Shahriman Shamsuddin, sapura group
Shahriman is the executive director of the Sapura Group – a majority shareholder of Malaysian watch retailer Swiss Union and equal business partner of the Swatch Group in the newly-formed joint venture Swiss Luxury Watch & Jewelry Sdn. Bhd..
Under the leadership and growing assertiveness of Shahriman, the rapidly-growing presence of Swiss Union and Swiss Luxury in the Malaysian market has been phenomenal. Within a short period of a few years, the group has become the anchor tenant of the premier Starhill Gallery and is the retailer with the largest number of mono-brand watch boutiques.
Observers initially expected Swiss Luxury to be involved in mono-brand boutiques and have a clear separation of roles with Swiss Union’s retailing business. So, some noted with interest that Swiss Luxury has opened a multi-brand retail outlet in Penang, blurring the distinction expected by the industry.
Sapura is also a highly profitable company with an annual turnover of more than one billion ringgit. This deep pocket is Shahriman’s power in the watch industry, but at the same time, since the watch industry is a highly competitive one, the contribution of the watch business may become less exciting to the powerful group in the long term.
Anthony Lim, Raymond Lim and Jeremy Lim, Cortina Holdings
Anthony Lim Keen Ban is the chairman and managing director of Cortina Holdings Limited, one of the “Big Three” watch retailers in Singapore. In 1972, he left his old employer Nanyang Watch to start a new watch company at Columbo Court. The name ‘Cortina’ was chosen presumably because there was a Cortina Department Store in the same building.
In those days, competition between Rolex and Omega was very keen, and retailers were basically given the choice of carrying either brand. Being a strong supporter of Omega then, Cortina was left without Rolex until two years ago. For a typical retailer, Rolex produces half or more of the total turnover and for many years, retailers like Cortina had to cope with this severe handicap.
Anthony Lim still has a natural business instinct and good international contacts. Assisted by his two sons — Raymond (executive director) and Jeremy (regional manager) — Cortina today is one of the top three luxury watch retailers in Singapore.
Leong Lou Teck and William Leong, Leong Poh Kee Pte Ltd
As late as the early ’90s, except for a tiny few, there was no coherent international distribution strategy for most luxury watches. Watch traders then served as a transparent, critical and appreciated facilitator of balancing demand and supply in the international scene. Industry giant Leong Lou Teck’s role was much more than that of a major trader, he was also a much respected and admired “elder” in the watch industry.
Leong Lou Teck is publicity shy. However, he has been described as humble, trustworthy, kind-hearted and magnanimous. In fact, many of our sources have sworn that through his gentlemanly style of doing business, he has been the saviour of many parties in the industry, including a few famous Swiss brands.
His son, William Leong has taken over the daily running and transformation of the business, and it is the owner and distributor of the very profitable Swiss brands Sarcar, Carven and Leonard. Today, the business is thriving in countries like China and there are persistent rumours that the Leongs have a partnership with China’s second biggest watch retailer, Time City.
Tay Liam Wee, Sincere watch
Tay Liam Wee joined his father’s company, Sincere Watch — a smallish watch retailer with outlets at High Street, Peninsula Hotel and Lucky Plaza — in 1986.
Liam Wee recognised that to make meaningful progress, Sincere must distinguish itself as more than just a retailer. He chose to focus on getting specialised brands and shifted his focus by partnering and helping them in the brand-building process.
His first attempt was partnering with a young AHCI watchmaker, Franck Muller. Apparently, the involvement of Sincere Watch was more than just the role of a retailer. People familiar with the situation told us that Liam Wee’s team also helped to formulate early marketing, product and pricing strategies, assisting in the boutique design concept and — this is yet to be verified — helped coin the term “Master of Complications”.
In 1992, Sincere opened the first ultra-luxury watch boutique in the Promenade (now part of Orchard Paragon). With ample space allocated to Franck, specialised professional VIP services and careful product placement, Franck Muller watches became essential accessories of the rich and famous.
Such brand-buiding success was to be repeated in Southeast Asia, first by getting exclusive distribution or retailing rights for A. Lange & Söhne in 1995, Panerai in 1998 (now exclusive to Sincere only in Kuala Lumpur and Thailand), F. P. Journe in 1999, De Grisogono in 2001, L.U.C and Zenith by 2003, and subsequently building up brand equities with a long-term vision.
Constantly ahead of the game, Sincere opened its first prize-winning Sincere Haute Horlogerie (SHH) boutique concept store at the Singapore Hilton in November 2005, with a luxurious layout, top professional sales staff and S$45 million worth of exclusive, limited edition timepieces from high-end brands offered exclusively through the outlet.
Liam Wee’s real power, however, lies in the fact that he could just play the role of a master strategist and chief commander without involving himself in the daily running of the business. While others fret over micro-management, Liam Wee could spend his time traveling, formulating new strategies, cementing relationships with the industry, while comfortably knowing that the company’s daily operations are competently run by his trusted group of professionals. And that, is Liam Wee’s greatest achievement.
Dr. Henry Tay and Michael Tay, the hour glass
Dr. Henry Tay left his family’s 33-year-old watch company Lee Chay & Co. in 1979 to set up The Hour Glass. In the ’80s and ’90s, The Hour Glass was the most successful in penetrating the then lucrative Brunei market. While the active buying of luxury watches from Brunei during those years benefited the whole industry, only The Hour Glass, through a combination of good customer relationships, personalised customer service and specialised bespoke watches, could be considered to have dominated this important market.
Michael Tay joined his father in 1999 and very quickly made major changes to the company. As stock-holding cost in the luxury watch segment can be high, he implemented a series of controls where each branch was made painfully aware of the stock-holding cost. Such actions have made the inventory level much healthier than their competitors’. For its detailed and transparent reporting to the stock exchange, the company won the Securities Investors Association’s “Most Transparent Company Award 2006”.
Michael made it a personal mission to support and promote independent watchmakers like Philippe Dufour, Vianney Halter, Kari Voutilainen, URWERK and Peter Speake-Marine in a series of talks, tours, panel discussions and major exhibitions like the 2004 Tempus, giving them an unprecedented amount of publicity and promotions.
The 2004 Tempus, with S$120 million worth of watches and over 150 hours of seminars and workshops aimed at enhancing the watch culture in Singapore, is also the first and biggest of its kind in the world. The event was widely acknowledged by the industry as the most successful and impressive project; the Singapore Retailers Association concurred by awarding it the “Best Retail Event of the Year”.
David Ponzo, swatch group
This youngest country manager for the Swatch Group Singapore and Malaysia is also the brand manager of Omega. Charming, shrewd, sharp and confident, David Ponzo was able to establish his presence within and outside the Swatch Group very quickly.
Under Ponzo, the Swatch Group’s regional business turnover was said to have enjoyed its best growth in the last two years. He oversaw the opening of the joint venture company, Swiss Luxury Watch & Jewelry Sdn. Bhd., with the Sapura Group. Very quickly, the new joint venture company opened a new Glashütte Original boutique (opened before the new joint venture announcement) as well as Omega and Jaquet Droz boutiques in Kuala Lumpur, and established a new watch retailing operation in Penang, carrying watch brands under the Swatch Group and others like Cartier.
In Singapore, the flagship boutique’s presence was also extended with new boutiques for Longines, Omega, Breguet and Blancpain — either already opened for business or expected to be opened soon. Certainly, more Swatch Group mono-brand boutiques can be expected both in Singapore and Malaysia under David’s care. The Omega boutique in Kuala Lumpur, for example, is said to be selling 80 pieces or more every month, so it is little wonder if it should be the pride of David Ponzo.
Frank Benjamin and Nash Benjamin, F. J. Benjamin
Frank is the executive chairman and the founder of the luxury and entertainment group, F.J. Benjamin. In 1959, he started the company trading cameras and papers with his wife, Mavis. The company has since become one of the most diversified, and is the exclusive distributor for some 20 top fashion and watch brands in Australia, Southeast and North Asia. Today, the company has a presence in Hong Kong, Sydney, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Taipei, Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City.
In 1975, Frank opened a Lanvin boutique at Hyatt Regency (now Grand Hyatt), which was the first standalone mono-brand luxury boutique in Singapore. Assisted by his brother, Nash, Frank’s first real involvement with the watch business was distributing the very successful Gucci watches in 1979 (distributed by Gucci since 2003) and Girard-Perregaux in 1989. Today, the watch division of F.J. Benjamin is the exclusive distributor of Bell & Ross, Girard-Perregaux, GUESS, JeanRichard, Marc Ecko, Nautica, Nike Timing, Victorinox Swiss Army and Watch Zone in Southeast and North Asia.
Although a born businessman with an eye for commerce, Frank is extremely approachable, humble and down-to-earth, with a kind heart. He was the president of the Jewish Welfare Board for a decade and has been actively involved in various charity organisations like the Kidz Horizon Appeal. To Frank, power is the ability to give back what he can to society, which has served him so well.
From 2006, Frank has stepped down as Group CEO, passing the torch to Nash, who has worked in the Group for more than 30 years, who will now chart the next stage of the company’s growth.
Tan Soo Khoon, crystal time
Swee Heng was a watch company established by Tan Soo Khoon’s father in the ’50s. It started off as a humble watch distributor and was, for some time, one of the few companies in Singapore involved in movement assembly for supply to Hong Kong OEM watch manufacturers and in-house brands like Colour Club and Campus. Having experienced the watch industry first-hand, Soo Khoon decided to start his own company, Crystal Time, in 1978. The company became the sole distributor of the watch brand, Raymond Weil.
With determination and careful planning, Raymond Weil became a very successful brand in Southeast Asia. From the ’80s to the mid ’90s, Raymond Weil was the essential watch of the masses. Highly successful in Singapore and selling massively in Indonesia, it was the standard status symbol for the middle-class. While it is difficult to quantify the profitability of the company, industry sources claim that a “significant fortune” was made by Crystal Time under the guidance of Tan Soo Khoon.
Today, Crystal Time is the distributor of Raymond Weil, NHC, Hanhart and Vulcain, and fashion brands like Timex, Kenneth Cole, Police, BCBG Max Azria, Katharine Hamnett and Trofish. Although Tan Soo Khoon is a veteran politician and an ex-Speaker of Parliament who has served under three prime ministers, he took pains to separate his political and business roles clearly and with great integrity. According to him, his true power is that he believes in his ability to add value to the brands he carries.
Ravi ThakraN, LVMH Watch & Jewellery Asia pacific
Ravi Thakran is the CEO and president of LVMH Watch & Jewellery Asia Pacific. He is a brilliant strategic thinker and a sharp reader of the industry. Since taking the helm in Asia Pacific, he took it upon himself to train and groom local talents for top jobs at country level. This move provided high motivation for the intelligent and hardworking local team, which has consistently produced excellent growth in financial performance year after year. His greatest asset is his highly inspiring mind and his charismatic personality. Once you know the man, it is hard not to be impressed.
Dave Tan, richard mille asia
Dave Tan is a veteran in the watch industry, who has seen the ups and downs of his personal fortunes. With his clear understanding of the industry and human psychology, Dave is an extremely charming and persuasive individual who is considered by many to be the best salesman in the world. He is proud of the fact that he has had “wonderful opportunities” to be “instrumental in the successful marketing of several star brands when they launched in Asia”, and he reinforced his track record when he introduced Roger Dubuis and Richard Mille to Southeast and North Asia.
Currently the managing director of Richard Mille Asia and its holding company, he sought the man, Richard Mille, out in 2002 when he saw a Richard Mille watch in an advertisement. The chemistry between the two men is said to be immediate and genuine.
Within a very short period of time, Dave has successfully built up the Richard Mille brand in Southeast Asia and the sales in the Chinese market is said to be strong even before the first official outlet has been established. The true power of Dave, however, is not his strong return to the watch scene, but rather his natural ability to inspire his subordinates and to cultivate a circle of close, genuine friends, who will stand by him through good times and bad.
Zhang Yuping, Xinyu Hengdeli
Zhang Yuping is the executive chairman of China’s biggest retailer chain, Xinyu Hengdeli. He is well-connected, a quick decision maker with a sharp mind, and a great strategist. A fastest-rising star in the industry, Zhang is a man with vision. He holds his thoughts close to his chest and, even for people who know him well, it is hard to predict his next move. For any watch brand that needs an immediate presence in China, the best and fastest way is to work with him. The company he runs is so powerful that both LVMH and the Swatch Group have decided to invest directly in the company. With an extensive retail network of 65 outlets and growing constantly, Zhang has demonstrated his ambition beyond China. Xinyu acquired Hong Kong’s leading retailer, Elegant Watch, last year and there are persistent speculations that the group is exploring and discussing a possible takeover of a Singapore retailer; failing which, there is nothing to rule out Xinyu directly establishing a new retail chain in Singapore. After all, the company already has the confidence of the Singapore government-owned Temasek Holdings, which has a 9.94% shareholding stake in Xinyu Hengdeli.
Victor Sassoon, time international
Chairman and managing director of Time International and Rubina Watch, Victor Sassoon joined his father’s firm, Rubina Watch, in 1966 at a young age. Originally a manufacturer and assembler of watch movements for OEM producers in Singapore and Indonesia, Rubina became the exclusive distributor of Gucci and TAG Heuer for Indonesia.
Most of Rubina’s retailers suffered great financial setbacks during the 1997 Asian financial crisis. To keep the distribution structure intact, Victor saw the urgency of the situation and decisively started the retailing chain, Time International, by the end of 1997.
Today, Time International carries the largest portfolio of top luxury brands, including Rolex and Cartier in Indonesia; some of them, exclusively. Doing business in Indonesia is a constant challenge, but with hands-on management, perseverance, determination, good contacts and a great understanding of the market, Victor and Time International are more than coping well; they are, in fact, the luxury watch retailer and distributor with the strongest presence in the country.
Victor’s business interests are well-diversified, including being a business associate of the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf chain in Asia and Corum Watch in the region.
The fourth-generation owner of the 135-year-old company, B.P. De Silva, Sunil Amarasuriya is an industry giant in his own right. The company has been the sole agent for Omega and Tissot since 1932. A shareholder of Audemars Piguet and Swatch Group Singapore, Sunil is the industry mentor to many brilliant young men like Audemars Piguet Southeast Asia and India CEO Oliviero Bottinelli and Jaquet Droz CEO Manuel Emch.
Quiet, modest and publicity shy, he is the ‘elder statesman’ who has played a significant and distinctive role in subtly influencing several important changes in both the Swiss and local watch industry.