As the region transitions from the Covid-19 pandemic to an endemic phase, business owners will no doubt look back at the last two years and consider it the hardest they have ever seen. Not for Cortina Watch CEO Jeremy Lim, who admits that 2020 was a record year for the company and describes the 12-month period as phenomenal.
But it was not without its challenges. He remembers: “Every day during the pandemic I was asking myself, ‘What can we do?; We need to push, we need to continue; we need to digitise; we need to talk to our customers.’ At that point in time, we had to cut advertisements, especially the ones in in-flight magazines, unfortunately. Flights have stopped, nobody’s travelling, and everything ground to a halt. I guess the first two months of the “circuit breaker” were uncertain.”
As it turns out, things worked out for the family-owned business that is celebrating its 50th year in the watch retail space. At the height of the pandemic last year, Cortina acquired Sincere Watch for SGD$84.7 million. Lim admits that he would be lying if he said that Cortina Watch did not do well last year.
He says: “We had a good year. It is not only us but with most of the luxury goods … whether it’s fashion, luxury jewellery or watches. We were all in a very good position, and we changed our business engagement from offline to online.”
Lim also attributes the success to the fact that many consumers let off pent-up steam by shopping since travel was still not allowed. So everyone splurged on watches, jewellery and fashion. No one knows how much money was actually being spent overseas pre-pandemic.
He continues: “This is what we see as a phenomenon across the region: in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Hong Kong, and Taiwan as well. If you asked me about opening up and are we going back to normal and we are wanting to engage overseas customers? The answer is yes.”
Expanding the base
For the last two years, Cortina has been engaging customers who are used to buying overseas. But today, these customers are still buying from Cortina Watch. Lim says he wants to retain this group while expanding the base of the foreigners that are coming in.
But it is not about “opening our arms and saying to all tourists come and buy. I think the priority is to maintain the customers that we have built over the past two years, whether new customers or our loyal clients, that’s been buying from us. I think the local base is very important. Opening up shows that the world is moving towards a more endemic point of view, we will be expecting a lot of tourists as events like the Singapore Grand Prix is back this year.”
Lim was speaking to Options ahead of a very busy year as Cortina Watch celebrates its 50th anniversary with a series of events planned for the year that will culminate in a gala dinner in November. Cortina watch was founded in 1972 by Jeremy’s father Anthony Lim, who arrived from Hainan, China in search of a better life in Singapore.
The latter started work at a very young age because his dad passed away in the 1940s. It was during the Japanese Occupation of Singapore, so Anthony had to drop out of school to earn a living. After a stint at various jobs, the young lad joined a local watch company that was located on North Bridge Road as a sales assistant.
He worked in the watch shop for 14 years and then made the bold move of starting his own watch retail company. In an earlier interview with Options, Anthony says: “In 1956, I joined a watch company and discovered that I appreciated watches. In 1972, I decided to start my own business.” Anthony occupied a small shop space in a department store called Cortina in Colombo Court on High Street.
The building has since been torn down and in its place is the new Supreme Court. Anthony was able to use the name “Cortina” as he knew the owners of the department store and had their permission to use it.
Lim was casually dressed in jeans and a tee-shirt as he had just moved back to their office after a major renovation and we sat at the sparkling new island in the pantry for a chat. He has been in the family business after a stint as an audit senior with KPMG Singapore rattles off facts and figures without any reference notes. That clearly shows how entrenched he is in the family business that knowledge comes as second nature to him.
Growing up in the family business we are sure you have seen some changes along the way. What are some or one that you remember clearly, can you share that with us?
If my father didn’t take that step to start Cortina, we would have no milestone. The only milestone that is really important in the past 50 years is actually the day that my dad made a bold move to start the company. Anything else is nothing without him. If you asked me, what’s the milestone, I think the important one is that he took that step.
You have taken over Sincere, what are some of the immediate changes you have done and what about long-term plans?
The important thing is that we have no intention to rename Sincere as Cortina. We feel that Sincere has its own group of a very unique set of customer data. With this acquisition it is not for us to rename or take over the locations of what Sincere has.
It’s more to provide the necessary resources for Sincere to maintain the business and for us to carry on what we have done. In terms of Franck Muller it probably would be for Cortina a brand that has distribution in over 13 countries. This gives us a different kind of perspective in that today Cortina is only in six different countries.
Of course, if we talk about Southeast Asia, beyond the top five economies may not be as important. But if you look at the fact that the distribution also includes Australia and South Korea, this gives us a bit of a play in terms of whether we can or we want to actually enter into these markets. Okay. And recently everyone is talking about Vietnam.
We have no presence in Vietnam, so this is something we can explore … we’ll see. But without a brand that we have a distribution right, it’s always a bit more difficult, because then we’ll be actually competing with the local players, where they have a good base of customers that they can work on and convince their friends to go with them.
We are hoping that maybe Franck Muller can give us this opportunity to let us have a footprint in markets we are not present. I think for Franck Muller, that would probably be the plan. At the same time, it can help us create our footprint in other territories that we are not in. That’s the whole idea in terms of the acquisition and plan for Sincere and Franck Muller.
Are you looking at other independent brands?
I would say yes. But, then again, if you look at the business of Cortina, and the total portfolio of brands, there are a lot more internationally known brands. Other than H. Moser & Cie and Hautlence that we have, these are the only actual two independent brands that we work with. But if you look at the portfolio of independent brands Sincere has, it includes Ferdinand Berthoud, Armin Strom, Moritz Grossmann and Greubel Forsey.
I will admit that Sincere is way ahead when it comes to working with independent brands. In hindsight, if you look at the total international brand portfolio, versus what we have, then yes, there are some overlaps.
But on Cortina’s side, we also have very strong brands like Rolex, Patek Philippe, Chopard and Cartier. If you really go into the brand portfolio, and dissect it, you will see that the two companies actually work in very different ways, and the customer engagements are different.
We need to do a lot of engagement with customers, for independent brands, we have to sit down personally with them to show them the watch, to explain to them. To service customers, let them have a better understanding, even letting them try on the watches because you can find everything on the internet.
Cortina has a special relationship with the Stern family; tell us more about that journey with Patek Philippe.
We can all pretend to say that because we’re a family business we are naturally close. I don’t think that’s the case. The actual fact is that even before my dad started Cortina, he’s already met Henri Stern. And when he finally decided to take that bold step of starting his own company, Henri’s son Philippe Stern was already involved in the business. In 1997, somehow, my father managed to convince Patek Philippe to do 100 pieces for our 25th anniversary.
As the years go by Philippe’s son Thierry came on board and is now the president, me and my brother (Raymond) are now in the business. This year, we are celebrating our 50th anniversary. They are very much willing to celebrate with us again and with that a series of limited editions for our 50th anniversary.
This is about the family business, and the close ties we share. We are close in certain ways, we have an intergenerational kind of engagement because, for me, even though I’ve just joined the industry 20 years ago, I met Philippe Stern himself in a professional way, as in working in Cortina, not just the son of Anthony.
It’s not just about knowing each other and working together as well. I can’t say this only just for Patek Philippe. If you’re talking about another family-owned brand, it is Chopard. We work closely with Karl-Friedrich Scheufele, the co-president of Chopard.
What are some of the 50th anniversary plans for this year?
We’ve already started with Chopard. We actually created a special watch with Chopard called Happy Hearts with Cortina. We work with a charity because we believe that we should give back to society. We created 50 watches with Chopard with net proceeds going to the Singapore Heart Foundation.
It is a great milestone for us to celebrate our 50th but we don’t want to go crazy. This year we are only working with eight different brands: After Chopard will be Patek Philippe, Franck Muller, TAG Heuer, H. Moser & Cie, Corum, Cartier and Blancpain. If you look at the portfolio of the eight brands, we are working with the LVMH group, the Swatch Group, Richemont and the independent brands. The focus will be on a different brand in different months.
For more info on Cortina's 50th anniversary, see here.
This article first appeared on May 23, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.