By Vinodhani Nair
The rich business landscape in Malaysia, one that is full of opportunities, allows entrepreneurs to seek growth for their businesses in various industries. Julianna Chai saw such an opportunity to make her dreams come true, achieved with some elbow grease and perseverance. The 34-year-old business owner takes home a share of the niche watch industry in Malaysia through her pride and joy – Red Army Watches concept store.
Upon meeting Chai, it is obvious that she is a very driven and poised young woman, who takes on a challenge when a goal has been set – just like the opening of her watch shop five years ago.
Though it sounds like a clear-cut success story, Chai’s own journey as a business woman was not a conventional one. In fact, it is one that tells the tale of what experience and exposure can bring to the table when it comes to success.
Through a series of events, a Dubai-based airline company that happened to be a former client of Chai’s during her stint at an advertising agency, hired her. This saw her packing her bags and moving to Dubai.
She quickly scaled the career ladder in the airlines industry, where she stayed for seven years. “I worked my way up, and with some luck along the way, I had a chance to climb up the ladder quickly. I also had the opportunity to travel the world during my time at the airline company, where I met a lot of very important and interesting people,” says Chai.
With her experiences in the advertising and airline industry, Chai saw the potential in starting her own business and grabbed it. However, she decided her venture had to be back in her home country, Malaysia. The move to start something of her own was also inspired by her mother, who also had an entrepreneurial streak when the affable Chai was younger.
“I was always helping her out, and seeing her being her own boss, that made me want to start one of my own one day. Through the seven years of being in Dubai, I was constantly planning on what I wanted to do for my business,” Julianna shares.
A for effort
As luck would have it, Chai met her current business partner in 2004 – one who shared her interest of opening a watch business in Malaysia. The duo worked hard in establishing and finalising their business model and strategy. It took four years before the first Red Army Watches opened its doors to the local market.
“Red Army Watches started here late 2008. We are a concept store, where we bring in brands from different parts of Europe. It’s a one-stop centre for brands that you can’t find elsewhere; we offer timepieces that are unique and niche,” says Chai.
She invested her time, effort and savings – money she earned during her tenure in Dubai – to kick start her dream.
While delving into a new industry sounds like a huge risk to take, Chai believes it is all worth it. “While I was away from Malaysia, I was studying the retail and jewellery watch markets in Malaysia. A market research identified a trend of an annual industry growth of at least 10% from 2003 to 2008. At that time, that’s a big chunk to tap into. So, why not embark in it?” she reveals.
Of course, similarly with other start-ups, trials and tribulations were destined to happen. A few bumps were met along the way, with one incident etched in her memory.
“I was being criticised by another watch dealer. The watch industry in Malaysia is a very male-dominated one. I was criticised by this person who did not think I could succeed in the industry. Of course, I’ve proved I am here to stay. Though I have a lot more to learn, I am constantly working to improve myself and the business,” Chai shares.
Plans for further growth
Before we ended our conversation with the strong-willed Chai, we had to find out what the ‘Red Army Watches’ branding meant. Chai reveals the brand to be a homage to the store’s Russian watch brands. “In the beginning, most of our products came from Russia. We thought, what better way is there to call ourselves at the time. We are also the first Russian watch shop in the world,” she says.
After five years of being in operation, the Red Army Watches store now stocks German, Italian, Swiss and French watch brands. Russian brands are now taking a step back. As Chai puts it, there was a shift from Russian to Swiss makes since two years ago, as many of the former moved its operations to the latter.
Currently, the brand has three shops in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia respectively. Chai hopes to increase its distribution channels and brand awareness over the next few years. It is definitely time to take notice of our very own Red Army.