“I haven't done an interview in a long time, so I'm a bit nervous.”
One wouldn’t expect to hear this from Mr. Jeremy Lim, chief operating of cer of Cortina Watch, president of the Singapore Clock and Watch Trade Association since 2012, and, as of March 15, a newly inaugurated member of the 60th council of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
One of the three major luxury watch retailers in Singapore, Cortina Watch operates a total of 24 retail outlets across Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Indonesia, including Rolex and Patek Philippe single-brand boutiques; and carries more than 35 international brands, including Cartier, IWC Schaffhausen, Piaget, Vacheron Constantin, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Panerai and Bvlgari.
In late August 2018, the retailer officially entered the digital space with the launch of its e-commerce platform, CortinaWatch.Online, which ships to Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand and carries tickers from ve brands: Bell & Ross, Corum, Ebel, TAG Heuer and Zenith. But rather than indicate a shift to operating completely online, the move is a change in the method of engaging clients while not cannibalizing its brick-and-mortar business.
At the start, expectations of CortinaWatch.Online were modest, to say the least. “Zero,” says Mr. Lim with a laugh when asked about the initial projection for the e-commerce site. “We knew it was going to be challenging. ...We always felt that because the price points of the brands we carry are still more on the higher side, customers still want to touch and feel the watches. So when we created CortinaWatch.Online we didn’t want it to be competition for our brick-and- mortar business; we wanted it to be complementary and a convenience for our customers.”
The company took the direction of offering online-exclusive timepieces to generate buzz and draw crowds to the website, and the strategy worked. All 10 pieces of the TAG Heuer Carrera H02T Cortina Special Edition, in titanium and outfitted with a tourbillon and chronograph, were snapped up within three weeks, and then 100 pieces of the Bell & Ross BR 03-92 Bronze Diver “Demiurgus” Cortina edition with an olive drab dial sold out in 56 hours this January; Cortina Watch is looking to add another batch of four to five brands to the e-commerce platform and explore creating online- exclusive collections.
But instead of hosting Cortina Watch’s full catalog for purchase online, the selection on CortinaWatch.Online is thoughtfully curated. “Even for brands we’re carrying, we try to limit the number of collections so that the user experience is more focused on the individual brand’s bestsellers,” Mr. Lim explains. “This is just to reach out to new customers or serve as a service platform for current customers who may not want to visit the boutiques and already know what watch they’re after, so it’s a slightly different way of how we want to do the online business.
“Ultimately I believe brick-and-mortar is still very relevant for our price points, and for the online platform there’s always one criterion I will place on it: If we don’t sell that brand in our physical stores, we will not sell it online, so it complements the total portfolio of our company.”
But the decision to retail online falls squarely on the shoulders of individual brands. “In one of the recent interviews Thierry (Stern, president of Patek Philippe) had with a magazine, he said Patek will not be sold online, so we need to be respectful of individual brands,” Mr. Lim says. “If they change tack, at least we have a platform ready to engage, so it’s just to future-proof ourselves."
Launching an e-commerce platform has been a long time in the making, Mr. Lim adds. “E-commerce has been around for a while, it’s just that it was maybe in late 2017 and 2018 that the watch industry started talking about it. Yes, we may be a little slower in terms of embracing e-commerce as an industry,” he says.
He came up with the plan for an online boutique before there were brands that had signed up to be placed on it. A wait-and-see approach meant a few of brands held back from signing up from the outset, so the results from CortinaWatch.Online have been encouraging. “More brands are having the confidence that we’re not trying to sell across borders and not trying to replace our brick-and-mortar business,” Mr. Lim explains. “I think that’s important for our brand partners, because they’d rather be represented nicely with something that is tangible than with something that’s online, so I think we’ve proven that this is just an extension of our brick-and-mortar business.”
Tanned Double-breasted Suit Jacket and Trousers, from BOSS
- FINGER ON THE PULSE
- WATCH CONNOISSEUR
FINGER ON THE PULSE
While the local watch retailers dealing in lower-tier brands are suffering the impact of rising rental and costs and immense competition, the situation for luxury watch retailers appears more heartening: Demand is high and the watches are grossly under-supplied, which Mr. Lim calls a good situation. 2018 was a record year for Cortina Watch, with the company posting after-tax profits of more than $22 million in the nine-month period ending on 31 December 2018. In spite of that, it decided to cut down on retail outlets to boost efficiency for the locations that remained. “I will still call my supplier to say I don’t have enough stock, but quietly I will say it’s a situation I like to be in,” Mr. Lim says. “My inventory is clean, our sales are strong and our profitability is there, and what’s more important than profitability for a businessperson like me?”
When it comes to pricing timepieces, Mr. Lim sees adding value as the way to go, instead of chasing after accessibility. “I would say brands are the defenders of old technology — you’re talking about watches that have been innovated since about 400 years ago,” he explains. “We have progressed and improved the way we manufacture, the quality and the accuracy, but if you really look back at watches, it’s an old tradition, and it can be replaced, but today it has become an artform.”
Whether it is value in the shape of applied indices, ingenious application of novel materials or creative use of coloration for enhanced legibility, “all these will give customers a better feel of value-add; it’s not so much about accessibility,” Mr. Lim explains. “I don’t think bringing the price point down is the way to go for luxury watches.”
“I wouldn’t say we’re at the zenith of watchmaking — there will always be new innovations that improve on traditional ways of telling time.”
These days, the role that luxury watch retailers play has evolved from an advisory one to a more service-focused one, the biggest change Mr. Lim has observed in retail over the years. “In the 80s, it was about giving advice on timepieces customers see in the store, but today consumers are coming into the store knowing what they want; they’ve already done their research online,” he elaborates. “They know what they’re looking for, so they want the service, for us to show them the watch to try on and maybe give more assurance this is the watch they’re looking for and it’s of quality and holds warranty — whatever security they need before they make the purchase.”
The emergence of subscription and rental membership clubs for watches, like Acquired Time, TenTwo and Specter One, is not a trend Mr. Lim looks favorably upon. “I think these are people who try to pro t from our industry,” he opines. “From a collector’s point of view, are you really enjoying the watch? If the watch is just about wearing it and showing off what you have, then this works for you, as it comes with low cost and high prestige. But I think true collectors would want to see that they have a watch in their collection and start to look for pieces that are missing from their collection.”
However, an area that Mr. Lim does see immense potential in is the pre-owned watch market: The watch industry has the strength to take back this part of the business, he says, by appointing resellers of used watches and defending the brands again to the watches’ next owners with accredited service and product warranty that the brands stand behind. “Unfortunately, as much as I would love to (grow this part of the business), we don’t own the brands; we need them to give us their blessings,” he explains.
“When we talk about defending brand equity, it’s not just about new watches; any watch that’s labelled with your brand is your equity — that’s my take,” he continues. “A lot of people may not believe in this, but I’ve been advocating this for four to five years. It’s a thin line we’re stepping on, a gray area, so I’d rather not delve into it until I’m given the green light.”
- FINGER ON THE PULSE
- WATCH CONNOISSEUR
Mr. Lim has been in the luxury watch retail industry since 2000, when he joined Cortina Watch in an operations role. (Cortina Watch was founded by Mr. Lim’s father, Anthony; Mr. Lim’s older brother, Raymond, is the company’s deputy chairman and deputy CEO.) And over that period, he has amassed a sizable watch collection of his own, though he declines to put a figure on it. “I wouldn’t say it’s impressive — I would say it’s good enough,” he demurs. “I can have access, but I will stick to what I can afford and what I like.”
Exactly what he likes is an eclectic mix that includes specific complications or movements, iconic models of each brand, unusual or rare materials, and more. And his enthusiasm for timepieces becomes evident when he discusses one of his more recent acquisitions. “Today you see a lot of bronze watches, but some brand very cleverly launched a watch with a peculiar material. I just like it because of the material, so I ordered it — I cannot say the materials or you’ll know which brand it is!” he says with a laugh.
But after some encouragement, he reveals the watch in question is the Omega Seamaster Diver 300m in titanium, tantalum and Sedna gold, a timepiece he proceeds to describe with great relish, and even pulls up images of it on his smartphone to show us.
“I do enjoy my watches,” he replies when his beaming expression is pointed out to him. “I’m lucky I’m in the trade.”
“There are reasons why some people have so many watches, because there are just some peculiarities that you see in the brand, the watch or the particular model,” he adds. “But most of the reasons are, as my wife says, an excuse for me to buy more watches.”
Mr. Lim’s fondness for watches was not a feature of his childhood, though. “I don’t want to say I loved watches from young,” he says. “I actually hated it.” He spent weekends at the Cortina Watch boutique at the now-defunct Colombo Court along North Bridge Road waiting for his parents while they worked there, and, save for a half-year stint in sales in 1989 at the Raffles City location before he enlisted for National Service, he held no formal role in the company. He studied accountancy and finance and became an auditor at KPMG, and had not considered joining the family business until his brother roped him in.
The early years took some getting used to for Mr. Lim, who had moved from the corporate culture of a major audit firm to working alongside family and relatives; even after Cortina Watch was listed on the Singapore Exchange in 2002, the company still sought ways to corporatize, he adds. Today, professionals hold some key positions in the company, and members of the next generation of the family are making their mark within.
“If you ask me if I regret the decision to join Cortina Watch, I’d say I’m glad I’m here, and I’m glad I’m able to help grow the family business in small ways,” he says.
“I can still apply what I’ve learned into the business, and I appreciate the years I had in audit because that really helped me understand the total running of a business, so I’m glad things happened the way they did.
“It’s been a good journey so far.”