Justin Reis, co-founder and director of WatchBox, has changed careers but still brings the same of attention to detail to the job
Success in one field affords the chance to step back, recalibrate and strike out in a new direction, and that’s exactly what Justin Reis did after deciding to move on from the finance sector.
“For more than 15 years, I’d had an operational finance role with a private equity firm and wanted to show more entrepreneurial flair,” says the co-founder and director of WatchBox. “I wanted to try some other ideas, rather than investing in coal mines and airlines, and felt capable of going out and developing a new business.”
The firm he now runs offers a platform to sell pre-owned luxury timepieces either online or through the company’s offices. It took shape around 30 months ago after a period of extensive travel and research, which led to a link-up with two partners who also liked the idea of applying e-commerce principles to create new opportunities in a large – and expanding – sector, which still worked on very traditional lines.
“One partner had a backroom in Philadelphia where four young people were trading watches over the phone,” Reis says. “We saw it as an embryonic business that could be scaled and grown if customers could also go online. We invested with a view to bringing in capital, management and technology.”
The concept, though, was not simply to create a marketplace. It was to buy and hold inventory, to restore and polish each timepiece with the help of experts trained in the Swiss watch industry, and to put them back on sale online in near-new condition - and with a warranty.
“We’re the principal in every transaction and are now trading hundreds of watches a day,” says Reis, noting an average value of over US$12,000 per item. “Once a customer submits a watch for sale, we pay within 24 hours of receipt. And buyers can be sure every timepiece we sell is in good condition. They need to be given that insurance.”
The platform can also give customers real-time valuations of their collections, but things are not entirely tech-focused. The business is very much about forging relationships and establishing trust, so the sales team is always ready to fix in-person meetings if preferred.
“As with any start-up, we had a few road bumps in building the structure and hiring the management team, but this year the business will be in excess of US$200 million (HK$1.57 billion) in revenue and headcount is now around 160,” Reis says. “We have a road map stretching several years ahead, and there are multiple ways of monetising in future.”
Though born in Australia, Reis grew up mainly in Singapore, where his father – from a Hong Kong family of 14 - built a management career in the fast-food industry after starting out as a Pizza Hut waiter in Canberra.
Reis initially took a similar path, doing shifts in various fast-food restaurants from the age of 15, including at a KFC outlet his father opened in Berlin.
“You soon appreciate what hard work is like and understand what a true consumer business is,” he says. “I liked being part of the team, and proving I could make my own income. That was very gratifying.”
In helping to set up restaurants, he also saw what it took to find the right formula and then scale. His father’s method was to break the customer experience into 30-second “descriptive windows” from the moment they came in. By doing that, it was possible to learn the essentials of the business and to appreciate what the customer expects and feels.
Reis attended United World College in Singapore and, for two years, the French International School in Hong Kong, when his father was branching out here. As an aspiring teenage musician playing drums and bass guitar, he even sat in, alongside his twin brother, with bands at JJ’s night club in the Grand Hyatt.
At other times, holidays were usually spent at his mother’s family’s sheep farm outside Canberra, tending to lambs, doing vaccinations, and handling general chores around the property.
“I had a really interesting childhood,” he says. “My parents trusted us to get on with life and try different things. I was ambitious, a self-starter who wanted to be successful and, early on, became interested in finance and how markets work.”
Accordingly, he took a three-year degree in economics and management at the London School of Economics, graduating in 1995, and went to work as a swaps trader for a derivatives house in the City.
“What appealed was the combination of finance and the entrepreneurial element,” he says. “But after a year, with no visa to stay in the UK, I went to Australia to join a hedge fund and bond trading company in Sydney. The two founders were well known and making waves, so I felt I could learn a lot from them.”
Soon after joining, he was in Japan trading the euro-yen and samurai bonds. Then, in 1997, with the firm switching its focus to private equity, he moved to Singapore and built a 70-strong team, which invested over US$1 billion in commodities, aviation and real estate mainly for family offices based in Europe.
By 2011, though, he was ready for a change and, in effect, travelled the world for a while assessing opportunities before settling on the concept for WatchBox.
Coming from the finance industry, it was natural for him to draw parallels with the way banks set up their business. Therefore, he talks of the company’s back-office taking care of tech development, digital marketing, admin and finance, while the mid-office handles everything to do with operations.
“But you can’t lose sight of the ‘human touch’ aspect,” he says. “Business these days is won and lost by relationships with customers. We survive through word of mouth and feedback, so we must continually improve and be able to measure that improvement.”
(Photo: Lau Wai)