David SK Lee will open a glamorous new store in LA’s Larchmont Village this fall.
Ostensibly David SK Lee is a renowned Ferrari collector who owns more than 30 Ferraris in shiny red, bright yellow and deep blue, showcased on his YouTube channel and Instagram with 1.1 million followers. But the showmanship is just scratching the surface. Behind the happy-go-lucky demeanor is an astute and strategic businessman keenly aware of his affluent Asian American markets that propelled his father’s namesake store, Hing Wa Lee Jewelers, into a well-known luxury destination in Southern California.
Lee is the company’s chairman and chief executive who commissioned the magnificent 15,000 square-foot flagship store in San Gabriel, California. His stores cater to wealthy, fashion-conscious clients for whom wearing a beautiful timepiece is an extension of their sophistication and style, often with an average price tag of $10,000. Among his notable clients are Beyoncé, Rihanna, Justin Bieber, DJ Khaled, and Jay Leno, all seeking the finest selections from prestigious brands his store offers, including Rolex, Richard Mille, Vacheron Constantin, Ullysse Nardin, Piaget and Cartier. Lee has an additional store in Walnut, California, and will open a glamorous third location in LA’s upscale Larchmont Village this fall.
Lee’s father, Hing Wa, a renowned master gem carver established the company in 1965, starting with his first gemstone carving factory in Hong Kong. The exquisite craftsmanship of Hing Wa caught the attention of the esteemed Smithsonian Institute, leading to an invitation to restore precious antique Chinese carvings in Washington D.C in the 70s. Witnessing the deep appreciation for his dazzling work and the growing interest in gemstone carvings and jewelry, his father opened the first Hing Wa Lee Gallery in Bethesda, Maryland, selling wholesale sales to galleries across the United States. He later brought his family to join him, and they eventually settled in Southern California.
The Early Years
From David SK Lee’s childhood as an Eagle Scout in suburban LA to his years at USC Marshall School of Business, he has been driven to follow his family’s “three Golden Rules” which are: work hard, perseverance and maintain integrity. He explains his early days in 1990s, “When I first took over my family business, I did everything. I was the sales manager, purchasing, marketing, and accounting staff. I worked seven days a week for the first three years. This is the work ethic to have.”
At that time, Lee’s crucial decision to turn his father’s wholesale store to retail, specializing in high-end luxury watches, saved the company from economic recession. Having spent summers in Hong Kong in his youth, Lee intuitively recognized the growing Chinese presence, from the mainland to Taiwan and beyond. Lee tapped into their buying power and penchant for high-end goods. He also employed well-trained staff who not only spoke their language but also understood their values. His efforts accelerated the business exponentially, and today, the company is valued at $150 million. Lee also expanded his interests to real estate development, management, technology investments, and collectible cars.
In the early years, Lee contacted every top watch company and even sent a self-made video showing a marble-floor space reserved for Rolex, but without success. For two years, he flew to Switzerland, seeking to become an authorized dealer with Rolex. For days he returned to the Rolex booth inside Baselworld, a global watch fair, every hour; until one afternoon, they granted him a one-minute meeting with Allen Brill, Rolex’s then-USA CEO. Six months later, Rolex gave him the good news. “I thought I would fall to the floor,” Lee recalls of his excitement. Brill later told him that Hing Wa Lee’s business integrity got him the coveted account because Rolex verified that his store had a sterling reputation and never sold bootleg watches. Once Rolex joined, other prestigious brands soon followed. Within the first year, Hing Wa Lee Jewelers became the top sales volume independent Rolex authorized dealer, and has remained since 1995. They were also named as the “Top 10 best retailers in America” by Leading Watch Retailers.
Lee’s hard work, perseverance and integrity paid off. But he’s not done yet.
Perhaps the crowning expression of Lee’s vision is his newest store on the tree-lined, quaint Larchmont Village shopping district. Lee, a champion of understated luxury as reflected in his European-inspired retail spaces, aims to set Hing Wa Lee apart from other high-end retailers by providing an impeccably refined, welcoming, and unhurried atmosphere. The focus will be on “customer experience” versus sales, says Lee.
The two-story Larchmont store promises an elegant lounge-style ambiance designed to feel like a social club. Complimentary refreshments will be flowing with light snacks at the bar on the second floor. At the top, an open-air rooftop garden beckons guests to relax, take in the view, and enjoy the experience.
On a recent afternoon, we enjoyed a lively conversation with Mr. David SK Lee about the evolution of Hing Wa Lee Jewelers, his management style, his deep appreciation for family, education and looking at a person through the prism of how they have given back to the community. Some answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
In the early years, all the luxury watch companies turned you down to become an authorized dealer. But you kept trying. At some point, did you want to call it quits?
DL: At that point, I had convinced my father that I was going to change the business model and change the store. He said, “Ok. But if you do that, you must be fully in charge and see this through.” I accepted the challenge. So, there was no option to quit. Failure was not an option. Part of that was perseverance. I’m on the Board of the USC Marshall School of Business and I often get asked that question when I’m a guest speaker at the MBA courses. I tell students that you’re going to get a lot of rejections and ‘no’s. Back then, we weren’t a new company, but we were new as a watch store. I can understand their concerns. You had to prove yourself. I knew it was a tough undertaking. But I kept coming back. If they said ‘no,’ I would come back the next year and the next.
In the early 90s, you saw the need to change your business model. Do you see any changes in the current business structure?
DL: What has transformed our business and the luxury sector is the focus on customer experience. It’s not the old days where you’re trying to sell or about the price. It’s how you design and present the product. How the sales associates interact with the guests, and the environment and experience we create for the clients. This has changed the culture and philosophy of our stores. Hing Wa Lee embraces this philosophy in everything that we do. As a client when you come in you will feel this special customer experience.
Today, Hing Wa Lee Jewelers carries more than 30 of the top luxury watch and jewelry brands. Is there a brand you’re not working with that you would like to carry?
DL: Patek Phillip. It’s a very prestigious brand in the watch world. I would like to work with them. They would also want us to be their authorized dealer. It’s all timing. Right now, they’re ready to restructure. They’ve closed a lot of dealers. They will probably look into who’s appropriate. It’s a possibility.
How did Hing Wa Lee Jewelers get involved in real estate?
DL: When I took the helm, my father said, “Now you handle (the store). It’s in your hands.” My father then went to do real estate for our family business. He did it very well. He invested in multi-family units, commercial projects here and in Hong Kong. It was a good partnership as I was making money in retail, he would invest it in real estate. This evolved into developing our own stores. We own the land and built the retail plaza in Walnut in 2003, and the 15-000-square-foot flagship store in San Gabriel in 2013. Real estate is an integral part of our business. Today, Hing Wa Lee group has three major divisions: retail, real estate, and an investment division where we invest in many companies and different products. We are vertically integrated. My company Brilliant Realty & Real Estate Management in Arcadia manages the properties we own. We also buy and sell properties.
Are you a hands-on owner/CEO?
DL: My business strategy is that every business that I invest in or that I have, I need to know enough about the business so that I can run it myself. I do that because it allows me to make better decisions for that company. Even though I’m not doing the day-to-day work, I can discuss what is needed. I can advise, instruct, and make the right decisions. It allows me to delegate and trust my team to carry out the things we need to do.
How would you describe your management style?
DL: In every property, I have someone managing that business. I will come in when there’s a big decision to be made. Now that Hing Wa Lee group has a lot of different kinds of businesses to oversee, I can’t be tied down to day-to-day work. But I am involved. I have meetings and I contribute quite a bit where I need to contribute and where I can get more things done.
What are the biggest challenges in your business journey so far?
DL: Getting the right people to do the job. We try our best, but people get through the process and talk a bigger game. But you always know their work and ability after they start. Since I’ve been in business for 30 years, I have a sixth sense for people. Most of the time, I get it right. I have to say, most of the people that work for me have worked for me a long time.. 20, 25, 30 years. I have a solid group of established employees that have been with me forever.
Asian culture places high value on having a college education. Is this an important requirement in your hiring?
DL: It depends on what position. For some positions, education gives them the skills for the job. For the areas that need it, the right degree and school are very important. I appreciate education. As a father, both of my kids went to USC. My daughter graduated from Yale graduate school, and now is in her fourth year in Yale Medical School. My son graduated from USC and was accepted to Wharton Business School for his MBA. So, we’re sold on education. But the reason is we know how hard it is to get into those schools. How they picked the students from so many good candidates. You know that a person coming from those schools has worked very hard. They have a certain discipline to get there. The schools and where they graduated help you filter what kind of person you’re getting.
How do you measure success – is it purely financial, or are there other indicators you consider?
DL: I look at the whole person. Being successful in business financially is only one aspect. Success takes hard work. But sometimes, it’s luck or destiny that you’re granted to have this greater wealth. Now that you’re successful and have this great wealth, what do you do with it? Do you give back and help others? See where there’s a need and help? Success is also how you take care of your family. How you raise your kids to become good citizens; good people who contribute to this world. Having a balance between work and family is important. My family just came back from Europe, we spent two weeks in Italy. That part I’m really good at– having fun. (Laughs) My family feels like we have a lot of fun. We share a lot of great experiences that they will remember. I think they’re quite happy.
It’s important to give back. I participate in many non-profit organizations where I can make a difference, even if on a smaller scale, I’m happy to do that. I was recently appointed by Governor Newsom to the California Volunteer Commission. I’m on the board of the USC Marshall School of Business and I also serve as a mentor. Community Involvement
If you were to start your career over again, what are some things you would do differently?
DL: I think we’re dealt with the hand we’re dealt with. The reality is that I was born into a family that was a jewelry family. I did what I could. I was very observant of what was out there. What the market needed and reacted to that and changed with the times, which is important. Looking back, I would say that I would have handled certain relationships better. I think that relationships are important. Did I handle that relationship the best I could? Obviously, looking back is 20/20 vision.
We’re humans and we’re not perfect. We sometimes make judgement calls, and we look back and maybe it wasn’t the right call, and it affected some relationships. This happens every day for everybody. For me, I’m a little bit more sentimental. I care about that. I wish I could have done it better. I wish certain relationships were reconciled. I was younger and didn’t know better. Now, I would do it differently.
How do you think people perceive you?
DL: Hopefully after they read your article, they will know me better. (Laughs) A lot of people know me through social media, my Instagram with 1.1 million followers, YouTube channel, and Jay Leno’s interviews on his TV series about cars. They know me as a Ferrari collector because that’s what out there the most. They may perceive me as another rich guy that’s showing off, or something like that. But that’s not really me. Yes, I have a passion for Ferrari and I do collect them. It’s a business investment, as well as my passion. I use it for a lot of good things. I use it to influence people in a positive way. The real me is that I’m very philanthropic. I spend my time and resources to be a part of the government in a way that I could help by being on various commissions and boards. I give my time to schools to help with education. If you meet me, I’m very humble. A lot of people may put up a wall or are standoffish but I’m not like that. I’m religious; I’m a Christian. This plays out in my personality. People who don’t know me will perceive me from the outside, but that’s a stereotype. That is not the real me.
Are you referring to the “Crazy Rich Asians” stereotype from the blockbuster movie?
DL: I know those guys. They’re my friends. (Laughs) Yes, they have money. You just see the money and what they spend it on. But do they help other people? Are they kind to their friends? Are they kind to the people around them? You don’t see that. So, I don’t know. I’m probably not what people think of as “Crazy Rich Asians.” I’m very much a down to earth person.
How would you like to be perceived?
DL: I want to be perceived as the person you’d asked earlier: What I considered as a “successful person”– someone who makes wise and good business decisions to gain financial freedom. I say that because having financial freedom allows you to use it to do good. To be a philanthropist, to help people. To be generous and give your time and resources to help others, which I do. It’s also to be a true friend, a good father and husband to your family. And I think in my case, to be a genuine person and a positive influence through philanthropy and give back to society.