Fine wine merchant may not sell you all the cases you want

From cinemas to luxury watches and fine wine, distribution firm has seen much in its 95 years

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 February, 2014, 11:14am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 February, 2014, 4:41pm

Even at the age of 71, Omtis managing director and fine wine distributor Raymond Bera remembers vividly the day he arrived in Hong Kong.

It was November 5, 1971, and with his new bride in tow, the Swiss national landed at Kai Tak airport to help run the family business.

"It was my first trip to Hong Kong," he says. "It was quite a shock to see people watching television [in their homes] as you were landing," Bera recalls, referring to the notoriously low approaches into Kai Tak.

Hong Kong has been his home ever since, but Bera's ties to China can be traced back further. He was born in Shanghai and spent his early years there.

"My best memory of Shanghai was the toy department in the Wing On department store on Bubbling Well Road [now West Nanjing Road], and the building is still there," he says.

Although the core business of Omtis is now in wine, the trading company his father and uncle set up in Shanghai dates back to 1919 and once included businesses such as retail jewellery, luxury watch distribution and cinemas.

Besides acting as the middleman for some of Europe's best known watch houses, including Chaumet and Raymond Weil, Omtis was the distributor of Omega in Asia for more than 60 years.

You’re selling [the wine] to people who … will drink it, not speculate on it

Bera's father eventually gathered the family and left the mainland in 1948, just before the communists rose to power. Bera's uncle, who was childless, stayed in Shanghai to run the business. Unable to leave until 1954, he moved to Hong Kong and registered Omtis, enlisting his nephew to help run things.

The older generation of the Bera family was very reluctant to invest in property in Hong Kong, as they'd lost most of their assets in Shanghai, Bera says. "They were running 14 cinemas and owned some of them."

But Bera turned that around after his uncle died in 1979.

"In those days, I could see the boom in the property market. I changed the rules and invested in property … it's probably thanks to this that we're still in business today, because we own a nice portfolio of residential and commercial property," Bera says.

Bera got out of the jewellery business and eventually gave up the watch brands his company distributed.

"Omega verticalised [brought in-house] their distribution in the late 1990s. In 1994, we started negotiations on friendly separation," he says.

After that experience, Bera came to the conclusion that if a brand was worth distributing, it would probably go vertical in important markets like Hong Kong and the mainland.

But wine was a different story. In the mid-'80s, Omtis started distributing fine wines. It is a business that has become immune to "showrooming", where customers visit the store to look but then try ordering elsewhere online to find cheaper prices.

"The quality of what you buy is actually very much influenced by the source, how it was stored, how it was transported. If you simply go on the internet and pick up the cheapest bottle, you have no idea what that bottle has gone through during its lifetime.

"For wine, diamonds, and products of that nature, the distributor has an added value," Bera says. "It's different from branded products produced in a factory, where the quality solely depends on the producer rather than who is selling it."

Amid slowing economic growth on the mainland and the anti-corruption crackdown, which has put a dent in luxury gifting, Bera admits times are not as good as they used to be.

"We never did that bulk business. Some of our colleagues and friendly competitors have suffered … Many orders were not fulfilled. There are some sad stories of people in Bordeaux who took orders for €10 million and the wine was never delivered."

A growing upper middle class is the reason Bera remains bullish long term on the mainland wine market.

"They are self-made money and like to drink with friends. It has nothing to do with the government. I don't dispute there were gifts of a special nature to certain people, but if you look at the entire population of wealthy people in China, [those] who drink outweigh that," he said. "You're selling it to people who … will drink it, not speculate on it."

Bera says Omtis deals with a different clientele from those who drink Chateau Lafite or Chateau Margaux with Coca-Cola.

"People come to us, and they know what they drink. Some of them know more than I do," he says.

"If someone says they want X cases of Lafite or Margaux, chances are we aren't going to supply it, [because] we aren't convinced there's an end user.

"We might say: 'We'll give you one-third of what you want. Once you've sold it, come back to us and tell us what happened to that wine, and then we'll consider supplying you again.'"