Multimillionaire Koh Wee Seng has a net worth of $ 540 million and is just behind Forbes & # 39; richest list as Singapore's 50th richest man.
Although the inconspicuous magnate is the founders and drivers of one of Singapore's largest business empires, he has been largely kept out of the public eye.
Koh, the man behind well-known brands like Lee Hwa Jewelery and Maxi-Cash, was barely an adult when he took over the helm of his family's half-century-old jewelry business.
The enterprising youth quickly transformed his mother's business into an international conglomerate that spanned jewelry, finance, real estate, and hospitality in just two decades.
Modernization of the family business
Lee Hwa Jewelery was founded in 1970 and started as a store on Circuit Road in MacPherson with his mother Tan Soo Lan at the helm.
The company specialized in selling yellow gold, and the company didn't break even before it started in 1994 when customer tastes changed.
Koh Wee Seng / Photo Credit: Blog Spiking
After graduating from the National University of Singapore Business School, Koh joined the family business. It wasn't until his early twenties that the heir to the Lee Hwa business brought a new, young perspective to the table.
Koh took over the management of the family business and deliberately redesigned the Lee Hwa brand to appeal to contemporary, international audiences. The company's modern focus and aggressive promotions were responsible for its explosive growth.
In 1996, Koh launched white gold through its Platinum and Gold collection aimed at young women between the ages of 20 and 25. Trendy and fresh white gold was the modern counterpart to the then outdated yellow gold collection on which Lee Hwa relied.
Photo credit: Lee Hwa Jewelery
Koh's first platinum and gold deal played according to his plan, stocking only contemporary pieces and ignoring yellow gold.
After a resounding success, Lee Hwa began making white gold jewelry only, dropping its yellow gold line.
The company's attention to the public sentiment has paid off. Between 1995 and 1999, Koh more than tripled Lee Hwa's sales from S $ 23 million to S $ 72 million.
By 1999, Lee Hwa had the largest jewelry factory in Singapore and 16 retail showrooms in major shopping areas such as Suntec City Mall and Wisma Atria, which employed over 100 artisans.
Lee Hwa: The only jeweler on SGX
Koh didn't stop there.
Determined to go global, Lee Hwa publicly announced his intention to acquire international brands such as Bulgari and Tiffany by merging the jewelry line under Aspial Corporation to serve the international market.
The brand spent nearly S $ 1 million on trade visits and advertising and was the first and only jeweler to be listed on the SGX in 1999.
Photo credit: Lee Hwa Jewelery
In 2000, Lee Hwa was the first brand to create and design the world's first Purple Gold collection, which was launched as a “bling revival” from “Decades of Yellow and White Gold”.
Made of 80 percent pure gold and 20 percent alloys with metals such as palladium, Purple Gold is an innovation brewed by Lee Hwa's research and development team.
In 2002, the Aspial Group acquired the exclusive distribution patent rights for Purple Gold. It is recognized as a precious metal by the World Gold Council and the collection is considered a breakthrough for the jewelry industry.
Back then, the Lee Hwa heir's goal was to open up to 50 stores regionally by 2010 – an ambitious plan that would spark Aspial's next series of aggressive expansions over the next two decades.
Alexis Bedel wears Lee Hwa Jewelery at Emmys / Photo credit: Lee Hwa Jewelery Facebook
Today Lee Hwa Jewelery is worn by international stars around the world.
Citigems, Goldherz, Niessing and Maxi-Cash
In addition to Lee Hwa, Aspial has developed three different jewelry brands: Goldheart Jewelry, Niessing and Citigems.
Goldheart was founded in 1974 and was Singapore's first and leading bridal jeweler. He was responsible for introducing wedding rings to local markets and making them mainstream.
The brand was acquired by Aspial in 2005 and remains one of the largest jewelry chains in Singapore with more than 20 boutiques across the island.
Photo credit: Capitaland
Goldheart is also the exclusive distributor of the Celestial Diamond, a diamond with 73 facets and an eight-pointed starburst pattern. With a highly reflective cut, sky diamonds are distinguished by their sheen, and each diamond is certified by the Gemological Institute of America.
Aspial has also acquired the German jewelry brand Niessing, which was originally founded by Hermann Niessing in 1873. The brand is known for its innovative designs, especially the Niessing tension ring.
Photo credit: Niessing
The first Niessing clamping ring, also known as the clamping ring, was founded by the company in 1979.
In contrast to a holder, a tension ring holds its gemstone in place via the pressure between two ends of a ring. This makes it appear as if the gemstone is floating in place, a unique property that makes Niessing's designs instantly recognizable.
Citigems, Aspial's last domestic subsidiary, is known for its affordable jewelry line based in Singapore.
Citigems are also available at Maxi Cash stores, Singapore's first public pawnbroker and one of the best-known Aspial Corporation companies.
Photo credit: Maxi Cash
After listing on the SGX in 2008, Maxi-Cash opened its first branches in Ang Mo Kio and Orchard Road a year later. It offers pawnbroking services and trades in the resale of beloved jewelry and luxury items.
Maxi-Cash continues to lead the pawnbroking industry in Singapore with over 45 branches across the island. It is also the first pawnshop chain to pioneer online payment services, valuation services, and an e-shop.
Extension to hospitality and property
The final of Aspial's diverse business portfolios is rooted in the hospitality and real estate development industries.
Under the World Class Land group, Koh has developed world class commercial and residential properties such as City Gate and Waterfront in Singapore.
World Class Global, the conglomerate's international real estate sector, has also initiated developments in Australia and Malaysia.
Photo credit: Indesign Live
Australia 108, the brand's most ambitious project to date, is set to be the tallest residence in the southern hemisphere. The Melbourne building will be over 100 stories high and comprise 1,105 residential units. It will be completed this year.
AF Global Limited was founded in 1973 and is listed on the SGX. The company was acquired by Aspial and Fragrance Group Limited in 2015, with each company holding 50 percent of its issued shares.
The Fragrance Group belongs to the hotel magnate Koh Wee Meng, Koh's older brother.
AF Global Limited currently operates in Singapore, China, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and other countries. Some notable developments are the Holiday Inn Phuket and the Crowne Plaza London Kensington in the UK.
Build a robust empire
From a boy who worked in his family's jewelry store at the tender age of 11 to the multi-million dollar founder of a jewelry, financial, real estate and hospitality empire, Koh has single-handedly transformed his mother's legacy into one of Singapore's largest empires.
However, Covid-19 has set Aspial's growth back.
In 2020, the conglomerate's profit for the first half decreased 63 percent to S $ 5.5 million, mainly due to the decline in retail sales.
The company's total revenue also decreased 25.1 percent to S $ 243.2 million due to the decline in contributions from the real estate and jewelry businesses. Real estate revenues were down 38.6 percent, while jewelry revenues were down 46.4 percent.
The decline was partially offset by Aspial's financial services revenue, which increased 11.7 percent to S $ 102.8 million due to higher contributions from pawnbrokers and jewelry trades during a period of economic recession.
Despite the difficulties of 2020, the Aspial Group continues to demonstrate the ambitious determination that its founder had sharpened decades earlier.
"Although governments have provided various short-term subsidies and assistance, the group needs to strengthen its product and service innovation," she said.
Selected image source: Niessing / Prestige Hong Kong