Lee Longshaw, CEO & Creative Director, Gion & Pacific Holdings Co Ltd
What’s success? For many, it’s climbing up the corporate ladder. That is all we get taught throughout our lives. We often associate success with stereotypical notions of impressive job titles, higher salaries, and the corner office. But some choose to quit their cushy, well-paying corporate jobs to do something different and prove themselves in the world of entrepreneurship. They let go of their nine-to-five routine, a hefty salary at the end of the month, and corporate perks to follow their dreams and blaze their own trail. One such courageous personality who took off his corporate hat to create a mark in the entrepreneurial world and led his company to what it is known as today is Lee Longshaw, the CEO & Creative Director of Gion & Pacific Holdings Co Ltd.
Lee had a conventional start to his corporate career as he moved from Liverpool to Japan as a designer in the late 80s. While the role offered him comfortable job stability, he realized there’s no freedom to explore as a creator. The company emphasized more on a designer’s clothes than his skill, level of creativity, and output as a designer. Thus, he decided to leave the company and go freelance. But before that, he won a competition for designing a resort in Niigata on the Japan Sea coast. Finally, he left that cushy job and moved from Tokyo to Niigata. But unfortunately, his client went bankrupt without paying. So, there he was, in Niigata, 23 years old, broke, and back then his Japanese was terrible. But despite all the odds, he didn’t give up and taught design part-time at Niigata technical college. He worked 18 to 20 hours daily. “It was real graft, far removed from the trendy design offices of Tokyo, but it allowed me to stay independent and I discovered what real hard work was. I could pay the bills and managed to save enough to move back to Tokyo and set up business again in the capital,” asserts Lee.
The Next Phase of the Journey
Back in Tokyo, Lee rented an old car taxi garage and turned it into a designers’ workshop where professional designers experiencing creative disillusion would come and learn new physical craft skills. In 2004, when Lee was discussing the apparel industry in a meeting, he realized that Japan had a shortage of healthy domestic clothing brands. “In the ‘80s, there had been many but poor brand applications that faded leaving only environmentally unsustainable fast fashion. So, I started researching why. Big trading companies like Itochu are absolutely massive but are not interested in Japanese apparel brands. They send trendily attired buyers to Paris and Italy and make money by controlling and squeezing brands until equity dries up, then they simply move on to the next brand,” elucidates Lee. He realized that as an entrepreneur, it is hard to get financial support from banks in Japan. If you are not a salary man, you do not exist. As a result, many talents and Human Resources are wasted and many give up their dreams as support for start-up businesses is nonexistent. He also sensed that there is no incubation of domestic brands trying to get international acclaim. Thus, he set out to create a platform for Japanese talent to incubate and thrive.
The Origin of Gion & Pacific Holdings
Lee moved to Gion, the home of kabuki where geisha still float down the cobbled streets and a cup of tea is a work of art. He spent five years imbibing its mystique and developing a brand of jeans that he called Gion Jeans to capture the spirit of Japanese craftsmanship to offer to the world. These Jeans later went on to win an award as the “world’s best artisan denim” in 2019 and to take this concept to the global level, Lee created Gion & Pacific Holdings Co Ltd, a general trading and private equities fund company dedicated to promoting creative fashion in the industry.
Driven by a profound desire to promote creativity and passion, Lee started working on the iBusX mobile application concept. Built on the web3 ecosystem, iBusX offered creative freedom to those with talent and passion. It also has a domestic utility cryptocurrency so society can reward passion directly to artists. “Banks crush the entrepreneurial dream in Japan and I strongly believe that decentralizing finance is vital, especially when ‘mega’ banks are so deeply in bed with trading companies who are anti-competition and control the banks. If banks won’t help startups and creators, iBusXcoin will. Talent deserves to be rewarded and iBusX is the platform for that in the way AirBnB allows space to be monetized,” states Lee.
The Key Attributes to Entrepreneurial Success
Despite being at the helm of a leading trading and private equities fund company, Lee doesn’t like to call himself an entrepreneur. He affirms, “I don’t like the word ‘entrepreneur’, I would have preferred to be a craftsman like my father. This is because I never pictured myself as an entrepreneur. Instead, I was only trying to survive by adapting to environmental changes.” For Lee, true entrepreneurship is not about amassing wealth. Instead, it is about creating value through products and services and focusing on creating wealth for those around us. As a leader, he emphasizes on three key values: commitment, passion, and sacrifice. According to Lee, one who is passionate will commit all necessary resources to actualize a set goal and such individuals would push through against all odds and sacrifice many things when needed. He believes that entrepreneurship is not for the fainthearted and only those who combine the three qualities above would stand tall while others struggle to find their feet.
Valuable Lessons along the Journey
Drawing key lessons from his entrepreneurial journey, Lee advises young entrepreneurs to stay true to their goals and values. “Don’t be put off by a negative reception from big business, it happens because you are a threat to them, they will bully you, and they don’t want you competing with them. ‘The nail that sticks out needs hammering down’ is still a thing, and I have experienced it,” opines Lee.
When Gion Jeans won an international denim award, a major Japanese media outlet wanted to report its success. But they were told by a very large company ‘Don’t embarrass Japanese denim company owners by reporting it’ and hence, Gion Jean’s success outside of Japan was hidden domestically. Lee elucidates that getting angry doesn’t help. He goes on to state that such negative pressure on media by big businesses currently controls the market and iBusX aims to be the platform that is the answer to this. Despite all the hurdles, Lee has come a long way and his inspiring journey beautifully illustrates that success is not a one-size-fits-all destination but rather an exciting expedition filled with endless opportunities.