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Valiram executive director Ashvin Valiram wants to take Swiss Watch’s partnership with Rolex a step further

Apr 03, 2023

Watches make up 25% of Valiram's overall operations in 10 countries (Photo: SooPhye)

Ashvin Valiram talks about timepieces with the ease of experience. Then again, inexperience did not hold him, or his siblings, back from opening Swiss Watch's Rolex boutique at Pavilion Kuala Lumpur in 2007. It was the largest Rolex standalone boutique in Southeast Asia then, says the executive director of Valiram, which owns Swiss Watch.

The company and the watch brand strengthened their partnership with the opening of the Rolex Suria KLCC boutique in 2009. As more stores sprouted in the country, Swiss Watch expanded to Singapore in 2011 and Australia five years later.

On May 18, Rolex started welcoming clients to its new flagship store on the ground floor of Suria KLCC. With a duplex façade facing bustling roads in the city centre and the landmark Petronas Twin Towers nearby, it commands prime retail position, as befits Swiss Watch's aim of being a top-of-mind horology destination.

No attention to detail was spared when it came to the concept, design and finish of the 186 sq m boutique, Ashvin says. Step inside and your eyes are immediately drawn to a glittering chandelier installed manually piece by piece, casting light that bounces off watches on display or strapped around a customer's wrist at a high table near the front door.

The centrepiece of the redesigned space is a Verde Alpi wall, a deep green marble slab with light green and white quartz veins that highlight Rolex's heritage. The marble has been carved in grooves evoking the fluted bezel of classic models, its aquatic veining tracing a connection with the marine world, which inspired the brand's first waterproof wristwatch in 1926.

Customers who like to examine and admire bejewelled watches comfortably and discreetly can adjourn to a private room behind the Verde Alpi ("green Alps") wall for a personalised experience.

"The redesigned boutique features Rolex's elegant aesthetic and radiates the values of its iconic crown. Clients will feel a sense of harmony and intimacy with the brand, achieved through careful calibration of colours and patterns in the fittings and furnishings," Ashvin says.

Sensitive lighting accentuates the beauty of a selection of watches laid out in showcases lined with beige leather and finished with bronze trims. Walnut-brown wood, beige-coloured stone and handcrafted stucco panels in a pattern that recalls the fluted bezel of the Oyster watch add contrasting textures within this space. Rolex's hallmark green adds pops of colour in varying shades and depths to furniture and framed items, completing the look of the boutique.

Swiss Watch's original store was on Level 1 of Suria KLCC and bringing it down to the ground level fulfils its emphasis on the right location and real estate.

"We want something that can express the watch brand's values: the size of the boutique, its location and the double-level façade. We worked closely with Rolex on the design element and everything was meticulously selected."

In retrospect, Ashvin says Valiram's core business was still very much in textiles, with little experience in lifestyle retail, when he and his brothers won the bid to set up a watch store at Penang International Airport in 2001. In April that year, Swiss Watch opened its first outlet with an assortment of 16 brands.

"It was a challenging industry to go into as there were established players in the market. We faced a lot of roadblocks along the way and had to work harder than everybody else to win trust and respect."

The biggest challenge was not being taken seriously, he recalls.

"From the start, long-time players betted against what looked like inexperienced young boys. In the long run, that scepticism strengthened our will and ambition."

From the start too, the young bucks set out to do things boldly and differently. "When we built our first boutique here, we didn't go small or second-rate. We went big and made a statement for the brand."

As with every new venture, there was also the worry about the unknown when Ashvin and his brothers Sharan and Mukesh decided to diversify into the watch and jewellery business. Instead of being fazed, they dove straight in. "We like challenges and creating beautiful things. We told ourselves to go all out and do it."

Did it help that they were all on the same page?

"Absolutely. We don't do anything without consensus. Everybody has to align with each other and everything has to do with logic. That, and common sense prevail. We then hold hands and ensure that we all sail in the same direction. It's not easy when you’re making that first jump into uncharted territory. When you’re not jumping alone, that makes it much easier."

Fifteen years on with Rolex, Ashvin says: "It's a relationship we have built on and cultivated as we felt we could make a difference as a retailer in the marketplace. We are perhaps the youngest among the watch groups that represent the brand and have brought in new energy, new blood and new ideas.

"Some of the most important things [in this business] are the people, the marketing and the communication. We did a lot, in the early years especially, to create stronger brand awareness. We organised lots of events to bring footfall to the store and create more engagement with customers. That was really a point of difference in the first 10 years."

In the last decade, Ashvin notes, the average age of someone who understands Rolex and its history has certainly gone down — a point he credits to good communication and engagement with customers.

That Swiss Watch opened its first store 22 years ago is cause for celebration and the impetus to looking forward and "deliver on its promise to serve customers and provide an environment that speaks of the sophisticated nature of Rolex".

Curiosity and a nose for opportunity have stood Ashvin in good stead on his watch journey. Were there chances that slipped by or things he wished he had done?

"Many a thing slipped but we don't measure ourselves by that. We measure by how well we executed what we had, that's more important. It's a long road, a long journey and there are opportunities all the time. So, no regrets."

But there are glitches, such as a shortage of supply versus demand. The problem was exacerbated by production disruptions during the pandemic, which have not spared the industry as a whole.

Customers need to try on and feel watches because they are emotional products that speak to everyone differently, Ashvin says.

The excitement he felt when his father bought him his first watch, when he was about eight, is lodged in his mind. He cannot recall the reason for the purchase, but "I clearly remember where we bought it from and it was a special moment".

People still purchase watches to mark milestones, anniversaries, graduations, birthdays and a host of other occasions. At the end of the day, a timepiece becomes an heirloom, a symbol of a special relationship. It is also often a piece of jewellery that has preserved its value over time. People may not sell a watch passed down by grandpa but it feels good to know its worth.

"Rolex timepieces are synonymous with luxury, prestige and quality, mainly due to the brand's spirit of craftsmanship, innovation and precision. Many people purchase [one] to mark an achievement and as a reminder about a certain journey they have been through," Ashvin adds.

"Watches are more than just status symbols. With the combination of aesthetics and performance, they are for those who appreciate the precision and beauty of a piece of work that will stand the test of time."

Well, many did not think so when digital watches hit the market and surged in popularity.

"Everyone predicted that with their rise, the art of watchmaking would diminish. That couldn't be further from the truth today," he observes.

The Swiss watch industry is doing a great job of educating consumers on the fine art of handmade watches and, more than ever, demand is higher than it has ever been in history, he adds.

"People have realised it's not just about telling time. The emotional aspect, the sentimental value and the connections they have with a particular timepiece all say a lot. Everyone has his or her own journey and preferences, and as much as demand for digital watches has grown, the mechanical and traditional Swiss watch industry has seen bigger growth."

Watches make up 25% of Valiram's overall operations in 10 countries. "We are quite a diverse group and the pie keeps growing. The watch business has grown considerably but everything else is also expanding."

Swiss Watch has five Rolex points of sale in Malaysia and one each in Singapore and Australia. "Knowing what we do now, we’re going to be developing innovative stories as the brand continues to evolve its product range. We are investing significantly to refurbish and re-energise all our stores across the locations we are in."

Which brings Ashvin to the curiosity factor: The beautiful thing about watches is that craftsmen constantly challenge themselves to innovate and create.

"Unless we are curious about the thought processes behind that and where we think consumers are heading and where influences are coming from, we won't be curious where our clients are going to be in five years and work towards that journey," he reckons.

Those eyeing luxury watches have more choices and avenues to discover and learn things they never knew before. "Younger buyers travel and read more now and therefore have far more knowledge than we did at their age.

"When people walk into our store, they want to buy something. We try to ensure they walk out with something. Typically, they might have certain points of view, maybe a wish list. We try to surprise them by showing them new products and explaining what the differences are. We find that very often they start to look at things differently. It's all about education and knowledge.

"Hence, we need to continue investing heavily in our people, products and places, giving our team the right tools to deliver the best experiences and simultaneously strengthen our locations and product assortment. We have continuous training on service and technical expertise. Customers know a lot about watches and the details. Expectations keep rising, so our team has to be ahead of the curve."

What Ashvin himself has learnt is that the business is interesting but not easy to gain a foothold in.

"We are privileged to be part of this industry and business. The privilege is only there so long as we do a good job and continually exceed customer expectations, surprising them and giving them what they never knew they wanted — these elements keep them coming back."

Siblings and consensus have been a big help, but how about continuity down the line?

"As a family business, we have a constant stream of new members coming in. I’m quite happy to say that I started the retail part of the business when I was young.

"We now have the next generation joining us. That's exciting and they are excited as well. We expect great things from them, to continue building on the foundation in place and the creative aspects of the business."

Of the six grandchildren in the family, two recently graduated and have joined the fray. Another two are in university and two more are still young.

"We have a nice progressive chart. The present generation is going strong and still very active and hands-on."

Picking out a watch from a tray, Ashvin says: "This is one of my favourites — it has sapphires, rubies and jewels. What does a watch do for me emotionally? It makes me feel a little bit more complete. It is a lovely piece of jewellery which accompanies me."

Which does not mean he would never leave home with his wrist bare. "If I do step out with one, it complements my wardrobe and the mood I am in for that day. It's a different watch for a different day, occasion and feeling.

How many Rolex timepieces does he own? "I have a few," he replies, smiling. "That's an occupational hazard."

This article first appeared on May 22, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.