HONG KONG IS the world's second-largest exporter of watches, but few companies are in the original design and original brand manufacturing business. Most concentrate on being original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). Voila, by Hong Kong-based Intertime F.E., is one of the exceptions. The company started out in 1986 as an OEM company for various other brands but, in 2000, creative director Roger Khemlani decided it was time for a change. 'We stopped our OEM business,' Mr Khemlani said. 'We decided to launch products under our own brand. I just got bored of OEM. I could see there was no future in it. 'People would take my designs and my prototypes and give it to some other manufacturers. 'I started to see more and more of this and I said to myself 'this is not worth the agony'. 'We had to make a choice. Follow the price trend, keep on degrading our products using cheaper materials, cheaper costs to start competing with the mainland, or go the other way into branding and do exactly what our clients were doing. 'It was not just about the money, but also the satisfaction. I'm glad to see some of my designs are still selling in stores under other brands. 'But the joy of seeing your designs under your own brand really takes things up to the next level,' Mr Khemlani said. He thought the brand would take off in one or two years, but this proved to be wrong. He discovered that brand building takes a lot longer. 'Building brands is something you don't measure in months or years. It is something you measure in decades. 'If I was in a 100-metre race to brand Voila, I would be approaching the first five metres right now after five years,' Mr Khemlani said. In the early years of Voila, its designs were frequently copied. Mr Khemlani said his company had to file a number of lawsuits to stop infringement of copyright. Every design of the company was patented and registered in Hong Kong, the mainland and, most importantly, in Switzerland, under the protection of the World Intellectual Property Organisation. Presenting itself as a Hong Kong company was a challenge, Mr Khemlani said. A lot of people did not trust the originality of Hong Kong designs. He had to work extra hard to prove his company's designs were original. Because of these difficulties, a lot of Hong Kong companies would register in Switzerland and present themselves as Swiss companies. Mr Khemlani said Voila did not. It was proud to be a Hong Kong brand. 'I was truthful right from the beginning that my company is from Hong Kong,' he said. 'The company designs watches in Hong Kong, but uses the best components from all over the world. The casing and hands are from Japan, leather from Italy and the movements from Switzerland, and we assemble them in Switzerland, too. 'My watches are Swiss made, but I'm not going to tell people I'm a Swiss company. I'm a Hong Kong company and I'm proud of it,' Mr Khemlani said. Stanley Lau, managing director of Free Town Watch Products, was one of the founders of Hong Kong Watch Centre. Ten Hong Kong brands from different companies, including Free Town's brand Temporis, were joined under the umbrella of the Hong Kong Watch Centre. It explored the mainland market and opened its first outlet in 2004. Now, the centre has five outlets, three in Beijing and two in Chengdu. 'When I was the chairman of the Hong Kong Watch & Clock Council three years ago, I encouraged people to build up Hong Kong watch brands. We had to add value to our products and our company,' Mr Lau said. It was a challenge for the companies. They were used to the OEM trade and had no experience in brand building. 'We had to learn everything from scratch, from marketing, promotions, public relations, packaging to customer services. 'It was so much hard work and you could not expect a fast return. In the first few years, you had to invest money, time and effort into it. We used the money from our OEM businesses to support the building of our brands,' Mr Lau said. Another Hong Kong brand that started off as an OEM company is o.d.m. Its niche market strategy had brought it success in Asia and Europe. The company's products are now distributed in more than 38 countries. 'We target young people in their 20s and 30s,' said o.d.m. international brand executive Sarah So. 'We know we can't compete with the European luxury brands. We set reasonable prices from HK$500 to HK$600. Our marketing strategy is very focused.' The company's stores are located in shopping areas frequented by young people, for example, Mongkok. It has good relationships with trendy local magazines. It did crossovers with Astro Boy, Batman, Gundam and Looney Tunes to attract a wider client base. 'Our designs are unique, with silicon as our material, and in many different colours.' Ms So said. 'They have fun features like the shake control, EL backlight and running messages. Every model has a message. People can easily identify our products. 'o.d.m. stands for original, dynamic and minimal. With trendy, creative designs and innovative technologies, o.d.m. has become one of the must-haves for young people in Asia,' she said.