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Sincere by name and philosophy for 110 yearsPhilip Ma puts store’s longevity down to loyal shoppers, staffEnoch Yiu22 February 2010Sincere Department Store is well known for selling expensive handbags and clothing, but few people know it had its origins in a far more humble product.The Sincere story began more than a century ago when founder Ma Ying Piu and several friends from Zhongshan went to seek their fortunes in Australia. Their unlikely road to riches: selling bananas.It was while in Australia that Ma visited an upmarket department store called David Jones and the idea for Sincere was born.“The founders thought that if they had the money, they would like to open a shop like that back home,” said Philip Ma King-huen, the third generation of the Ma family to head Sincere. The founders eventually did make enough money from selling bananas and spent HK$25,000 to set up their flagship on the site of today’s store in Sheung Wan.The Mas are still running the 110-year-old Sincere but the bananas have long gone. But Philip Ma knows that whatever the product on the shelves retailing can be a very fickle business.Ma and his staff once ordered thousands of handbags and shoes for Mother’s Day, expecting them to sell like hot cakes. Unfortunately, a No 8 typhoon ruined the sale.“It was supposed to be a big day and we expected all the sons and daughters to bring their mothers shopping,” the Sincere managing director recalled. “But all our efforts were a waste.”Ma said that despite the occasional setbacks, the best part of running a department store was the variety. “The retail business is closely related to the weather, festivals, holidays,” Ma said. “When the cold comes, people flood in to buy thick clothes, when it is getting close to Christmas or Lunar New Year, we have to open until midnight.”Tradition runs strong at Sincere. When the first store opened in January 1900, Hong Kong was still a British colony and mainland China was ruled by Emperor Guangxu, the penultimate emperor.The shop was the first locally run department store in the city, providing competition for the British-run Lane Crawford.Sincere was the first to hire female shop assistants, the first to adopt a policy of not bargaining on price and the first to issue a receipt to customers. “These all sound normal these days, but if you turned the clock back to 1900 when most Chinese seldom had contact with Western style retail shops, they were all ground-breaking practices,” Ma said.Born and raised in Hong Kong, Ma graduated with an MBA from a Canadian university. He started his career with computer firm Hewlett-Packard in Canada and in 1988 was promoted to head its Asia Pacific division. In 1990, he returned to the family business as finance director of Sincere. He was promoted to his current post in 1993.At the time, locally-owned Hong Kong department stores were facing a lot of competitive pressure from their Japanese rivals. To meet the challenge, Ma decided to expand Sincere into advertising, travel, and property in China and Britain.Despite the diversification, Sincere’s stores in Central, Mong Kok and Sham Shui Po remain a core part of the company’s business. “The retail business is very competitive but it is also full of fun,” Ma said. “We would like to run the shop to serve society for another century.”In the past 110 years, there have been many ups and downs - two world wars, the 1967 riots, the 1987 market crash and Sars in 2003. How has Sincere survived?We have loyal staff who defended the shops during the riots and during the war. We also have loyal customers who have shopped with us for several generations. Our major customers are middle and upper class ladies earning about HK$25,000 a month. We also have reliable suppliers who have worked with us for many decades. Most importantly, we are very conservative and never over-expand.
Do you consider the big shopping malls to be your rivals and how do you fend off the competition?The shopping malls lease out to big brands, but we run our own merchandising teams. This means we can scout for goods in remote areas of Italy, allowing us to offer goods of the same quality, but at a price 50 per cent lower than the famous brands. Also, we can provide a one-stop service; customers who bought a dress downstairs can buy a handbag and shoes in the same store.Sincere and Wing On are among the few locally-owned shops that have been able to survive for more than 100 years. How do you see your long term rival?The Kwok family of Wing On fame and the Ma family, of Sincere, were from the same area of Guangdong. The two families were both rivals, friends and relatives as we have had many cross marriages over the past decades. We are competing for customers, but we are not enemies. When Wing On has a promotional campaign, our business also increases. In the old days, we had joint coupons that customers could use in both shops. Overall, competitive drive means both of us do a better job. It is not that easy to have a friend and a rival next to you for more than a century.Sincere decided to sell its properties in Hong Kong in the 1990s and then rent them back. Why?It was to raise money to diversify our property investments in London, and to expand into advertising and travel. This expanded our income sources and helped us to cope with the later crises. If we kept the properties, we would not have needed to worry about being forced out by the landlord. But by paying a market price for rent, management is forced to be more careful in making sure the business is run in a profitable way.How have customers’ tastes changed?In the early part of last century, we sold cloth and had staff tailor make cheongsams for customers. Now all customers like to buy ready-to-wear clothes. We had a very big toy department but we no longer run it now as there are many speciality shops for toys. We focus on fashion, clothes and family products.What impact has the internet had on your business?I did not think internet shopping would be popular in this city. In Hong Kong, many people like shopping and browsing the department stores are family events on Sundays and holidays. In the shops, customers can try on clothes and touch the products before buying them. This is better than buying from the internet.Will Sincere be here in another 110 years?We will try our best to achieve that goal. We are very cautious in terms of both financing and merchandising. We have to make the right decision in buying goods during festive seasons as a wrong decision may mean we will need to wait for another year before selling them. We also want to be a company which can support society. Even during the financial crisis, we did not lay off staff but asked our 500 staff to take no-pay leave.You worked in a computer company before joining Sincere. What made you join the family firm?I had a regional role at Hewlett-Packard which meant I needed to travel to more than 10 countries frequently. That was just too tiring, so I decided to go for a job that did not require so much travel. In addition, the family members who run the company at that time were getting old.How do you compare working at a computer company and a department store?HP as a big US firm had great management systems. Its business was tied to technological change. I transferred my experience in HP to Sincere. We set service standards and sales targets to run the store in a modern way.
What have been the most heartfelt moments of your career?The many farewell parties of long-serving staff. Some joined Sincere as teenage girls and spent the next 40 years with the company. Some started at the bottom and were later promoted to senior positions. Some left to join other firms but then returned as they could not find the same family feeling. It is the human touch that is most unforgettable.Do you want your children to work at Sincere?I have two daughters who are working in the US. The eldest is a teacher but wants to go to medical school. My youngest works in a big department store and I will let her decide if she joins Sincere in future.Do you have any hobbies?I like golf and horse racing. I and some friends own some racehorses, not just for money but for fun. My horses have won a combined seven races, which is very satisfying.
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