Cover story: Patek Philippe CEO Thierry Stern, Cortina Watch COO Jeremy Lim and managing director for Malaysia Tay Liam Khoon

To celebrate Patek Philippe’s new boutique in Suria KLCC, Options gets together with the three men to find out more about the history of the partnership and the shared values that connect and inspire the two family-run companies.

From left: Tay Liam Khoon, Jeremy Lim and Thierry Stern (Photography by SooPhye)

Sitting down in the VIP room of Patek Philippe’s new boutique in Suria KLCC, I am struck by the combined breadth of knowledge and heritage that surrounds me. The Genevois watchmaker’s CEO, Thierry Stern, has flown to Kuala Lumpur especially for the launch of the new boutique, opened together with luxury retailer Cortina Watch. The Singapore-based company, which celebrates its 45th anniversary this year, is represented by its COO Jeremy Lim, the son of the founder, and managing director for Malaysia Tay Liam Khoon, who comes from the illustrious family that once owned another luxury retailer, Sincere Fine Watch.

Flutes of champagne arrive and we toast the occasion — to good health, wealth and the longevity of this partnership, which began when Cortina first started business in the early 1970s. Thierry and Jeremy were too young to recall the circumstances surrounding those initial meetings and what transpired before Henri Stern (Thierry’s grandfather) and Anthony Lim (Jeremy’s father) signed on the dotted line, but the stories are often fondly recalled.

“I started going to the shops as a child as I had no nanny, which is how most family businesses operated back then,” Jeremy quips. “My dad used to tell me how Mr Henri Stern would bring the watches in suitcases because there was no internet back then. Henri would show us the watches, and we would choose them then and there. It was very humble beginnings.”

Similarly, Thierry and Tay worked hard in their respective family businesses, not benefiting from any preferential treatment but from the exposure that their lineage provided them. When I first interviewed Tay in 2015, he talked about how he was put to work as hard as anyone else in the company, but did get an opportunity to work in his family’s business in Hong Kong.

Jeremy and Thierry first officially met in 2004, about four years after the younger of the two Cortina heirs — Jeremy manages Southeast Asia while older brother Raymond primarily takes care of Cortina’s China, Taiwan and Hong Kong markets — joined the company. “It was an invitation for my father from Mr Philippe (Stern) for the opening of the Patek museum in Geneva, and dad took me along,” Jeremy says proudly.

Spending time on the road was also something Thierry had started to do early on in his career. He arrived in Asia for the first time when he was 19. “Hong Kong was so different then — the sky was totally blue at the time,” he laughs. “It was interesting for me, because the mentality of the people was different, it was bigger and things moved really fast. I had to bring my own sense of stability — you see everything running so quickly and you have to remind yourself to go slow and be stable, be yourself. It was maybe too fast for me, at the beginning.”

Thierry’s father had already sown the seeds of Patek Philippe’s footprint in Asia — the region was at this point fast becoming known as a growing market of connoisseurs — so his travels were to reinforce the reputation of the brand and continue building the relationships that had already been established. “Asia was already known as a market for watches at the time. What was more important for us was to show the stability of the brand, and to showcase who we were. It’s nice to show a name like Patek Philippe, but behind that people wanted to know who was running the company. By travelling alone, and with my father, people could see the people in charge, or perhaps, the person who would be in charge in the future,” says Thierry.

Patek Philippe’s focus was to make the world’s most beautiful watches and then find the best possible partners to sell them — and that is what drove Henri and Philippe Stern to leave Geneva and seek out and establish meaningful, long-term relationships with associates, like Cortina, all over the world.

It’s nice to show a name like Patek Philippe, but behind that people wanted to know who was running the company

“We are watchmakers, and we should remain watchmakers,” Thierry says thoughtfully. “In our family, we believe in working with professional people who know the market. That has been key for me — to know our partners, to know their problems. And that is why I think we get along so well — we don’t play games. This is who we are and we are all working towards the same objective. And it is the same for our partners too.

“To invest in a store like this one, you need to be sure that the brand will remain — not change strategy or get sold — and this takes years, to get to know and trust each other. Relationships are 50% of our success, if not more, and that is the most important part of the business, and that is what I will teach my children too. Do not run after numbers, numbers will come if you have a good partnership and a good vision of where you want to go.”

The sliding doors of the VIP room in which we are ensconced noiselessly glide open and our champagne glasses are refreshed. I peek outside, and I can see a few customers flipping through some of the books in the library section, seated on comfortable leather couches. They don’t look like they are going anywhere anytime soon, and I can understand why.

In case you have not been, I have to say the new Suria KLCC boutique is gorgeous and is designed to make customers feel like they are in someone’s home — except that there is a bank of watches where a coffee table ought to be and bookshelves are filled with tomes relating to Patek Philippe and haute horlogerie. It is also important to note the boutique’s enviable location in one of Kuala Lumpur’s most visited — and the nation’s most iconic — shopping destinations.

The well-appointed VIP room

It is the third major boutique that Cortina and Patek Philippe have worked on together — after one in Singapore and a 4,000 sq ft behemoth in Taiwan’s Taipei 101. The decision was one of the most intensely discussed among Jeremy, Raymond and their father, as it was a huge undertaking that required a substantial investment from both Cortina and Patek Philippe. While it was a milestone moment for the relationship between the two parties because of the domino effect it had, it also marked the moment when the steadfastness of an older generation would come head-to-head with the ambitious young scions of the company, who were eager for growth and change.

“My dad was really questioning this decision,” Jeremy recalls. “My brother was in charge of that project and told me, ‘Jeremy you have to help me push for this’. I told him,‘Eh you have to convince me as well’. Finally, we came to a consensus and spoke to Patek Philippe itself. But that exercise emboldened us to do more — we were successful and other major projects followed. The store in ION Orchard in Singapore is 2,900 sq ft and, of course, we now have this wonderful boutique. If not for the brainstorming and pulling it through, the domino effect would not have been there for more projects with Patek Philippe.”

This calls for another round of cheers with our refreshed glasses, and Jeremy smiles. “My dad will always have the story of ‘I got Patek for you guys’. But we can say ‘Well, we got Patek in Taiwan’,” he laughs.

Despite their similarities and the many parallels between the businesses they are in, the three gentlemen have distinct personalities that, together, serve to enhance the value of the partnership. Thierry is the chattiest and always has a joke or two ready. Jeremy speaks in careful tones but has a mischievous glint in his eye while Tay, the shyest of the three, has a calm expression that belies the immense responsibility on his shoulders — the growth of the brand in Malaysia is much of his doing.

After a shop-in-shop at Cortina’s space in Starhill Gallery, this is Patek Philippe’s second venture in Kuala Lumpur with Cortina. The impetus behind the large and airy boutique — opened in what is regarded as a tough time for the retail industry — was the need to create a dedicated space for Patek Philippe’s growing ranks of new customers, regular clients and passionate connoisseurs.

“The minute I heard this space was available, I told Jeremy and he was very excited to go ahead with it — he was very confident about the market and that Patek Philippe would be keen to go for this. Malaysia is a very stable market because it consists of a very local customer base, which is always safer. We have very long-standing relationships with customers, even to the point of second-generation customers,” Tay says.

Although Patek Philippe cannot boast of stories such as Tiffany & Co’s in-store wedding proposals, staff do enjoy watching parents and children acquire timepieces together. “To be quite honest, Malaysian customers really appreciate the technicality of fine watchmaking — Patek Philippe, in particular. Our younger customers tend to prefer the sportier models, while the older generation tends to lean toward the classical timepieces. Ultra-high complications are also doing increasingly well,” Tay says.

“As recently as five years ago, a lot of Malaysians were buying their watches overseas. But now, as we have the facility to show them what Patek Phillippe can do with Cortina, the market has also grown. It’s not about selling as many watches as we can, but to ensure our customers come back — either bringing a son or daughter to buy a new watch, or perhaps a wife to acquire a ladies’ mechanical timepiece,” he adds.

Thierry, Jeremy and Tay have big dreams for Patek Philippe in the region, as the Genevois watchmaker has much to offer a growing generation of buyers who not only appreciate the purity of mechanical engineering but the provenance of the brand itself. On its part, Cortina is responsible for growing the market for several other watchmakers who partner it as well.

It’s not about selling as many watches as we can, but to ensure our customers come back — either bringing a son or daughter to buy a new watch, or perhaps a wife to acquire a ladies’ mechanical timepiece

Relationships are key in this collaboration — between Cortina and Patek Philippe, and, of course, with customers too. “We, of course, are looking at a long-term partnership,” Thierry says. “Our priority is the clients and we keep them in mind always as we go forward. But we will continue to face the challenges together — Patek Philippe does not make too many watches each year and demand is bigger than supply. But, to me, quality and quantity do not always go together, definitely not for us.”

“I actually have plans for Patek Philippe up to 2021, but I haven’t told him yet,” Jeremy laughs, and Thierry can only smile in reply.

There is a knock on the door, signalling that our time is up. As there is a query on one of the watches, Tay immediately leaves the room to tend to the client in question, giving us a peek at how and why he has been so successful in wooing new customers and continuing the relationships with existing ones.

Thierry watches this exchange intently, even though it is conducted in a language he does not understand. “The toughest job my father did was finding people he thought would be best for the brand and investing in that partnership. We have seen each other’s evolution, we remain committed to our shared values, and we are always driven by how the industry grew around us, including how sophisticated the customers have become. It’s been quite an amazing journey.”

Well said, sir. Here’s to many more successful years to come.


This cover story appeared in the Oct 23, 2017 issue of The Edge Malaysia.  Save by subscribing to us for your print and/or digital copy. ​

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