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This month, March 2023, Michelle Yu celebrates 10 years of living and working in Hong Kong. She moved to Hong Kong for Herbert Smith Freehills working in the corporate crimes and investigations practice. She then moved to Morgan Stanley and then again in 2018 to become Head of Compliance for DFS Group. That led her to LVMH as Vice President for Ethics & Compliance, Asia in 2021. Michelle describes her role and why ethics and compliance are increasingly important for business.  

“We used to have a slogan at LVMH, which was ‘Leading with Ambiguity’ – which, at first glance, would not seem to be an obvious choice of slogan, since companies like to project an image of certainty. But I felt it was honest and, more than that, is a good descriptor of the world around us – particularly over the past three years. Life itself is ambiguous. We have since retired this phrase and now one of our new mottos is, People Make the Difference, and that, too, is one that I share. That extends not just to our customers but also how we treat one another. 

As someone in charge of ethics and compliance for LVMH in Asia, both slogans are pertinent for me because I have an incredibly varied role. I deal with a huge range of issues – although focusing on compliance (anti-corruption, anti-money laundering, fraud, whistleblowing), often touching on related issues such as employment, data privacy, and much else besides. As you will often hear from those who practise in-house, every day is different and you never know what to expect at the start of each day.

Michelle joined Herbert Smith Freehills in the Hong Kong office in March 2013, where she was part of the Firm's corporate crimes and investigations practice. She moved to Morgan Stanley in 2015, to oversee the global anti-corruption compliance programme in Asia. From there, she moved in 2018 to head up the compliance function for the DFS Group, which provides luxury travel before joining LVMH in 2021 as Vice President for Ethics & Compliance, Asia. She is US-qualified and spent her early years in China and the US.

Compliance is an ever-changing – and, with the increase in regulations – an ever-growing role. But the ethics component is inextricably linked with that. No matter what the regulations are, people’s behaviour is at the root of how good a company is. That requires being open to people, listening to them and trying your best to see things from their perspective. When it comes to ethics, often these are issues of great sensitivity, and can reflect people’s vulnerability, so I have to win people’s trust so that they open up to me. 

Ethics only works if people’s concerns are acted on – and they see that something is being done. This is especially the case when it comes to whistleblowing. Equally, if nothing is done when someone reports bad behaviour, it can act the other way, encouraging those who are so inclined to behave badly because they know they can get away with it. 

In my role, I am hired to protect the company’s interests, but I like to think that people see me as someone with inherent integrity - doing what is right for them as well as for the company. I sometimes tend to confront people who are doing wrong things and say to them that this is not just bad for the company, it is bad for the world around you – and for yourself.

I certainly enjoy working for a company where the main business is easily understood and tangible, although when it comes to luxury items we are not immune from having to answer difficult questions – on our impact on the environment, on consumerism, inequalities of wealth and so on. We are happy to provide the consumer and the market with what they want, but, at a certain point, there is going to be a limit to what the earth can produce. Our customers are getting younger, and they are more concerned about the environment. 

So we are asking ourselves, what is the right thing to do? There are some easy wins, such as reducing our carbon footprint and travelling less, a process that has been accelerated out of necessity by the pandemic. We are working with our suppliers to maximise the use of existing resources and reduce waste, for example in our leather goods. We are developing some fabulous alternatives to non-renewable resources like diamonds and furs. Behind the scenes, we are looking at all these things to help reduce the impact while still maintaining the luxurious feel. It is definitely challenging and a challenge that I relish.

All of this may seem a long way removed from my career in private practice and as a legal practitioner in-house, but I feel my career path to date has prepared me well for this role. My experience at Herbert Smith Freehills and elsewhere has set me up for my current job in luxury and retail. I have been taught the skills of critical thinking, research and good writing. In particular, I have acquired the ability to find solutions – first, by examining the root cause of problems and then coming up with practical answers that fit the requirements of the business. That is intrinsically satisfying. 

I enjoy the technical side of what I do – and compliance can be very technical to ensure that we meet all regulations to the letter – but I also get real satisfaction from the substantial amount of people interactions. If I can put it this way, there is more humanity involved as compared with some of my previous jobs.

What I do miss, if anything, is the support. Whether at Herbert Smith Freehills or at Morgan Stanley, we were provided with amazing support professionals to whom you could turn. Here, I have to do almost everything myself – I don’t even have an assistant! But, by the same token, I am entrusted to get on with things and manage my own time. That is very empowering.

It can be all-encompassing, too, so I make sure that I look after myself, physically and mentally. Hong Kong has some amazing trails, and I have just discovered a new trail that goes along the north of Hong Kong close to the border. Hiking helps me relax as well as keeping me in shape!

* All viewpoints expressed herein are solely Michelle’s personal opinions and should not be construed to represent those of her current or former employers.

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