Through Thick and Thin: Ong Ban, Sincere Fine Watches
Sincere Fine Watches CEO Ong Ban tells us how to spot the horological stars of the future. He spoke with us on the occasion of the (re)launch of the SHH store in Marina Bay Sands
Time tells many tales, as the saga of Sincere Fine Watches demonstrates. This magazine has been tracking some of these stories, intermittently, over the last 20 years but we have noted one constant: current CEO Ong Ban. He has been in this trade for longer than this magazine has existed – longer than Heart Media as a company, in fact. The fact that Ong has been involved in the watch retail business for so long is not remarkable, in itself. What sets him apart from most of his peers is that he has been with Sincere Fine Watches the entire time, from its heyday as a family-operated business, through all its subsequent ups and downs, and now as part of Cortina Holdings. He rose up through the sales and operational fronts to eventually become CEO in 2008. One constant in Ong Ban’s journey is his passion and enthusiasm for watchmaking, and cultivating an interest in fine watches. One need only begin to wax lyrical on timepieces to get his eyes to light up, if only for the chance to talk about some detail about the watches at the new SHH boutique at Marina Bay Sands. Ong calls this boutique the “forever home,” for SHH and it represents for him the core competencies that have always distinguished Sincere Fine Watches.
From the Greubel Forsey Architecture to the Lang & Hyne Georg, these are timepieces that require more than glossy magazine advertisements and display cases; these days, such rare timepieces are likely to be spoken for before they arrive in Singapore. The retail operation needs a person with a certain measure of sang-froid to deal with competing collectors, as well as a measure of gravitas to perhaps get these collectors to agree to display watches that they have bought in their stores. Think of it in the same way as some high-end car dealerships, where some buyers are happy to park their cars at the showrooms.
It does help that the SHH store has the right kind of space to show timepieces like this, with Ong noting he was happy to host collectors who wanted to organize watch-appreciation meets at the store’s private space. Needless to say, the introduction of the boutique allows Sincere to talk up its independent brands, and Ong’s own role in developing this important watch collecting niche. There has been a steady stream of brand CEOs coming to town on the back of Sincere’s commitment to developing the market for these brands. Now with the support of Cortina Holdings, this is likely to be a strong growth opportunity, given that Cortina Watch is a partner rather than a competitor.
We sat down with Ong for a brief chat about independent watchmaking, the SHH boutique, the intriguing story of Sincere Fine Watches, and his own role in the continuing saga.
Congratulations on the new boutique! Sincere Fine Watches has been through a lot of changes, just in the time we have known you. Even SHH is now in a very different form to what it used to be. Take us through it all.
OK, so I think first I’ll just take you back a little bit about Sincere Fine Watches, and then SHH. So Sincere and Sincere Haute Horlogerie, past to present….
From 2005 or all the way from the beginning in 1957?
I’ll take you (as far back) as 1992 (laughs). (But first the present) — When Sincere Fine Watches was acquired by Cortina Holdings in 2021 (the deal was completed in March, 2021), I think one of the things that Raymond Lim, the chief executive of Cortina Holdings, wanted to look into was the strengths and core competencies of Sincere Fine Watches.
We (the Sincere Fine Watches team) have always been strong with high-end mechanical watches. We have been strong with brand management. And we have a culture and a passion within the company on the whole topic of (horological) education. To put it in very colloquial terms, Sincere Fine Watches was very good at bringing brands with great potential into the market — we can spot winners from far off. So, for example, we took a chance on (then unknown) watchmaker Franck Muller and brought the brand to Singapore — this was from a time when the watches were still being made in (Muller’s) kitchen. Sincere helped make the brand what it is today. In 1995, we brought in A. Lange & Söhne, when it was still under the late Gunther Blumlein at LMH (prior to the brand’s acquisition by what would become the Richemont Group). Then, in 1998, we (ushered in) the big watches trend when we brought Panerai to Singapore. In 2000, we brought the (then-emerging phenomenon of) independent watchmaking to Singapore with F.P. Journe.
So, what we want to deliver on (with the SHH boutique) is a continuous presentation of what we think are the next stars of fine watchmaking. I think this space is key for customers to come and (discover) Moritz Grossmann, Lang & Heyne, Czapek, Louis Moinet, Gronefeld… Most of these brands are relatively new in our market, and we hope to use the new space to get people excited about them. This is really our biggest motivation in conceiving and opening (the SHH boutique in MBS).
You have been a constant presence through all the changes at Sincere, including those early days when people may not have been convinced about the potential of Panerai and A. Lange & Söhne. So how have you managed to be a constant force, and been able to spot so many winners?
So, watches have been around for decades (in Singapore) and for centuries (more broadly speaking). I’m sure watches will be around for decades and centuries to come. My philosophy is that time is actually timeless.
I told my first employer (in the watch trade, which was Ebel), even if you don’t pay me, I will still enjoy the work! So for me to be able to continue in this industry and to have enough energy (to sustain myself), the passion must be very strong.
And I think this is one of the key reasons why Sincere could ride through so many storms; it’s because there’s so much passion within the company and a genuine affection for mechanical watches (amongst the team).
This affection, this passion it’s very contagious… and with collectors and connoisseurs that we have served over the years (that I’ve been here), they have never seen the change of ownership as a hindrance to the acquisition of timepieces. It didn’t matter to them whether Sincere was owned by a consortium, whether Sincere was in the hands of liquidators, or in the hands of investors… none of it mattered to the collectors.
I think what mattered was that we continued to engage them in the (furtherance) of their hobby. They were getting excited all the time by awesome watches. And I don’t see this changing, with me in this role and beyond me… there will be another team that will continue the work. So long as you have a high content of emotion that is vested in the business, the running of the business will always be smooth.
On identifying the future stars — the Philippe Dufours, Kari Voutilainens and Roger Smiths of the future — it is all about timing; when we go in for (any given brand). Is it during conception (when the watches are being planned)? During the introduction (when the watches are shown to potential retail partners)? Or when the brand has done enough work in the market to stabilise itself. These are soft skills that one picks up over the years.
What’s your take on watches as investment pieces then? Does this unprecedented situation threaten the passion for collecting watches?
We have never said, to any client ever, that the watches we sell are for investment. This could be because of the choice of brands we carry, or in our choice of merchandising. On the matter of a shortage of watches (available for sale immediately, or relatively soon), and higher demand for watches, I think this is real, and there are a few reasons. I think in the last two years, amidst the pandemic, you have had new wealth creation, which has been pretty aggressive.
The pandemic also caused a lot of disruption to watchmaking (everywhere), and this disruption does impact the supply chain. So now, maybe it takes more than a year to get certain parts, like a crown, where it might have only taken weeks before. I think with the industry’s workforce back in place (now), hopefully things will improve.
Has the pandemic demonstrated that people are perfectly willing to buy online and without any relationship with a specific retailer?
I think that when you acquire a watch in this space, there are two main factors. One is your relationship with the watch (in reality rather than as a picture on a website), and the other is your relationship with your sales advisor. I think these two elements are not easily replaceable.
When (considering these) two elements, you try to create a space like the SHH boutique, which is comfortable…. where we can decelerate the pace a little bit, relative to when you go to a typical store. At those watch stores, people typically come in and sit at a counter, and do not look around. They buy what they want, make payment and leave. Here at the SHH boutique, we have deliberately slowed down the pace of service. It is why we also have a private area (that takes up roughly half of the 100 sqm space). Buying watches these days (with the advent of online shopping) has become individualistic (with people buying in solitude, impersonally). I want to bring back the community aspect to the watch collecting hobby.
Was this the idea from the start with the SHH store?
So the brief to the designer was to build a shop that doesn’t look like a watch shop. I think that was key (to our intentions with the SHH store). The interior design must ensure that, first and foremost, there’s a high level of comfort, OK, and where the products are the stars.
So if you see the display outside, it is pretty much generic… whether it is a H. Moser & Cie watch or a Lang & Heyne watch, everything shares the same format. But the fact that each and every watch here has been chosen carefully, this means the process of curation has already been done; every watch here already meets certain criteria.
It starts at the brand level first of course… the brands we include here all entailed a high degree of investment on our part, and (stringent) due diligence. For example, take Greubel Forsey…if you buy a Greubel Forsey from us, and 50 years later you need to change the crystal, we cannot say ‘Sorry, we don’t carry this brand anymore.’ So this means the long-term sustainability of the partnership is also part of the criteria for what is included here at SHH. We will also have to take the time to explain the brands and the watches, because, as I explained, most of the brands we carry here are probably not that familiar (compared with staples such as Rolex and Patek Philippe).
And for something like a Greubel Forsey watch, I think it is absolutely critical that collectors (or potential customers) get a real feel for it. Honestly speaking, being able to experience the watches we carry (in the metal) is tough, because production is small; every piece (from a limited production series) that comes to us is probably already spoken for. We try our best to have pieces in the store, so again, the Greubel Forsey Architecture for example… anyone who wants one now, cannot get one. But we have a piece in the store for Greubel Forsey fans to come and experience, because I think this is important.
FInally, for our longtime readers, who will remember the SHH as Sincere Haute Horlogerie, tell us about the name change, and the new logo.
To put it simply, we decided to go with SHH because Sincere Haute Horlogerie is a bit of a mouthful! And the logo, well it was Kate Lim’s idea (Kate Lim is Raymond Lim’s daughter and Sincere Watch Limited’s General Manager) to have an element of the watch itself be part of the design. So it is the view of a mechanical watch from the caseback!
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