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The Peak Interview: Kingston Chu

Kingston Chu may not be a veteran of the horological world, but his passion for timepieces and his love for his family are fuelling his desire to make the company he runs, Sincere Watch, one of the industry’s brightest stars.

On meeting Kingston Chu for the first time, one’s eye naturally wanders to his left wrist, in an attempt to make out what watch he’s wearing. Naturally, because this dashing 29-year-old heads one of the region’s top watch retailers, Sincere Watch.

But, before we can make out the brand, Chu grabs your attention with his impeccable turnout – a classic tailored grey suit – with old-school manners to match. He speaks in fluent English with a slight American accent – a product of an education in the US, as well as international schools in Hong Kong.

And, while English is the language of his head, he makes it clear that Cantonese is the vernacular of his heart. “There are some words that cannot be expressed in English,” says Chu, who was born in San Francisco but grew up in Hong Kong.

He is clearly from the moneyed class – leisure time involves shipping his father’s new Ferrari to racing tracks in Shanghai and Macau, where he and dad take turns zipping around in it – and, as the son of one of Hong Kong’s richest women, Pollyanna Chu, his family is near the top of its cohort.

Mrs Chu, who is ranked by Forbes magazine as Hong Kong’s 40th-richest billionaire with a net worth of US$1.4 billion (S$1.8 billion), is the controlling shareholder of Hong Kong-listed investment holding company Kingston Finance Group, of which she is the chief executive and executive director. She moved to San Francisco when she was 18, where she met her husband, Nicholas, and married him. The couple moved back to Hong Kong in 1992 and founded Kingston Finance.

Her only son was chosen to head Sincere, after the family acquired the 60-year-old business from a consortium that was made up of L-Capital Private Equity, Standard Chartered Private Equity, ABN Amro, BNP Paribas, ING Bank and Tay Liam Wee for $232 million almost two years ago.

It was the second time Tay had sold the company founded by his father for a huge profit. He first sold it to Hong Kong-based watchmaker and retailer Peace Mark in 2007 for $530 million. It was delisted but, three years ago, Tay led a consortium to buy Sincere back at only $112.7 million.

Over its six decades, the retailer has helped nurture many brands. Most notably, its partnership with Franck Muller has helped raise the profile of the name significantly in the region. The company runs single- and multi-brand boutiques in China, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, South Korea, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Australia and New Zealand.

Chu had no watch-industry experience prior to joining Sincere. And, apart from a stint working in his family’s financial-services business, not much working experience at all. The issue of his relative inexperience is the elephant in the room. With Sincere seemingly handed to him on a silver platter by his parents, can the horological industry be expected to take him seriously?

HIS PARENTS, HIS BOSSES
Indeed, the new owners suffered an inauspicious start, with key brands Rolex and Patek Philippe pulling out of Sincere soon after the acquisition. Chu doesn’t take umbrage at questions about whether he’s qualified to run the company. Rather, he ponders them seriously and replies gracefully. And his answers are a revelation.

Far from trying to distance himself from his parents, he is unabashed about the ties that bind them in personal and business matters. He says he converses daily with his parents regarding Sincere, and admits to enjoying the advantage of having such accomplished businessmen as his bosses.
“When someone has heard of my parents, it always helps,” he says.

Indeed, his devotion to his family appears to underpin many of his motivations – not least his desire to make their purchase of Sincere a success. For most of the interview, he refers respectfully to his mother and father as Mrs and Mr Chu, reflecting perhaps the fine balance he has to strike in treating them as both bosses and parents.

“Joining the family business has always been something I wanted to do. It is a matter of filial piety to help the family, so it was a natural progression for me,” he explains.

“There are many ways to help or serve the family and business is really one of the biggest things for me. And, because of my family’s work ethic, there is no such thing as independent family time, or independent business time.”

He describes his mother as the most hardworking person he knows. It’s not uncommon to receive e-mail from her in the wee hours. What’s more, he is expected to reply immediately.

“Mrs Chu never stops, there is no such thing as a five-day workweek with her. Every day is fair game. What I picked up from her is the spirit in which she works. It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in, you need a strong work ethic to succeed.”

Not that the younger Chu is any slouch in the hard-work department. His weekends are spent flying to newer markets in the region, like Cambodia and Vietnam. And, apart from his responsibilities at Sincere, he continues to work on deals for the corporate-finance arm.

He spends whatever free time he has fishing on his family’s yacht, as well as indulging his love for food.

“I like trying new food when I travel. And I try not to have more than one meal at a Cantonese restaurant each time, because that is one opportunity wasted in trying something new,” he says. The bachelor is in a six-year relationship with a high-school sweetheart, who is an interior designer from a musical family.

A TIMELY LOVE AFFAIR
After graduating with a business degree from the University of California and attending a Chinese-language programme at the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing, Chu spent a stint on Wall Street in 2008. Three years on, he made the move to Hong Kong to help in the expansion of the family business in Asia.

He started in the family’s corporate- finance business, providing investment- banking services to clients. But it was perhaps the Sincere deal that presented him with a platform to fully realise his desire to advance the family’s causes.

It was clear from the start that the Chus would be hands-on in running the company, or there would be no deal.

“We are not the kind of family that will let a manager run everything and we sit in the back seat… So we questioned whether we had the time and commitment to do it. And I decided I did want to do it. I love a business where I can deal with these beautiful creations that are masterworks of art and mechanical timepieces. In finance, you can’t really touch anything,” he says.

He inherited his passion for timepieces from his parents, who are long-time watch collectors. His mother’s first watch was an Ebel, and she has timepieces from every major jewellery brand in her collection. His father, meanwhile, is more interested in the inner workings of high-end mechanical watches. “My father is a mechanical guy. He used to dismantle clocks and try to put them together again, but he never succeeded,” he says with a chuckle.

Chu’s first watch was a Tag Heuer, a gift from his parents, followed by an Omega and a Patek, his first gold timepiece.

He started collecting in earnest, following his arrival at Sincere, and his aim is to acquire signature pieces from each of the major watch brands, or what he refers to as “the brightest stars” in the horological universe.

Coincidentally, Sincere’s new tagline is “We have the reached the Stars”, and it is Chu’s mission that, under his stewardship, the company extends its decades-long track record of success in the watch business. As vice-chairman and managing director, he is responsible for setting the overall direction for the company and is heavily involved in the group’s business expansion in Asia, particularly North Asia.

He is also director of a number of the company’s subsidiaries. Helping him is the company’s CEO and Sincere veteran Ong Ban, who focuses on South-east Asia.

On the issue of his relative youth, he replies: “Age is not an issue. It is more of a mindset. What is more important is how I do things and how Sincere does things. The people I deal with are not just putting their faith in me, but also in the management of Sincere.”

In the past year, the company has introduced new retail concepts – including a four-storey boutique in Hong Kong that will feature a fine-dining restaurant, which can host events for VIP customers.

He also plans to hold more celebrity- driven events in Singapore – tapping on the family’s network of showbusiness friends – something that commonly happens in Hong Kong.

In the longer term, he plans to establish a bigger online presence, particularly on social media, as a younger generation of watch collectors weaned on the Internet emerges.

The interview nears its end, and we finally ask him what’s on his wrist. His answer doesn’t disappoint. It’s a limited-edition Franck Muller Crazy Hours piece to celebrate the cult model’s 10th anniversary. In rose gold and sporting a brown strap, it is only one of 38 pieces created.

He likes the Crazy Hours – which displays numerals in complete disorder while still keeping perfect time, thanks to a jumping hour mechanism – because only the owner knows what time it is when looking at the dial, he explains.

It is a watch that leaves a distinct impression; a fitting accessory for a young man looking to leave his mark on a storied business and, perhaps more importantly for him, his family’s legacy.