Joseph Wong Chong-chun leads his family business as chairman and chief executive of Stelux to become one of the three largest watch makers in Hong Kong

Man on a mission
Natalie Ngan
Monday, July 29, 2013

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The boss of one of the leading watch makers and retailers in town did not exactly start out as a timepiece fan. “I didn’t know how to appreciate watches when I was young,” says Joseph Wong Chong-chun, who leads his family business as chairman and chief executive of Stelux Holdings International (0084). “But my dad gave me one before I went to Britain for university. That’s when I developed a liking for watches.” Wong got a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering from the University of Bradford, and a master’s in operational research from the University of Southampton. His father Wong Chue-meng was the founder of Stelux, which started making watch components in 1963 and grew to become one of the three largest watch makers in Hong Kong.In its early days, watches were only made of bronze. But Wong’s father imported technology from Switzerland and acquired a Japanese company for the know-how in order to begin using steel to produce watches.

“That’s how our company was named – steel plus luxury becomes Stelux,” said Wong. “And the Chinese name means radiance from treasure.”

The 53-year-old began helping with the family business after obtaining his master’s degree.

And he continues to this day, although he still wants to return to Britain to finish his doctorate degree.

After listing on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange in 1972, Stelux started developing house brands such as CYMA and Solvil et Titus.

“Establishing a company’s own brands and having a good

sales network are very important for a business in terms of its business model,” says Wong. “It will increase a company’s bargaining power and will help it withstand poor economic situations.”

Amid the vibrant retail scene of the 1980s, Stelux established its retail arm City Chain in 1985 – offering watches of different brands under a single store.

Then in 1988, Stelux acquired Optical 88, an eyewear chain.

“My father started to work when he was 14, and he trained to be an optician,” Wong recalls.

“So it was very natural for us to acquire an optical business. We see both the watch and optical businesses as our primary profession.”

In 2005, Stelux took control of Thong Sia Group, the sole and exclusive distributor for Seiko watches and clocks in Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia.

“It was a wise decision,” says Wong. “Thong Sia was acquired for about HK$55 million back then, and now it is bringing lots of profit to the company.”

Stelux operates in various markets, including the mainland, Macau, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand.

But the external environment of some markets make them more of a challenge than others, the Stelux chief says.

“Currently, Hong Kong is our base of operations. It is the most important market to us now, since around 60 to 70 percent of our profits come from here.”

But the future lies in the mainland, Wong says.

“Although some people think China’s economy is a bit gloomy, we think it is just a small trough in a big crest. It’s impossible to have a straight- line increase.”

The firm is already familiar to buyers in first-tier cities like Beijing and Shanghai.

The next step is to expand its business to second-tier cities such as Tianjin, Chengdu, Chongqing and Wuxi. “We are one of the market leaders in Southeast Asia, with around HK$500 million in revenue and growing.”

Plans are to extend the brand further and be the sole agent for a few famed Swiss and French labels.

“Both the watch and optical industries are traditional industries, but they have great long-term prospects,” Wong notes.

Beijing is pushing domestic consumption to support the economy and promoting national urbanization. This will help the brand, which prides itself on its “affordable luxury.”

Also, improving economies in the region, such as in Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam, are creating a growing middle class – which means a growing need for affordable luxury and more business opportunities.

The opticals market is rather segmented, with no market leaders, Wong points out.

“The standard of living is increasing in the mainland, and people are placing greater emphasis on health than before,” said Wong.

“The use of smartphones and other devices have also led to an increase in the number of people who need optical services to protect their vision.”

Wong thus has great confidence in the development of both industries.

Wong likes to interact with colleagues – to discuss and exchange ideas.

And he is even happier to see their brainstorming ideas become reality.

For instance, one spring Wong got to wondering about the secret to success of Japanese clothing chain Uniqlo, which sells non-branded but quality products.

He asked colleagues whether the same concept could be used for their optical business.

And so, in July 2011, the first eGG Optical Boutique was opened, with six outlets now spread across the SAR.

The chain is based on a simple operation model, offering single-brand lenses and frames made by the firm.

The staff are all very happy that the shop was well received – though it seemed like mission impossible at the start.

Celebrities who endorsed the Solvil et Titus brand include the late singer- actress Anita Mui Yim-fong, and actors Andy Lau Tak-wah and Chow Yun-fat, Wong says.

“The problem with doing well is you don’t know how to continue being successful,” Wong says.

He says the “Time is Love” advertisement campaign launched in 2010 had a positive effect on business.

“It also got into the final five for the TVB Most Popular TV Commercial Awards.”

In the end, they did not win the award, leaving the staff rather downcast as their hopes were dashed.

“[But] this year, we won the award with our “100 Years of Love” advertisement, even without high hopes as before,” a proud Wong says.

“We have a professional team, and we never spare any effort. But we have learned not to think about awards,” he adds.

So what drives Wong to excellence?

“When I think of the more than 2.5 million customers who have bought our products, the more than 3,000 staff who work here, and the 1,000 shareholders, I know I must do well,” Wong says.

“It’s a mission.”

But Wong is not only about professional excellence. He is a devoted family man who treasures time spent with loved ones.

“I always accompany my son to tennis class and I make sure I spend time with my daughter, too.

“When you have the heart to do something, although you may not spend a lot of time in it, it is the quality that matters.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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