Inheriting a Piece of Time
Name of business:
Leong Poh Kee Pte. Ltd.
Other names of business:
289 Beach Road #01-02, Singapore 199552
Luxury Watch Wholesaler and Retailer
Leong Poh Kee specialises in selling exquisite timepieces. Established in 1931, the business has been run by the Leong family for four generations. Third-generation owner Mr William Leong, who continues to help with the business together with his siblings, Mr Thomas Leong, and Ms Jenny Leong, shares fond memories of Leong Poh Kee’s past. Mr Ken Leong, Ms June Leong, and Mr Joseph Leong are the fourth-generation owners who share how family values have stood the test of time.
The retro company sign blends seamlessly with the exterior wall of the nondescript Beach Road shophouse building where Leong Poh Kee is located. A framed marble entrance, helmed by a dark wood-panelled signage of the company name embossed in silver, hints at luxury associated with the distributor and retailer of exquisite timepieces. Gleaming watches are presented in glass cases, some decked in sleek silver with roman numerals on its dial, others stylishly embellished with rose gold. Others have miniature dials fitted into the watch’s face, functioning as a chronograph. On one wall, the portraits of the founders are displayed, with a framed calligraphy of Leong Poh Kee’s name in Chinese: Liang Bo Ji (梁波記). Established in 1931, Leong Poh Kee is currently helmed by the fourth-generation of the family, with the third-generation continuing to assist with business operations.
Leong Poh Kee was started by the granduncle of third-generation owner William Leong, as a watch repair store on Smith Street in Chinatown. William’s granduncle was not a blood relative but hailed from the same village as the Leongs. In those days, people from the same village often shared a common surname and considered one another as family. Later, William’s father began working at the store after he arrived in Singapore from Guangzhou. It was where he learnt watch repairing skills. Over time, the business shifted to wholesale because his father did not wish to continue in the repair trade. The business also could not feed a growing family of seven children, not counting the granduncle’s equally big family.
Leong Poh Kee’s business steadily grew, catering to a customer base beyond Singapore. Its first exports were to Papua New Guinea during the 1960s, followed by Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand. Watches were also sold to sailors from cruise ships that called at Singapore. The sailors bought watches from Leong Poh Kee to sell in the cities that their ships subsequently called at, such as Penang and India, reaching as far as South America. Now that Leong Poh Kee’s influence has reached countries all over the world, the business is focusing its efforts on building its local customer base.
Developing a retail and local business to grow its Singaporean customer base was challenging. Though Leong Poh Kee was successful as a wholesale business, managing a retail business was a completely different game. Still, the family was eager to expand and learn beyond their wholesale business model. William shared that Leong Poh Kee, together with other stores along Smith Street, relocated when the area was converted into a food street in the 1980s. Kampong Gelam was chosen by his family as the precinct was home to many wholesale businesses at that time.
As a business that deals with watches, the passage of time at Leong Poh Kee is evident. The business has witnessed the transition of stewardship over generations—now in its fourth— and maintained its business mantra of a neighbourly spirit (or “kampung spirit”). They have built long-lasting relationships with partners and clients, and their neighbours in the Kampong Gelam precinct. William recalls the bustling spirit of Kampong Gelam in 1989, when his family moved the business to its current address at 289 Beach Road. “All our neighbours, from the corner up to the coffeeshop, are very friendly,” he says. “In the morning, we always say, “good morning” and wave to them. Don’t be afraid to give “5 dollars” (the hand gesture of waving is similar to “5 dollars”), to your neighbours. they are sure to wave back! So, this is how I teach my children.” He also reminisces giving home-cooked food or souvenirs to his customers, gestures that easily translate into conversations and long-lasting friendships. All four generations have followed the view that friendship comes first, and business will follow.
Indeed, such endearing relationships with some of the customers have spanned over decades. An example cited by the fourth-generation owner Ken Leong, is the relationship that the family has with a commercial fish net company along the same stretch of shophouses. He was recently acquainted with the company’s fourth generation owners. “The father brought them over to buy a watch. [Now] once in a while, they will come visit us and we have coffee, things like that. In the end, it’s about knowing each other, and this plays a very important role for us.”
In keeping up with the times, the company began a business revamp including a renovation of the shop before the COVID-19 pandemic struck. While the fourth generation of leaders are under no illusion of a swift take-off in the retail business or quick results from the revamp, the pandemic has nonetheless brought about unexpected outcomes. It spurred Leong Poh Kee to accelerate its social media and digitalisation plan. The company’s online shop was subsequently created by another fourth-generation owner Joseph Leong, with the aim of developing a new virtual customer base as well as attract customers to the shop.
Both old and new leaders believe that the key to the longevity of Leong Poh Kee is never about passing the business on from one generation to next. It is about cherishing familial ties, where every member pulls his or her own weight to help with the business. “In the old days, children were expected to help out in family businesses,” William says. “Ken, June and Joseph also had to help out since primary school, like sweeping the floor, washing the toilets and so on.” To them, it is not about taking over the business, but about helping each other — a family value that has clearly stood the test of time.
Interviewed by Thaddeus Tan, Fuad Johari, and Clasfe Chua on 4 May 2022.