Hubert Burda Media

The Queen & Kingston

It's been exactly two years since the Chus took over the reins at Sincere Watch Limited. In an Asia exclusive, mother-and-son financiers POLLYANNA and KINGSTON CHU open up their hearts on family, sacrifice and empire-building. By Candice Chan

The Queen & Kingston

It's been exactly two years since the Chus took over the reins at Sincere Watch Limited. In an Asia exclusive, mother-and-son financiers POLLYANNA and KINGSTON CHU open up their hearts on family, sacrifice and empire-building. By Candice Chan
if watch retailer Sincere Watch Limited is likened to a ship, then its captain would be Forbes-listed Pollyanna Chu (ranked 40 on Hong Kong's richest list). Pollyanna is the CEO and majority shareholder of Hong Kong-based and publicly listed Kingston Financial Group Limited, which officially acquired Sincere and all Franck Muller operations in Asia (excluding Japan) for $232 million on May 12, 2012. Acting as a conduit between the captain and the crew would be her first officer, protégé and only son, Kingston Chu, managing director and vice-chairman of Sincere Watch Limited.
This interview opportunity with both mother and son was three months in the making — involving countless email chains, break-of-dawn text messages and last-minute conference calls. In addition to having to synchronise their travel schedules, there was also the issue of the world's biggest watch fairs (Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie 2014 and Baselworld 2014) that had everyone in the watch industry, including the pair, working on overdrive.
So on this March morning when we finally meet, there is a palpable sense of anticipation in the air when Pollyanna arrives at The St Regis suite, accompanied by an entourage including Ong Ban, Sincere Fine Watches' CEO.
Kingston walks in a few minutes later — polite and friendly, a welcoming spark of positive energy. He is quickly bundled into the dressing room, trailed by a flurry of assistants bearing clothes and grooming products. Thirty minutes later, a bemused Kingston emerges, primed and ready for his solo picture. “That was the first time I had my eyelashes curled. It was a little weird,” he muses.
Such refreshing candour and humour are just some of the traits that have endeared him to his team. Perseverance, conscientiousness and humility have also helped him lead and grow Sincere, which includes operations in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong, China and Taiwan. “Kingston is always very enthusiastic about listening to new ideas that advance the interests of the company,” says Ong, of the heir apparent.
Even then, at age 29, it is easy to dismiss him as some rich dilettante of a billion-dollar enterprise. But Kingston is no victim of self-doubt. “Age has never been an issue for me because I approach many business meetings with a background of a team and the Sincere brand behind me. Who people talk to is not just Kingston Chu. They are talking to the Chus as a family and they are talking to Sincere with all the expertise and knowledge that comes with it,” he says.
While his mother currently chairs Sincere's board, she entrusts all management decisions to Kingston. Pollyanna herself remains the one overseeing the Kingston Financial Group Limited (KFGL) family businesses in finance, gaming and hospitality. The holding company KFGL comprises Kingston Securities, Kingston Futures, Kingston Corporate Finance, Kingston Asset Management, Casa Real Hotel and Grandview Hotel. Located in Macau, the two hotels were previously known as the Golden Resorts Group, an entity wholly owned by KFGL.
As for Kingston, he practically lives and breathes watches. “The original plan was to go 60:40 — to devote 60 percent of my time to the watch enterprise and the other 40 percent to the other aspects of our business. Within the first two months, the balance tilted towards watches even more and I think today, I spend about 90 percent of my time with Sincere. It's a combination of need and a natural gravitation towards what I like. I enjoy being able to explain the allure of fine watches, whether it is through the eyes of our customers or through our own sales team,” he says.
Although acquiring Sincere was a joint family decision, Kingston reveals that he was personally excited when he first knew of its possibility. “As a family, we have always enjoyed the pursuit of something better. To me, that is what luxury is about. My mother already has every jewel brand in the spectrum and I think her universe is quite full of stars. As for my dad, he is a mechanical junkie who loves collecting cars and is always very clear on how a watch works,” he says of the family's decision to acquire Sincere.
A jewellery and watch collector herself, Pollyanna explains: “Acquiring Sincere was something I always wanted. It's an interesting business that I love being a part of. The fact that Kingston is also very fond of watches and is passionate about this business makes me very happy.” Prior to the acquisition, the 56-year-old already had in her collection about four gem-set Franck Muller watches, among many other (mostly diamond-set) watches she has amassed over the last 15 years.
Suffice to say, it was Kingston who wore the biggest grin when the Chus learnt of their successful takeover bid. “This was something I was very enthusiastic about and something that I wanted to be involved in. We are not looking at this acquisition as a ‘buy low, sell high' opportunity. It really is not that type of business anyway because it isn't easily transferable,” he shares.
“This may be oversimplifying things but the overall experience in the past two years has been fun. There were no experiences that left me bitter and scorned. For me, it has been both enlightening and enjoyable,” Kingston adds. “The only negative aspect would be that being in this industry makes it more difficult to accept anything less than the best. I think the longer we work in the industry, the harder we are to impress. Also as a consumer, it takes away the experience a little bit”.
For Pollyanna, what she enjoys most from the venture is the opportunity to expand her social network. “I agree it's a fun business. When we have social gatherings there is so much to talk about and I enjoy talking to people. For me, the challenging part of this business is predicting how the market moves. This means that we need to be more conscious about budgeting and planning,” she says.
Having worked in the finance sector for several years — three of which were in New York during the sub-prime mortage crisis as a fresh graduate — Kingston was prepared, as with all new business acquisitions, for teething problems that were bound to happen.
However, his first major challenge and, indeed, Sincere's first stumbling block since the Chus came onboard, still came as a shock: Key brands Rolex and Patek Philippe decided to end their working relationship with the retailer. This could perhaps be a case of transfer fatigue: The founding family, the Tays, sold Sincere to Peace Mark in 2008, which in turn sold the entity to L Capital Asia and Standard Chartered Bank in 2009.
“It was very unfortunate as the brands meant a lot to Sincere,” Kingston says cautiously. “But when they left, brands like Audemars Piguet, Omega and Breguet, which we were not focused on before, suddenly became very big growth opportunities for us,” he continues. This was evident in February 2013, when Sincere hosted Singapore's first Breguet Tourbillon Exhibition at its flagship boutique in Ngee Ann City.
Sincere is also the exclusive retailer in Asia (excluding Japan) for Franck Muller, the exclusive retailer in the region for A. Lange & Söhne, Cvstos, Christophe Claret and Backes & Strauss. Currently, it is in the midst of working out a partnership with English watchmaker Graham.
Although it has only been two years since the Chus have manned the deck, there are already rumours that the company may be put up for sale again. “I can personally assure you that it is not going to happen,” says Kingston. Clearly, this is not the first — nor will it be the last time — he is posed this question.
To prove his point, he launches into an animated discussion about his latest project: The world's first Franck Muller concept store that just opened its doors at Causeway Bay in Hong Kong in late March. “I guess you can call this my baby. This is what we've been working towards since Day One,” he says. Not only is the four-storey project the first Franck Muller Maison in the world, it is also the first to incorporate fine dining into its retail space — a concept Kingston hopes to introduce to Southeast Asia in the next few years.
“I think consumers who appreciate fine watches also tend to appreciate dining and they are great gateways to each other. An appreciation for detail and effort is common to both the culinary and horological arts, and the restaurant [at the Franck Muller Maison] is a good way for us to engage with customers on a second platform,” he says.
Apart from the fine dining establishment that specialises in Chinese-Western fusion food, the boutique also boasts a semi-formal restaurant that serves Japanese-Italian cuisine. As both restaurants are slated to open only at the end of May, he declines to reveal too many details, sharing only that both outlets will be helmed by a female, American-born Chinese chef who counts several celebrities as private clients.
The new Franck Muller Maison is the brand's fourth boutique in Hong Kong. (There are another 43 points-of-sales in the territory managed by local distributors and partners.) In China, Sincere also runs six of the brand's boutiques (and through partners, another 14 points of sales) and there are plans to open more in cities such as Szechuan and Chengdu.
“China is a big country and every city is different. We understand the landscape quite well through our financial services and want to make sure we do things correctly and step-by-step. At the moment, increasing the Franck Muller boutiques in China is very much the direction we are headed towards, but maybe in three years and with the right opportunities, I'd like to bring the Sincere brand into China.”
He goes on: “Geographically, China is becoming more important. Whether in Hong Kong or in our six outlets in Singapore, we see a greater number of Chinese customers coming in,” he adds. Closer to home, Kingston has his eyes set on Vietnam as the next market for Sincere to expand into and while he has no plans to increase point-of-sales in the rest of Southeast Asia, his goal is to improve quality and standards instead.
An hour into the interview, the young scion's business confidence began to reveal itself more palpably. “I would like to think of myself as a visionary. In everything that I do, either my vision will determine what I do or I will fit it into my vision”.
On the professional front, he believes in adopting a straight forward and hard working work ethic. “There is no such thing as short cuts,” he says. He credits this approach to his mother, who he refers to at work as Mrs Chu: “She works harder than anybody at any level that I know and I am influenced by her working pace and relentless working attitude”.
Some 21 years ago, Pollyanna and her husband Nicholas Chu left a thriving real estate business in San Francisco and returned to Hong Kong. Their real estate firm was called NPC Realty, formed from the initials of their names. “It's just like when I moved back to Hong Kong, I didn't know what to call my company so I named it Kingston, after my son,” shares Pollyanna with a laugh. (“That's because they couldn't name the company after my sister Tiffany! Obviously,” Kingston interjects.)
From a small retail front in Aberdeen, Hong Kong, the couple moved their outfit to Central (the financial hub of Hong Kong) in just two years. The financial trading industry was flourishing at that time and thanks to her businessman father and his connections, they developed a solid base of clients that contributed to the growth of the firm. When the financial crisis arrived in 1997, Pollyanna turned her attention to corporate finance and investment banking, focusing on IPOs and investment advisories for Chinese firms that were already coming to Hong Kong to be listed. In 2000, the company actively expanded and moved to the International Finance Centre, at the very heart of Hong Kong's thriving financial industry. Today, her net worth is estimated by Forbes at US$1.4 billion.
Success came not without sacrifice. “As a woman, it may not be very fair because we need to dedicate ourselves both at work and at home. Managing and excelling at both is not easy at all. I think in the past 10 to 20 years, I gave 90 percent of myself to work and at most, about 60 percent of myself to my family,” Pollyanna admits. She goes on to recount a time when she would see Kingston — then in his teens — once or twice a week because of her demanding schedule. “Sometimes I needed to make appointments with my parents so that we could have dinner together,” Kingston recalls.
“That's why my greatest personal achievement is my son,” says Pollyana. “I am indeed very lucky. It's my blessing to have Kingston. I never had to worry much about him.” Her favourite memory of her son was a conversation they shared when he was a fresh graduate: “I asked him what his plans were and if he wanted to return to Hong Kong. His reply was not to worry and that he would take care of himself.” And that he did, working in a proprietary trading firm in New York for three years without financial assistance from his parents. “He didn't make much as a fresh grad but he made do with what he earned. I think he learnt and experienced a lot in those three years,” says Pollyanna.
On the other hand, Kingston's favourite memory of his mother was a recent trip to W Retreat & Spa Maldives where the family was able to truly relax and indulge in leisure activities. “I don't know if she will admit to it, but my mother is a very enthusiastic snorkeller,” he shares. Sea sports lovers, the family occasionally sails together on the weekends as well. Both mother and son also enjoy outdoor activities such as hiking, with Kingston also taking a personal interest in basketball while Pollyanna prefers cycling.
As we end the photo shoot, Kingston admires the new Audemars Piguet 42mm Royal Oak Offshore Chronograph (that we've styled him with) and reveals that he has adopted a systematic approach towards watch-collecting. “I realised that there is a structure to the universe of collecting and for me, I'm limiting myself to one icon per brand”. So far, he has collected six. “I have quite a way to go but it's about enjoying the process and not about completing my museum.”
Such restraint and control even for an activity as passionate as watch-collecting.