On Cheong Jewellery - Heritage Brands Award Winner
A goldsmith 75 years ago, now a jeweller
In a six-part series, we look at innovative start-ups. Joyce Teo finds out more about On Cheong Jewellery
Straits Times Nov 2nd 2011
Today Newspaper Jan 26th 2011 [.pdf file]
Today Newspaper Jan 5th 2008 [.pdf file]
Straits Times December 3rd 2008
The design story :
JEWELLERY is all about image, sophistication and style these days.
A few years ago, Mr Ho Nai Chuen, 56, decided the jewellery business his father had founded 75 years ago as a simple goldsmith's shop needed a radical change of image.
He completely revamped the logo of the company, On Cheong Jewellery, the facade of its two retail outlets and even the type of products it sold, focusing on pricier designer pieces.
Then he was hit by pangs of self-doubt about the radical makeover.
Long-time customers were disoriented, even confused, by the new look, which was unveiled in 2008.
Mr Ho recalls: 'They asked, 'Where is On Cheong?', because the logo had changed, the color scheme had changed, the facade had changed.'
The rebranding exercise ended just before the financial meltdown in 2008. The subsequent two years or so were 'quite difficult', as the results were not yet apparent, admits Mr Ho.
'We were very strong in traditional gold pieces, which we sourced from wholesalers,' he says. 'We then injected a lot of money into the design concept. We tried to change the entire image.
'I was asking myself if that was a mistake. Fortunately, no. If I didn't do it, what would have been the situation at On Cheong now? It would have been even more disastrous.'
Mr Ho, who is president of the Singapore Jewellers Association, sums up the situation bluntly: 'If you don't do it, you will die a natural death.'
The makeover was the biggest bet in his 30 years at the helm of the company founded by his late father Ho Yew Ping.
Mr Ho says the emphasis at the new-look On Cheong is on jewellery design.
But it is not just design for design's sake. The company, he says, now employs designers from local design schools Lasalle College of the Arts and Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, who can also interact with customers and find out their needs, and customise pieces to their liking.
It is all about catering to the company's target group - buyers in the middle- to upper-income brackets who love jewellery, he says. Customers today are more demanding than before, he adds.
On Cheong is keen to open a third store in an upmarket spot that will be more appealing to the younger generation. It is currently in Chinatown and New Bridge Road.
But Mr Ho is staying clear of the chain-store concept that is so popular with a few other family businesses.
'I don't want to target the mass market because there are already a lot of chain stores around,' says Mr Ho. 'I have spent some time looking at chain stores. I did some calculations. Rent is at $50 per sq ft, $60 psf. You are occupying prime locations, but what are you selling? So you are working for the bank.'
What the company wants to do is sell exclusive and interesting pieces to jewellery lovers, and these people like privacy when they shop, says Mr Ho.
They also like unique or stand-out pieces. 'If you are looking for a piece of jewellery which will help set you apart from others, you will look for pieces with a strong design element and which you cannot find elsewhere,' he says.
'If you are a jewellery lover, do you want to go to a function and see somebody wearing the same piece?'
He is also hoping to capitalise on the company's strength in sourcing jade pieces. Unlike diamond jewellery, for instance, jade pieces are hard to replicate as the quality of the gemstones vary.
And to attract younger people, the company has started a wedding-band range.
Sales for this year will exceed $10 million. Mr Ho says On Cheong has achieved 'sparkling' sales results this year, reversing the falling sales trend between 2008 and 2010.
Before 2006, he says he would not have invested in anything that was priced above $20,000. Today, the most expensive piece that he has sold is a $200,000 jade necklace.
Mr Ho sacrificed a $5,000 monthly pay cheque in an accountancy job for a $1,500 one when he took over the family business after his mother died, as he felt it was a waste to let the company close down.
His seven older siblings chose to pursue professional careers.
'In the initial 20 years, I can say I just sat back and relaxed,' says Mr Ho, who was trained as an accountant. 'In the past 10 years, I have been trying to compete with new players.'
The plan is to keep the business in the family, though the daily running need not be done by a family member.
His eldest brother is chairman, while his uncle, a director in the company, retired 18 months ago when he was 91. Mr Ho is married with a son and a daughter.
For all the challenges that recent years have brought, the hard work has borne fruit, he says.
'The past five years have been very rewarding and fulfilling. I have seen the transition of the company from being an old brand into one with a new and modern image,' he says.
Text by Joyce Teo : Straits Times Special Nov 2 2011