Posted on

March 23, 2021

If there’s anything that the past year has taught us, it’s the idea that careers no longer have to be linear. We can choose to focus on the projects that inspire and energise us most. Continuing with our blog series with leaders in luxury, we spoke to Zach Duane about his journey so far, his career passions and the importance of allowing ourselves to explore new ideas as we come across them.

Tell us a little bit about yourself & your career background. 

I was a lawyer for a number of years, working for a firm that specialised in media and entertainment. We focused on creative entrepreneurs, working from the founders and artists rather than corporate labels. One of my clients was Simon Fuller – at the time he was well known for managing the Spice Girls, as well as developing Pop Idol and American Idol. 

In 2003, I made the move to become an in-house lawyer on the business side of Simon’s company, 19 Entertainment. A year later, the Beckhams came back to be represented by the firm, and I started working on negotiating commercial deals for Victoria. She’d moved away from being a commercial artist and had started to explore her personal interest in fashion. She had actually never used a stylist – the rumour was that she had always been the one that determined what the Spice Girls would wear on tour or in videos! So we tested out different ideas. We licensed denim, fragrance, leather goods and eyewear. All were successful and drove significant financial return, but ultimately it was all a bit disjointed. Victoria wanted to create a stronger brand identity. 

In parallel, I had started working on a couple of other projects in the group. There was a French designer called Roland Mouret, and I was asked to work with him as he re-established his brand after exiting a partnership. Throughout these experiences I was learning about the fashion industry: understanding how collections were built, the workings of a design studio and what the wholesale market looked like. 

In 2008, Victoria decided to move forward and do her own thing. My job changed – I’d slowly moved out of a legal role and into a more commercial one. It was a real experience: I worked on the first business plan and helped her to build the team. The business scaled quite quickly. In a little over 2 years we already had 25 people and 100 points of sale. At the time I was still working on multiple projects, when I was asked to focus exclusively on the Victoria Beckham brand. So that’s how I made the transition from lawyer, to business development and project management to becoming a CEO. 

Let’s talk about your time as CEO. It sounds like an incredible experience, guiding the business through international expansion and developing new categories.

It was a traditional scale up role. I looked for new market opportunities, helping Victoria decide which product categories to launch, how to launch them, built a team and opened offices. We launched new boutiques and consolidated our lines. What’s more, we didn’t have any external support – no holding company or bigger luxury group to lean on. We did everything ourselves and learnt by doing. 

As it was all new territory, we didn’t always know what we were doing. I bought on a board of advisors when I felt out of my depth. I met some great people. A lot of those advisors have now gone on to do great things. A few of them have become senior leaders at Farfetch! 

By 2015, the business was more established. At that point, I realised my heart wasn’t in being a manager of managers. We had a team of more than 100 people and I was constantly on a plane to the US or Asia. I was dealing with HR more than the entrepreneurial business side of things, the part of the job that I had always loved and felt strongest at. So, in 2016 I decided to step away, staying on until late 2017 to help raise some money. The fundraise was a totally new process to me: researching and then evaluating investors, putting together long-term business plans, figuring out valuations and raising capital. From there, I moved into an advisory role to support the transition for the new CEO and then eventually left the business on good terms in late 2017. 

It was at that point you decided to go independent. What do you consider to be your greatest learnings from that experience? 

I really enjoyed the fundraising, particularly the strategic part. It was new and it played on my experience as a lawyer. It was about negotiating the best outcome for both sides, building up a good and fair deal. 

I started consulting after that. I worked on a series of projects to advise on how various businesses could be scaled, usually hired by the investors. After a couple of projects, I realised that as a lone consultant it was going to be a linear approach that was limited by my capacity- I could only take on one or two simultaneously. Ultimately I left my role at Victoria Beckham because I wanted more breadth and variety, and I realised that consulting was going to take me down the CEO path again if I continued. 

You’re now a co-founding partner of the ABILITY Group. Tell us more about your role there. 

ABILITY was founded by a fashion entrepreneur and an investment banker. Like me, they had experience in luxury brands. When I joined, they had a lot going on, so I joined to bring some focus and help the two founders decide on what their core model was to be. 

Today we’re essentially a hybrid between an investment firm and an advisory practice. We find early stage consumer brands: everything from cosmetics and home design to luxury skiwear. We always have a personal affinity with the brands we back and ultimately gravitate towards the things we love as consumers. Life is short, so why not focus where your interests lie! The main thing is, they have to be authentic. We invest in a portfolio of brands that are looking to innovate in their sector, and then help those brands grow with our money and expertise. 

We also advise investors on whether it’s worth investing in certain brands. And vice versa, when brands are choosing an investor. I work very closely with founders, building a relationship with them is very important to us. I try to give an alternative perspective on investment structure, cashflow, coaching, merchandising, getting market rate and so on. 

We’ve also been hired by the family office of a successful fashion tech couple – managing their capital and advising them on all their investment activities. We make sure that they have all the information they need to make a decision, and that the companies know how to leverage the strategic benefits that they can bring to a business. 

Do you think the pandemic has changed the way you work? Are more businesses starting to tap into high-level consultancy?

We’ve had huge amounts of success onboarding new clients through the pandemic. Before Covid, we felt a bit niche in terms of the types of brands we were backing (sustainable, values focused, creatively driven). We were a little concerned that this target group might be considered niche by the larger investors. But the pandemic has shown how important values like transparency and authenticity are and it’s precisely these brands, with agile structures and truly engaged communities, that have prospered. We’ve never been very afraid to turn down opportunities that are not in line with our values and even less so now. 

What’s your vision for the future of the ABILITY Group? 

We want to carefully and mindfully build a family of amazing brands that are consumer-focused, exciting their audiences with what they are doing. That are relevant in terms of values that count to people today, and that ultimately benefit from our help! 

We enjoy the lifestyle and experience we have now with those people and brands that we work with – and we don’t want to compromise on that for the sake of rapid growth. 

What advice would you give to someone who wants to progress their independent career? 

Take a long term view. Be realistic about your finances, but if you really want to explore a different part of your career and it’s been in the back of your mind for a long time – just do it. You can always go back and find a similar role to the one you had before. I’ve never regretted stepping down from my CEO role. It was an amazing experience, but I was ready to learn something new. 

Change is difficult, but in my experience it’s always worthwhile. Make sure you’re still learning and developing in your career and life as a whole. I had a coach to help me formulate my own thoughts and make plans for myself. Maybe if you’re looking for clarity, it could be worth investing in someone who can help you step back and identify what you’re really looking for in your career.

Zach Duane is an experienced C-Level executive in the luxury fashion industry and a senior advisor for Dweet. He is also a managing partner at ABLT Group.

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