[dropcap size=small]S[/dropcap]ometimes, the best ideas are the simplest ones. In 1967, three brothers in search of a business opportunity pooled resources to open a tiny kiosk selling sunglasses in Change Alley. In the days before it morphed into The Arcade, it was a cramped, bustling 100-metre-long covered space in Raffles Place where money changers, local merchants and souvenir salesmen gathered to offer services and sell wares to tourists and visiting seamen. Customers, both local and foreign, would surely need to protect their eyes from the glare of the tropical sun, the brothers’ thinking went – and of course they were right. From such humble beginnings a Singapore success story was born. The three brothers (Joseph, David and Richard Wong) founded Capitol Optical and the next year opened a store in Outram Park. They were soon running a thriving business – one that now has a 50-year history, next-generation owners and 17 outlets throughout Singapore.
Earlier this year Delvyn Wong (David’s son) was appointed CEO of Capitol, which he manages together with cousins Benny and Marcus (Richard’s sons). They run a company that is an acknowledged leader in an industry that generated S$526 million in Singapore in 2017 (according to Euromonitor). The global eyewear business is currently worth an estimated US$115 billion – enough to put many other industries in the shade. People may still put on their spectacles one pair at a time, but much else has changed. New technology means frames are now made from much lighter and more durable materials like titanium, while lenses are also more advanced than before. With nearly 900 optical stores in Singapore, the demand for eyewear has never been greater. The second-generation Wongs may have more competition than the company founders had to deal with in the beginning, but opportunities still remain. The two surviving founders – David and Richard – now play a more consultative role, but they continue to visit stores, offer advice and engage in the decision-making process. As a result, the next 50 years is looking pretty good. “My job is to make it happen,” says Delvyn, 42, adding, “I live and breathe the optical business, and there are six words I share with family and friends: With Wong you cannot go wrong.”
What’s your earliest memory of Capitol Optical?
When I was seven, I hung out at our Lucky Plaza store during weekends. I was fascinated by how glasses could correct a person’s vision and help to improve the look of the person. I broke a lot of eyewear taking them down from the shelves – luckily, I was not punished. The first lesson I learned in how to handle frames was: use two hands to put them on, two hands to take them off.
How did you get started in the business?
I came back after graduating from college to help out my dad, and my interest in the optical trade hasn’t diminished. In 2001, I started as an outdoor salesman for an eyewear distributor (and sister company to Capitol Optical) with a network in Singapore and Malaysia. It allowed me to get a better understanding of what people in the optical trade were looking for. The most important thing was to know everything about the brands we offered and how well they would fit the customers. Lightness, comfort and durability are other factors. A lot of eyewear practitioners look for premium names like Silhouette and Lindberg and also luxury Korean brands, which are very fashion-forward.
Almost everyone in your family wears spectacles; was that by accident or design?
(Laughs) We all wear specs – we’re ambassadors for the brands. I buy three to four pairs every year – not because they are in trend, but because it helps to represent the company. My current pair is by Vedi Vero, a luxury Korean brand. It’s made of titanium, very light and comfortable and full rim, bi-colour with apple-shape lenses. The slightly more rounded shapes are currently in fashion.
What are the pros and cons of working for the family business?
My dad always said to me, ‘You have to walk the path, even though it’s long and arduous, but once you find success the taste is that much sweeter.’ One major benefit was I got to learn from the best, it gave me the leverage to create a winning strategy. On the other hand, I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty, work hard to understand the fundamentals of the trade and the needs of the staff. Humility is something we cherish, it’s the yardstick we measure ourselves by. We have a very close bond with our staff, who are loyal in return. Our longest-serving staff started working with us 44 years ago; he is now 72 and we watched his hair turn from black to white. At the end of the day we have a good consultative approach: there is no one person with the final say, it’s always by consensus – everybody shares the success or the pain.
The eyewear market is still growing, but so are the challenges. How do you stay ahead in the game?
We’re not worried about competition, we just do what we do. Ours is a brick and mortar business, and our strength has always been in retail. The challenge is always the same: the cost of labour and rental. We have to grow, but the number of options is dwindling, and the pitfalls are increasing. In the early days, sunglasses were the primary driver of the business but myopia has increased and we now have a higher propensity of children donning eyewear. Our vision is to eliminate poor quality eyewear and eye care in Singapore.
What’s the Rolls-Royce of the eyewear world, and who would you like to fit with a pair of glasses?
Many of the premium frames are made from materials like titanium and buffalo horn, but there’s a model by (Austrian brand) Silhouette that is made of 18k gold and studded with canary diamonds – it’s priced at S$38,000 (lenses not included). I’d like to fit President Halimah Yacob with a pair of rimless glasses: they are clean on the face and convey authority and professionalism. We can bring the equipment to the Istana to do the vision check and recommend something suitable. That’s the beauty of eyewear: it can help you achieve the look you want.
This article was originally published in The Business Times.