Ahead of the celebrations of the 50th Anniversary of Cortina Watch, we chatted with their CEO – Jeremy Lim. Here are snippets of the conversation.
In Conversation: Jeremy Lim, CEO of Cortina Watch
Cortina Watch is one of the largest watch retailers based in Singapore. Founded in 1972 by Anthony Lim as a small retail outlet in Colombo Shopping Centre. And over the decades, Cortina has evolved from a single store family retail business to a public listed enterprise in 2022 with a market capitalisation of SGD 660M (as of 12 July 2022), though still short of its main competitor The Hour Glass’s SGD 1.6B. Growth is strong in these last 2 years, and Cortina posted a posted a 72.3 per cent increase in net profit to S$43.3 million for its fiscal second half ended Mar 31, 2022 on the back of a recovery from the supply chain disruption which it faced.
In May 2021, Cortina Holdings completed the takeover of the only other rival – the then privately held Sincere Watch for SGD 84.7M. This acquisition gives Cortina with the exclusive distributorship rights to the Franck Muller brand in 13 countries within the Asia-Pacific. As well as access as access to Sincere Watch’s arsenal of brands that can be distributed across 40 combined outlets and create operational synergies that will increase Cortina’s value to both consumers and business partners.
What did you do in the early years, when you first joined Cortina?
Though Cortina is now a large enterprise, with a corporate structure of Cortina Holdings overarching the entire group. Founder and Group Chairman, Anthony Lim has kept the passion as well as principle of family values and sentiments. The reigns have been successfully passed from Anthony to his elder son Raymond who is now CEO of Cortina Holdings, and more recently to his younger son Jeremy as the COO of Cortina Holdings and CEO of Cortina Watch. Anthony’s daughter, Sharon is CEO of Franck Muller SEA and Managing Director the distribution arm – Pacific Time. The Cortina Group has managed a blend of family and professional managers with strong family values. These values are greatly appreciated in the Asian societies where the group is active in, which accounts for much of its success.
Jeremy has been a central figure in the heart of Cortina Watch’s transformation for the better part of the last 20 years. In 2000, he was getting ready to relocate to Sydney for a work opportunity, when his brother, Raymond Lim, then CEO of the Cortina Group asked him to join the family business. Trained in accountancy and finance, and having worked in KPMG as an auditor after his graduation in 1997, he began his career as operations manager.
He was also tasked with transitioning from a family owned company to one which is listed in the Singapore Stock Exchange. At the time, Cortina’s two largest competitors – Sincere and The Hour Glass was already listed in the exchange, and it was clear that to ensure financial stability, they had to also achieve this milestone in the company’s history.
It was tasked to Jeremy, with his accountancy and finance background, to take this important step. He led the due diligence, the documentation of processes and procedures to ensure that transitioning to a public listed company was smooth and effective. And as soon as Cortina was listed, he turned his attention to financial reporting, and focused on developing operations across the region and on brand building.
Has Cortina’s culture changed since he joined the family business in 2002?
For myself, to always be trustworthy is the lesson that I live by personally, and we stand for as a company. Trust is something that our brand partners expect of us, and our customers demand from us. It’s essential that we always honour our agreements, whether it’s a reference that’s promised to a client, or an order made with a partner.
When I joined, my father was still very active, and my brother was already a veteran in the industry.
Coming from a corporate environment, especially from an accounting firm, making the transition then was a very significant change. Back in the day, deals were sealed with a handshake. But my training and sensibilities were such that when the deal is done, we need to formalise it for fiduciary and legal purposes. This I changed. We now have more documentation today but the process of creating that deal is still a very organic one.
Management structure has also changed. Back then, the Lim family ran the business. Today, while the Lim family still hold senior positions, we are focused on the strategy and long germ goals, and the company is run by professional managers who take care of the day to day tasks.
What were the most important lessons learnt in the last two decades?
One key lesson I learnt was the importance of strong controls. In 2008, a theft led to a loss of SGD 14M worth of watches. And though most of the financial loss was later recovered, and the company was strong enough to take the hit on the rest without serious consequences even if it were not, I realised that we needed stronger controls.
In my former corporate life as an auditor, I was used to stringent Standard Operations Procedures. This was somewhat lacking when the incident occured, and the first step I took immediately after the post mortem is to set out to ensure that we have a solid set of SOP which makes sense, provide strong control and strictly adhered to.
Tell us about the recent acquisition of one of your major competitors: Sincere
Cortina has always been a strong player in the Singapore market. When I took over operations, I began to look at expansions across the region. We were still a family led business, and we found strong liaisons with family run businesses like Patek Philippe and Chopard. We are also very strong with Rolex.
And looking at the two local competitor, we realise that we need to strengthen our base. Sincere is a logical target for takeover. They are strong with the independents. A route which I am particularly keen on. They had the large Franck Muller distribution network. They were losing money at that time, so the cost of acquisition was manageable. The acquisition was completed in May 2021. And I am happy to say that we have managed to assimilate the Sincere operations into ours. The aim is not to completely convert Sincere to Cortina. But to leverage on the strengths of the (now) parent and strengthen Sincere’s reach.
This is something I feel we can build upon. Sincere remains Sincere, Cortina remains Cortina. We will eventually do some differentiation. Perhaps limit brands which are sold by both. Cortina is already a veteran, and may I say, a heavy hitter in the watch business, so we have this confidence to bring it to the next level. It’s challenging but it will be fun.
What are the group’s most important values, and how are you safeguarding, protecting and advancing them?
I think the strong family culture is a key value. And by this, I do not only mean the Lim family, but everyone in the Cortina and Sincere family of staff. We have continued with Ong Ban as CEO of Sincere, and hired Benny Chong as Regional General Manager of Cortina Holdings are two examples of non-family members in the senior management. And though my niece and nephew is now involved in the business, they do not automatically rise to the top because they are Lims. My brother and I need to ensure that our succession planning will defend the legacy that our father has built.
With that, our time with Jeremy came to a conclusion. This was a busy man, and his schedule was catching up. We did take a few more minutes to discuss a collaboration, watch out for that soon, but we bid adieu, and went on our way.