Michael Tay’s first memory of Hublot goes back to 1980, when The Hour Glass was barely a year old. Growing up in the “boutique environment” of his parent’s budding business, he remembers a visit by Hublot’s founder Carlo Crocco. “He came over and presented his collection and I remember one of our sales associates then saying to me, ‘You know, this strap is unbreakable, right?’ And he challenged me to take it with my hands and see if I could stretch the straps to the point of breaking. Back then, rubber straps were a novelty,” he recalls.
While other luxury watch houses opted for leather straps or metal bracelets, Hublot went in a completely different direction. Ricardo Guadalupe explains, “It was the first time that the rubber strap was put on a luxury watch. Today, we think it is normal because every brand has a rubber strap, even the big, big brands. But at that time, it was revolutionary and I think his father, Dr Henry Tay, saw immediately something interesting about this brand and they took it right away. From day one, [The Hour Glass] was one of the first retailers to believe in Hublot”.
Neither men were part of the businesses at that early stage, but they both have extensive experience in the world of horology. Tay joined the family firm in 1999 as the business re-engineering manager and went on to become executive director in 2005 and finally group managing director in 2015.
“I think what underpins the two of us is we're watch industry lifers,” he says. “Ricardo’s first job was in the watch industry, my first job was in the watch industry. Our last jobs will continue to be in the watch industry. What I admire most about him is that he's a product guy, like myself, right? We love watches and we're product people. And it's this innate appreciation of watchmaking that I think creates this bond between us.”
Kicking off his career as a product manager at Bulgari, Guadalupe climbed the ladder, becoming international sales and marketing director of Blancpain in 1997 and then an independent watchmaking consultant for Léonard watches. In 2004, when Jean-Claude Biver took over the reins at Hublot, he asked Guadalupe to join him. Guadalupe was finally appointed CEO in January 2012.
The partners’ wealth of experience and knowledge in their field was gained from spending a large chunk of their lives with watches, appreciating the nuances as well as developing the business.
In 42 years, the relationship between The Hour Glass and Hublot has certainly evolved in an organic way. Both brands went from being unknowns to industry mammoths. “We have become extremely professional organisations and we continue to learn together and develop each other,” says Tay.
“I think it has been a kind of win-win situation because Hublot has become a stronger brand and an important name in the Swiss watch industry. At the same time, Hublot has also become an important brand in the portfolio of The Hour Glass. And for us, The Hour Glass has become one of the most important retail partners. Our brands have grown together,” adds Guadalupe.
The two men also attribute their flourishing relationship to similarities in the brands’ DNA and shared ambition. “I think The Hour Glass has a philosophy of excellence in retail, to give incredible service to the final customer and to choose brands that also have this quality of execution in the product and their communication. I think we definitely share those values,” explains Guadalupe. Tay adds that striving for excellence is one of The Hour Glass’ “core organisational and cultural tenets”.
Both brands push for innovation, constantly reinventing and challenging themselves to go beyond the status quo. For The Hour Glass, it is about exploring ways to enhance customers’ retail experience. For Hublot, it is about continually experimenting to create horological marvels. The two companies are always looking forward and eliciting passion for technically complex wrist candy.
Another core similarity is the conviction that people and developing a strong relationship are key for things to move smoothly. “Ultimately, people are what drive brands and without the right people, I don't think businesses can operate successfully. What has been the underpinnings of our successful relationship with Hublot is the fact that there's a deep reservoir of mutual trust and respect. I think four decades of layering on this trust, respect, and being able to deliver on our promises have led to this incredibly beautiful partnership that we've been fortunate to have forged with them,” says Tay.
Guadalupe has been constantly on the move lately. In Singapore, where he recently had the chance to catch up with Tay, he officiated the opening of a Hublot store in ION Orchard. In Malaysia, he attended the official opening of the boutique in Pavilion Kuala Lumpur and hosted a private dinner for VIP clients at The St Regis Kuala Lumpur.
Tay sees the freedom to travel again to interact with clients and partners in person as a very positive thing. “While everybody always speaks about digital, I think people forget about the fact that bricks and mortar and real-life experiences are still the baseline of human interaction and social intercourse. Having our partners here, meeting clients, seeing the incredible range and array of Hublot watches on our clients' wrists add that much more value,” he says.
This shared vision also translates into a mutual appreciation for their brand identities. While Guadalupe commends The Hour Glass' dedication and focus on timepieces as well as its ability to reinvent retail, Tay says he enjoys Hublot’s fun approach to watchmaking and its ability to connect with a wide array of tastes because of the diversity of its passions, from art to football.
It is clear that both leaders operate on the same wavelength, moving forward together. They even agree that the introduction of mono-brand boutiques has been a big achievement. “I would say the fact that we decided to really invest in standalone boutiques was, I think, the real highlight of this partnership. Now, we have two Hublot boutiques here in KL, two in Singapore, two in Thailand, and even three in Vietnam,” says Guadalupe. Malaysia was the first country in Southeast Asia to have a standalone Hublot boutique.
Guadalupe notes there are some notable hurdles that come with mono-brand boutiques, including its inherent risk factors as well as high investment. There is also the challenge for The Hour Glass to interpret the Hublot universe for the space and find a way to merge both worlds cohesively, as opposed to having just its own identity in a multi-brand store. Thankfully, both parties feel that it was worth taking a chance.
The latest Hublot retail concept, the first of its kind in Southeast Asia, is in Gurney Plaza, Penang. “We always like to design our boutique spaces to complement the context of the city itself. Penang being pretty much an island and a coastal enclave, we thought to ourselves, ‘Can we do something different with this Hublot shop?’ The only other concept that exists of a similar nature in the world is in Mykonos, Greece,” explains Tay.
Opening its doors in mid-November, the Penang boutique will have a beach-inspired colour palette, sporting shades such as sandy beige and ocean blue, with light woods. While there are no plans as yet to take this concept elsewhere, Hublot and The Hour Glass intend to continue creating signature settings like this — with location in mind.
Excitement is very much in the air as the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 approaches. It is a greatly anticipated football tournament with one of the highest viewerships, every four year. “I want goals, a spectacle, a show and joy, that's the most important part,” Guadalupe says with fervour. Hublot is the first fine watchmaking brand to enter the world of football, and will be the official timekeeper in Qatar, keeping time for all 64 matches including the final in the Lusail Stadium in Doha on Dec 18. Hublot is the official timekeeper for the FIFA World Cup for the fourth consecutive edition.
Tay expresses that while he may not “understand the sort of deeper strategic nuances of the game”, he can still see the importance of football and will also be attending the games this year. “You don't have to be a huge fan in order to appreciate what the World Cup represents, and this is where I think Hublot hit it right nearly a decade ago by deciding that they would begin the sponsorship of football. Up to that point in time, nobody ever thought this game was a candidate for luxury partnerships.”
The Hublot CEO is certainly looking forward to being where the action will be. “I went to Brazil, Russia and, now, this is my third World Cup. The thing with Qatar is that you can have the experience of watching two games in person per day, which was not possible in other countries. This is the first time the stadiums are quite close by,” he notes.
The watch maison has also announced the release of a new connected watch in line with the tournament: the Big Bang e FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022. As the highest-performing Big Bang e to date, this wrist candy will be worn by 129 official referees to time the games. The pieces available for purchase also include an exciting feature specially created with the 2022 games in mind.
“This is the third generation [of the Big Bang e] and we have worked to integrate the goal line technology into the watch for the referees. And I said, let's also do a commercial edition that is available for the fans with a dedicated application for the World Cup. The app can only be used for one month, but you can follow all the World Cup games through your connected watch. It's going to be 1,000 pieces, very limited for big fans of Hublot,” Guadalupe explains.
The Big Bang e FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 will be in countdown mode until Nov 20, when the opening match between Qatar and Ecuador kicks off. Also, 15 minutes before every match, users will be able to access team line-ups and player profiles from the watch. When each game begins, the watch will initiate “match mode” that launches “timeline”, which allows fans to see highlight moments in real time, from yellow cards and penalties to goals. At the end of the game, a “match period animation” plays with the final score, and fans can then replay events.
This connected watch comes with an all-day battery life, a two-hour charge to full from empty, Bluetooth 5.0, and a larger and improved high-definition screen. It is both Android and iOS compatible. The official version has a burgundy dial and black and burgundy lined rubber strap — inspired by Qatar’s flag. For added personalisation, fans may choose dial and strap options in the colours of each of the 32 participating countries.
Hublot has just kicked off a high-action pop-up at Pavilion Kuala Lumpur, which will remain until Nov 13. As one of the world’s first Hublot Loves Football pop-ups, this burst of colour and energy takes residence at the centre court of the mall, boasting tiered stadium seats and a panoramic LED screen. Highlights include colourful lockers, a scoreboard backdrop, as well as a display of ambassadors and friends of the brand who are part of the Hublot Loves Football campaign. There are also fun activities and exciting prizes to be won.
The future looks bright as the 42-year-old partnership between The Hour Glass and Hublot remains strong. “Everything we do is really about trying to elevate watch culture in the cities and countries we operate in. We would like to continue building communities of watch enthusiasts, taking them on a journey and developing them into very serious collectors. The beautiful thing about watches is that it's a hobby, a passion that will last a lifetime,” says Tay.
Guadalupe adds, “I would say we have become instrumental to The Hour Glass and The Hour Glass has become the same to us.”
This article first appeared on Nov 7, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.