Singaporean

From Lee Hwa To Maxi-Cash: How He Revamped His Family Biz And Became S'pore's 50th Richest

Multimillionaire Koh Wee Seng holds a net worth of US$540 million and ranks just shy of Forbes’ richest list as Singapore’s 50th richest man.

Despite being the founder and driver behind one of Singapore’s largest business empires, the low-profile magnate has been kept largely out of the public eye.

The man behind household brand names like Lee Hwa Jewellery and Maxi-Cash, Koh was barely an adult when he took over the reins of his family’s half-a-century-old jewellery business.

The enterprising youth quickly turned his mother’s shop into an international conglomerate spanning the jewellery, financial, property and hospitality services in just two decades.

Modernising The Family Business

First founded in 1970, Lee Hwa Jewellery began as a shop on Circuit Road, MacPherson, with his mother Tan Soo Lan at the helm.

The business specialised in the sale of yellow gold, and the company only began to break even in 1994 as customer tastes changed.

Koh wee seng Lee Hwa Jewellery
Koh Wee Seng / Image Credit: Blog Spiking

After Koh graduated from National University of Singapore’s Business school, he joined the family business. Only in his early 20s, the heir to the Lee Hwa business brought a new, young perspective to the table.

Taking over the reins of the family business, Koh deliberately revamped the Lee Hwa brand to appeal to contemporary, international audiences. The firm’s modern focus and aggressive promotions accounted for its explosive growth.

In 1996, Koh introduced white gold to the market via its Platinum and Gold collection, which targeted young women between 20 and 25 years old. Trendy and fresh, white gold was the modern counterpart to the then-outdated yellow gold collection that Lee Hwa relied on.

Lee Hwa Jewellery
Image Credit: Lee Hwa Jewellery

Gambling on his plan, Koh’s first Platinum and Gold storefront stocked only contemporary pieces and disregarded yellow gold.

After a resounding success, Lee Hwa began exclusively manufacturing white gold jewellery and dropped its yellow gold line.

The firm’s attention to public sentiment paid off. Between 1995 and 1999, Koh more than tripled Lee Hwa’s turnover from S$23 million to S$72 million.

By 1999, Lee Hwa had the largest jewellery factory in Singapore, as well as 16 retail showrooms at key shopping districts like Suntec City Mall and Wisma Atria, with over 100 craftsmen in its employ.

Lee Hwa: The Only Jeweller On SGX

Koh didn’t stop there.

Determined to go global, Lee Hwa publicly announced its intention to take on international brands like Bulgari and Tiffany by subsuming the jewellery line under the Aspial Corporation to cater to the international market.

The brand spent almost S$1 million on trade visits and advertising, and became the first and only jeweller to be publicly listed on SGX in 1999.

Purple Gold Lee Hwa Jewellery
Image Credit: Lee Hwa Jewellery

In 2000, Lee Hwa became the first brand to create and design the world’s first Purple Gold collection, launched as a “bling revival” from “decades of yellow and white gold”.

Made of 80 per cent pure gold and 20 per cent alloys with metals like palladium, Purple Gold was an innovation brewed by Lee Hwa’s R&D team.

In 2002, the Aspial group acquired the exclusive distribution patent rights for Purple Gold. It is recognised by the World Gold Council as a precious metal, and the collection is seen as a breakthrough for the jewellery industry.

Back then, the goal for the Lee Hwa heir was to open up to 50 stores regionally by 2010 — an ambitious plan that would prompt the next series of aggressive expansions by Aspial in the next two decades.

Alexis Bedel Lee Hwa Jewellery
Alexis Bedel wearing Lee Hwa Jewellery at the Emmys / Image Credit: Lee Hwa Jewellery Facebook

Today, Lee Hwa Jewellery is worn by international stars all over the world.

Citigems, Goldheart, Niessing and Maxi-Cash

On top of Lee Hwa, Aspial has expanded into three different jewellery brands: Goldheart Jewelry, Niessing and Citigems.

Launched in 1974, Goldheart was Singapore’s first and leading bridal jeweller, responsible for introducing wedding bands to local markets and turning it mainstream.

The brand was acquired by Aspial in 2005 and remains one of Singapore’s largest jewellery chains, with more than 20 boutiques islandwide.

Goldheart
Image Credit: Capitaland

Goldheart is also the exclusive distributor of the Celestial diamond, a 73-facet diamond with an eight-pointed starburst pattern. With a highly reflective cut, Celestial diamonds are remarkable for their shine, and every diamond is certified by the Gemological Institute of America.

Aspial has also acquired German jewellery brand Niessing, which was originally founded in 1873 by Hermann Niessing. The brand is famous for its innovative designs, in particular, the Niessing Spannring.

Niessing Spannring
Image Credit: Niessing

Also known as a tension ring, the first Niessing Spannring was created by the firm in 1979.

A tension ring holds its gemstone in place via the pressure between two ends of a ring, as opposed to a mount. This makes it look like the gemstone is floating in place, a unique characteristic that makes Niessing’s designs instantly recognisable.

Citigems, the last of Aspial’s homegrown subsidiaries, is best known for its affordable line of jewellery based in Singapore.

Citigems are also widely available at Maxi-Cash stores, Singapore’s first public-listed pawnbroker and one of the most notable businesses owned by the Aspial corporation.

Maxi Cash
Image Credit: Maxi Cash

After listing on SGX in 2008, Maxi-Cash opened its first few outlets in Ang Mo Kio and Orchard Road a year later. It provides pawnbroking services, trading in the resale of pre-loved jewellery and luxury items.

Maxi-Cash remains the leader of the pawnbroking industry in Singapore, with over 45 outlets islandwide. It’s also the first pawnbroking chain to pioneer online payment services, valuation services and an e-shop.

Expanding To Hospitality And Property

The last of Aspial’s diverse portfolio of businesses are rooted in the hospitality and property development industries.

Under the World Class Land group, Koh has developed premier commercial and residential properties like City Gate and the Waterfront in Singapore.

World Class Global, the conglomerate’s international property arm, has also launched developments across Australia and Malaysia.

Australia 108
Image Credit: Indesign Live

Australia 108, the brand’s most ambitious project yet, is slated to be the tallest residence in the Southern Hemisphere. Located in Melbourne, the building is set to be over 100 stories high with 1,105 apartment units, and will be completed this year.

Founded in 1973 and listed on SGX, AF Global Limited was acquired by Aspial and Fragrance Group Limited in 2015, with each firm holding 50 per cent of its issued shares.

Fragrance Group is owned by hotel magnate Koh Wee Meng, Koh’s elder brother.

AF Global Limited currently operates across Singapore, China, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and other countries. Some notable developments include Holiday Inn Phuket and the Crowne Plaza London Kensington in the United Kingdom.

Growing A Robust Empire

From a boy who worked in his family’s jewellery shop at the tender age of 11 to the multimillionaire founder of a jewellery, finance, property 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 saw its earnings fall 63 per cent to S$5.5 million for the first half of the year, primarily due to the drop in retail sales.

The company’s total revenue also fell 25.1 per cent to S$243.2 million due to the drop in contributions from its real estate and jewellery businesses. Real estate revenue fell 38.6 per cent, while jewellery revenue fell 46.4 per cent,

The drop was partially offset by Aspial’s financial services revenue, which rose by 11.7 per cent to S$102.8 million due to higher contributions from pawn-broking and jewellery trading during a period of economic recession.

Despite the hardships of 2020, the Aspial group continues to display the same ambitious determination its founder honed decades earlier.

“Although governments have provided various short-term subsidies and support, the group will need to strengthen its product and service innovation,” it said.

Featured Image Credit: Niessing / Prestige Hong Kong

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