Jewel of the flourishing family trade

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 July, 2012, 12:00am


Working for a demanding boss is tough at the best of times. But imagine if that boss is also your dad.

That was what Cindy Yeung faced more than 20 years ago when she joined Emperor Watch and Jewellery, a family business then run by her father Albert Yeung Sau-shing as chairman.

'The first year [in the company] was a honeymoon period as my father was happy to have me back to help him. However, the following decade was indeed a tough time for me,' said Yeung, who worked in an American jewellery trading company before joining Emperor in 1990.

'My dad is a very strict person,' she said. 'He would criticise me harshly in public if I did anything wrong. Sometimes I didn't know whether I should take him as my boss or my father. It just drove me crazy.'

As time passed, Yeung, now 47 years old, came to understand why her father was so stern.

'He was keen to see me become a capable successor to the family business,' Yeung said. 'In those days, the best I could do was to prove I was the right person to lead the company.'

Her grandfather, Yeung Shing, opened a small shop in Shanghai Street in Kowloon in 1942. He named it Shing On Kee Watch Shop, meaning successful and sustainable. It later grew into the Emperor Watch and Jewellery chain.

In the 1960s, Albert Yeung took over the business and set up more shops across the city. The company expanded in the following decades into entertainment, finance, property, hospitality, publishing, furniture and catering, which formed the business empire of the Emperor Group. Still, selling watches and jewellery remained a cornerstone of the business.

Cindy Yeung graduated from the University of San Francisco with a major in business administration. She also obtained the qualification of Graduate Gemologist from the Gemological Institute of America, according to the company's annual report.

When she started in the family business, it was focused on luxury timepieces. Jewellery sales were a fraction of the total. Seeing a huge potential in the high-end market, Yeung suggested to her father that they form an independent department to design and produce diamond rings, necklaces and bracelets under the 'Emperor' brand.

While most watch and jewellery retailers at the time considered Tsim Sha Tsui as the traditional commercial area, Cindy Yeung insisted on opening shops in the central district to boost the brand's image. In 1992, Emperor opened a flagship store in Pacific House on Queen's Road, Central, and asked film stars Jackie Chan and Brigitte Lin Ching-hsia to cut the opening ribbon.

Yeung became a director of Emperor Watch and Jewellery (HK) in 1999, and later managing director, responsible for strategic planning and business growth as well as overseeing various other operations.

Under her leadership, the company came through the Asian financial crisis of 1997, the Sars epidemic in 2003 and the global economic downturn in 2008 relatively unscathed.

In 2008, Emperor Watch and Jewellery listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange, marking a milestone for the traditional family business to become a modern enterprise. The Yeung family now holds a controlling stake of 53.7 per cent, and Cindy Yeung is the only family member on the board of directors.

With proceeds raised from the listing, the firm expanded rapidly on the mainland. As of last month, there were 87 shops in Hong Kong, Macau and the mainland. In 2010, it sealed a deal with L Capital, a private equity fund mostly financed by French luxury goods giant LVMH. The latter became an investor and a strategic partner in Emperor, which has been seeking to boost its international profile.

Emperor Watch and Jewellery posted revenue of HK$5.9 billion last year, while profit reached HK$627 million. 'Our target is to be an international brand rooted in Asia,' said Yeung, who was appointed to the additional post of chairman in March. 'I hope, in 10 to 20 years, Emperor will have a presence in department stores in London or Paris.'

Yeung sat down with the South China Morning Post to talk about watches, work-life balance and what it's like to be a third-generation proprietor of a Hong Kong family firm.

What is the biggest challenge in running a family business?

You have to prove you are in this position not only because you're someone's daughter but also because you're a capable person for this job. You have to show that the company is making progress day by day under your leadership.

Many jewellery and watch retailers have seen their sales growth fall significantly this year as consumers cut spending. How do you deal with the situation?

Last year was a particularly strong year for high-end jewellery and watch retailers. Compared to the high base last year, Emperor recorded high single-digit sales growth in the first half of this year.

The customer traffic and their average spending have remained similar in our shops to last year's. Shop location is a key factor supporting us in difficult times. With shops in [top] business areas, we can still get quality customers even when the general trend of the industry is down. We've been in retailing for 70 years. We believe shop location takes priority over all the other factors. We don't mind paying sky-high rents for the best locations. They are value for money.

How do you keep abreast of the trends and know what clients want?

Every year, there are large jewellery shows in Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai and Macau. They are good opportunities to learn market trends, like what is popular this year, jade or big diamonds. I will definitely go to these shows each time. On the watches side, many top brands that work with us hold their own exhibitions from time to time. And Switzerland hosts two major watch shows each year. I attend all these events, where I build relationships with suppliers and customers and make watch orders.

Every Saturday is the time for me to inspect shops, mostly in Hong Kong. I grew up in our family's shop, so I know very well how to make jewellery sparkle under spotlights, whether the glass counter has been well cleaned or not, and how to display watches and jewellery in the counters. I chat with staff members and sometimes with customers.

What have been your most difficult times since you took over, and how did you overcome them?

The Sars period in 2003 was a very difficult time, when there were much fewer shoppers. To attract more buyers, we put away the expensive diamonds and displayed more semi-precious stone products, which cost HK$10,000 to HK$20,000. I also talked to frontline staff members one by one, telling them not to quit and that the business would recover shortly. Actually, it did pick up pretty fast.

I am a very positive person. I believe the worst will go away sooner or later. In our experience, the market stays at the bottom for three to four months at the most before picking up.

Mainland China is expected to become the largest market for jewellery in the world in a few years, and the competition is getting intense. What strategies do you have to tap this market?

About half of our shops across the border sell jewellery, and this percentage will increase gradually. Jewellery is different from watches. A customer can buy watches for his friends and relatives with a shopping list in hand. For expensive necklaces and rings, people usually like to touch them and try them on before paying up. That's why we are opening standalone jewellery shops in more cities.

In addition, the jewellery business is more profitable, with a profit margin almost double that of watch retailing.

Our business on the mainland accounts for about 11 per cent of our total revenue. We expect this can rise to 15 to 20 per cent in five years. At the same time, Hong Kong will remain our major growth driver.

As a mother of three children, how do you balance your career and family life?

I try to finish work by 7 pm every day and go home for dinner with my family. I have an agreement with my husband: in case either of us needs to go for a business trip, the other party will stay in Hong Kong with the children.

I am very lucky to have a good husband. He's a good listener. People say that 'behind every successful man there stands a great woman'. I would say behind every successful woman there's a great man.

We have a big gathering every Sunday. My dad, brothers, sisters and their families all come to enjoy this family time every week. However, we still end up talking mostly about businesses at the dinner table.