Moving Forward

Sincere’s journey from Australian inspiration to first Chinese-owned department store in Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 April, 2016, 10:11pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 April, 2016, 10:28pm

Over a century ago, a man named Ma Ying Piu and several friends from the southern Guangdong Province went to seek their fortunes in Australia.

Through the rather unlikely means of selling bananas, they did indeed achieve their fortunes, and on their return to Hong Kong decided that they wanted to run a store like the David Jones department store they had admired in Sydney.

Thus in 1900 Ma opened Sincere, the first Chinese-owned department store in Hong Kong, on the Sheung Wan site the company still occupies today. During the 1930s and 1940s it expanded to become one of the four largest department stores in Shanghai, before losing its mainland property in 1949 after the victory of the Communists in the civil war. Continuing in business in Hong Kong, it listed on the main board of the Hong Kong stock exchange in 1972.

Sincere was the first store in Hong Kong to hire female shop assistants, the first to adopt a policy of no bargaining on price and the first to issue receipts to customers. In the 1980s for a few years Sincere and main rival Wing On, which was founded in Hong Kong in 1907, had an agreement to open on alternate Sundays to give their staff a day off.

Fast forward to today and retailing continues to be the core business of Sincere through its six stores across Hong Kong, but the group has diversified into property investment and development, securities trading, insurance and advertising as well as travel agency franchising.

It had mixed success with its foray into property after deciding to sell a building in Hong Kong and use the money to invest in London and China. A residential development in London, Peninsula Heights, proved a success, counting celebrity British author Jeffrey Archer among its residents, but Sincere lost heavily on its China foray, a commercial and residential development in the northeastern city of Dalian.

There is still a strong Ma family presence at the group. Philip Ma King-huen, 60, is chairman and chief executive officer, and had taken over from his cousin Walter Ma who died in 2014. Another cousin, Ma King-wing, is a director of the company. However most senior staff are not family members.

The last year has been a challenge for the group. It has struggled with losses as Hongkongers spend less and the number of tourists falls, while its rather staid image doesn’t play well with the city’s young and hip.

It is looking to reinvent itself with a more contemporary feel, renovating stores and updating product lines with the latest European and Korean fashions.