The girl who put a sparkle in Emperor

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 September, 2010, 12:00am

Diamonds are not only a girl's best friend for Cindy Yeung Lork-sze. They have helped sustain her family company for three generations and through six decades.

The managing director of Emperor Watch and Jewellery grew up surrounded by bracelets, earrings, gold and jade jewellery, but surprisingly, she paid them little attention until she was in her early 20s.

'I visited the shop one day when I was 21 and saw a diamond which was so sparkly,' Yeung, now 46, remembers. 'I thought it was really beautiful and it meant something.'

With that in mind, she went on to study business in the United States and eventually gained a diploma in gemology.

Emperor's first watch shop was set up in Mong Kok by Cindy's grandfather Yeung Shing in 1942.

The company was expanded by Yeung's father Albert Yeung Sau-shing to include deluxe watches and jewellery, which paved the way for an eventual move into entertainment, securities and even gaming.

From that tiny shop in Mong Kok, three generations of the Yeung family helped expand the Emperor empire to 49 shops in Hong Kong, Macau and the mainland with a total floor of 104,917 square feet.

The jewellery and watches business has been handled by Cindy Yeung for about 18 years.

When she came back to Hong Kong from her studies in 1990, she spent one year in a US export sales company before joining Emperor.

'I treasure that year as nobody knew my background but I had to do everything and learn about business in the real world,' Yeung said.

However, once at Emperor, she did not get the keys to the boardroom immediately.

She first served as a front-desk salesperson before rotating through different departments to learn about company operations.

She also learned one vital thing: 'Treating the client as a friend is important as it builds long-term relationships,' she said. 'If you treat clients as a client, they will always be just a client.'

Marrying into a family where diamonds were common place, her husband, film director Cheung Kin-ting, realised he had to do something special when he proposed marriage. 'He handmade a ring, which was very touching,' Yeung said.

But Yeung did not miss out entirely on the luxuries of life. 'He bought something from our shop - a pearl and diamond necklace I had designed,' she said.

The couple now have three children; Justin 16, Jasmine, 13, and Jonathan, 10. Yeung said her daughter might become the fourth generation to move into the family business as she already had an eye for diamonds and jewels.

'After she was born, I bought a diamond every year on her birthday so when she is 21, she will have a diamond chain,' she said.

Sitting in Emperor's 2,800 sqft shop at the 1881 Heritage development in Kowloon, Yeung reels off facts and figures about jewellery and customer tastes. 'Mainland customers like jewellery covered with diamonds. Westerners prefer smaller diamonds,' she said.

At Emperor, sales of watches represented about 85 per cent of total sales last year while the rest came from the jewellery segment.

While it was her father who signed up deluxe watch brands for the shop, it was Yeung's idea to expand and upgrade the jewellery section.

'When I first joined the shop, we sold the most expensive brands of watches in the city,' she said. 'However, our jewellery department targeted the mass market. There was a mismatch.

'Those who buy expensive watches also like to have the same in deluxe jewellery, so we upgraded the jewellery lines.'

In the early 1990s, she opened a flagship shop in Central and asked movie stars such as Jackie Chan to cut the ribbon. She also hired in-house designers to develop deluxe diamond bracelets, rings and necklaces.

Emperor, listed in 2008, had group revenue of HK$1.77 billion in the first half of the year, up 86 per cent from last year, with a profit of HK$128 million, up 151 per cent.

The company last week completed a deal that will see LCapital Asia, a private equity fund sponsored by French luxury good giant LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, invest HK$140 million in convertible bonds of the company. It will also issue HK$100 million worth of warrants to LCapital.

If both warrants and bonds are converted into shares, the LVMH subsidiary will hold 6.92 per cent of Emperor.

'This is recognition of our company as LVMH is a worldwide deluxe brand. LVMH is also well developed in China so the association with the international giant will help us expand in the mainland market through its network and by obtaining preferential priority on shop location and favourable rents,' Yeung said.

'It will also secure our diamond supply through De Beers, which has a joint venture with LVMH. We will also co-operate in some marketing events. But overall, LVMH will not be involved in daily operations.'

Since Yeung entered the industry, she has witnessed the Asian financial crisis of 1997, Sars in 2003 and the global financial devastation of the past few years, but the company seems to have come through relatively unscathed.

'In the 1997 crisis, we were affected but we also believe the handover [to China] would eventually help the city develop further,' she said. 'I convinced my father not to close a shop that was making a loss.

'This proved to be the right decision as business bounced back after the crisis.

'We introduced no-pay leave and adjusted commission arrangements with our salespersons to cope with the downturn.'

But are there any challenges ahead for Emperor?

'Rental expenses are high but we can manage it. Jewellery and watches have appreciated in value in the past few decades so we have no pressure to cut prices to boost sales during downturns. If sales are slow, we will just hold on to the stock and wait for the economy to recover,' she said.

Today, about 85 per cent of the company's customers are from the mainland, which reflects the figures at many other businesses. Twenty years ago, most customers came from Japan and Southeast Asia. Now all the staff are required to speak Putonghua.

Still, Emperor is just one among many jewellery and watch shops in the city and competition is rife.

'We can compete with our own designs and production. The future will be our own brand of jewellery. Many other jewellery shops are mainly selling gold but we focus on diamond products,' Yeung said.

'Women used to focus on jewellery but now they also like watches. Women mainly buy jewellery and watches for pleasure but our male customers like to buy watches and jewellery as a type of investment as their value appreciates.

Being a wife, mother and a businesswoman all at the same time can make it hard to juggle so many responsibilities, but Yeung has it under control and her two older children may already be planning for their future.

'I have no time for any hobbies but I spend all my non-working hours with my three children. My daughter may like to be in the business. At a young age, she already has a head for business and likes jewellery design. My elder son is more likely to follow his father's footsteps into the creative industry.'

Still, among all the talk of gold, diamonds and luxury, there are some things that are more precious and close to her heart.

Asked if there is just one item she could keep always, Yeung replied: 'I would take the pearl and diamond necklace from my wedding. This is something with special meaning.'