Sure-footed steps zip across the carpeted hallway of The Hour Glass office, breaking the air-conditioned silence with their urgency. Michael Tay approaches with a smile, but his hastened gait suggests he is anything but ready for the weekend just yet, even as everyone else is winding down on this balmy Friday afternoon.

As we chit-chat at his Tong Building office while waiting for the photographer to set up, the executive director casts regular glances at his mobile phone as if he was expecting an e-mail or phone call. When he has a private moment, the 39-year-old immediately scrolls through his messages and types away purposefully.

Something is clearly brewing.

Four days after our meeting in late October, the mainboard-listed specialist watch retailer announced that it had purchased watch retail chain Watches of Switzerland for $13.3 million from Singapore-based privately held fashion and lifestyle group Jay Gee Melwani. This acquisition adds five boutiques to The Hour Glass, taking the total to 37 that are spread across the Asia-Pacific, including Japan and Australia. There are currently 20 boutiques in Singapore, including More Passion at Paragon and Malmaison at Knightsbridge.

Three days later, The Hour Glass made news again with its A$32.8 million (S$36.6 million) purchase of a six-storey heritage retail and office building in Sydney’s CBD. The Hour Glass also owns the Kodak House in Melbourne, which is one of the city’s first Art Deco buildings. It was constructed in 1935.

Time is obviously of the essence and Tay wastes none in changing the horological landscape that he operates in.

He says: “My father taught me early on in life that we are not judged by what we say but by what we do and how we go about doing it. Our lives are measured by the footprints we leave behind, the courses we chart, the examples we set for others to follow.”

A new movement
Since he joined the company in 1999 – first as its business re-engineering manager – Tay has been pushing for The Hour Glass to take the cultural route in sharing the art of fine watchmaking with the public, including the skills and creativity that make a timepiece. This resulted in watch exhibitions like the Tempus in the 2000s which opened the horological world to the public.

Tay is a member of the governing Cultural Committee of the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie, which sets itself up as the think-tank of the fine-watch industry. He is also a member of the jury of the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Geneve, also known as the Oscars of watchmaking.

For the past five years, he has been reinventing the way consumers shop at watch retailers. Instead of adopting a uniform look, the group has implemented concept stores which look vastly different from one another.

The ultimate goal, of course, is to entice people to open their wallets.

The first was L’Atelier which opened at Ion Orchard in 2009, fashioned after a watchmaker’s workshop.

Malmaison opened in 2011 at the Knightsbridge mall and was his first foray into non-horology luxury lifestyle products. Its opulent interior was inspired by Chateau de Malmaison, the lavish 19th-century residence of Napoleon and Josephine Bonaparte who were tastemakers in their time, and was intended to make shoppers feel at home.

The emporium stocks exclusive products such as jewellery by cult Scandinavian brand Shamballa, Pierre Corthay handmade shoes, clothing by Neapolitan tailor Rubinacci and French label Charvet, perfumes by French house Frederic Malle and limited-edition Taschen books.

On display are over 40 vintage Rolexes from Tay’s personal collection, including the Comex submariner and the complete variations of the Steve McQueen Daytonas. It is also the first in Singapore to have a shop-in-shop concept, where watch brands have designated rooms within Malmaison.

More Passion opened at Paragon shopping centre in 2012, and features interior architecture whose style takes after that of the post-war Italian design movement dominating the 1950s and 1960s. It houses largely independent brands and watchmakers such as MB&F, Urwerk and De Bethune.

After bringing popular French patisserie Laduree to Singapore last year as part of its luxury-enterprises division, it recently expanded into Bangkok with two stores in mid-October.

Tay’s efforts have paid off.

Profits have increased over 70 per cent to $56.4 million, since 2010. Today, the group is worth $450 million.

Rather than be a follower of the times, he has decidedly taken charge of it – perhaps wisely so, after being burnt badly during the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s.

For Tay, timing has been everything for the past 15 years.

Fight or flight
If it weren’t for the financial crisis, Tay might not have joined his parents – Dr Henry Tay and Jannie Chan, who founded The Hour Glass in 1979 – in the family business and, consequently, not transformed the horological landscape in Singapore.

For a 24-year-old young ’un who had bagged the coveted position of an investment banker at Merrill Lynch in London, it was a no-brainer. But back in Singapore, things at The Hour Glass were heading south. The luxury watch retailer went from posting an $18-million profit in 1996 to bleeding $8 million in operating losses in 1998. He dutifully returned home from London to help salvage the family business.

He says: “Like military conscription, joining the family business was an eventuality. But I felt it was important to gain professional experience first. With hindsight, the financial crisis was one of the most difficult episodes that I’ve been through. It shaped my fundamental approach to business. Having gone through and cut your teeth during such a period, it only serves to fortify one’s grit. Till today, I remember those emotions so clearly – those stages of trying to understand why you are in such a position, especially when it was not of your own doing.

“You need mental dexterity and fortitude to pull through. It was a great lesson learnt, much better than joining post-crisis and after having gone through the investment-banking route and the associated high life.”

Recalibration in order
Tay, who arrives at the office daily at 7am and doesn’t leave till 8pm, doesn’t mince words when he recounts the luxury watch retailer’s failures. A primary reason was aggressive expansion, which was thwarted by “complacent staff” who relied on “a handful of champion salesmen” to sustain growth.

He says: “We forgot that being close to the ground, close to our clients is what ultimately makes a retailer successful.” Nearly 50 or a third of its staff had to be retrenched.

Then, there was the “helpless situation” in which Swiss watch brands Gerald Genta and Daniel Roth, which The Hour Glass owned then, were “haemorrhaging cash”.

Tay, who spent a year at the Swiss offices of both brands and another year at the New York distributor’s office, recalls: “Linguistically and culturally, we were distant from our Swiss managers and craftsmen that operated those businesses.”

Between 1999 and 2000, as The Hour Glass was still grasping for a breather, a sea change was happening in the global watch world. The industry was undergoing a period of vertical integration where conglomerates took over smaller brands that did not have economies of scale to expand. Richemont bought IWC, A. Lange & Sohne and Jaeger-LeCoultre, while Swatch Group acquired Breguet and Glashutte Original. Meanwhile, LVMH snagged Ebel, Zenith and Tag Heuer.

Bulgari Group soon came knocking at The Hour Glass’ door with an unsolicited offer to acquire both brands for 37.6 million Swiss francs in 2000. Needless to say, it was a welcome relief.

Tay says: “The Hour Glass would not be where it is now, if we had not divested ourselves of Gerald Genta and Daniel Roth. Speciality watch manufacturing simply wasn’t our core management competence. As much as one can attempt to manage all aspects of one’s environment and probable outcomes, circumstances that develop can sometimes be beyond one’s control. You just have to recalibrate the way you view a situation, accept responsibility and chart the path forward.”

The group has high hopes for Australia’s unfurling luxury-market potential. Some A$10 million will be spent on upgrading commercial properties it owns in Sydney and Melbourne over the next five years.

Liberated by art
We take a walk across the office floor, where whitewashed walls are decorated with Tay’s personal art collection by contemporary artists. In one waiting area, a rare 1970s Patek Philippe Electronic Master Clock System and its attached “slave” clocks stand tall, waiting to be activated.

Inside Tay’s modest office, century-old tribal sculptures from Oceania and Africa stand guard on a ledge. It is in stark contrast to his father’s office which has a more classical look with wood panelling and richer colours of brown, burgundy and moss green.

“I believe in collecting the art of our time. It identifies the issues of our time and forms part and parcel of our lives, (helping us) to be in touch with what’s currently happening in the culture of the world. Art always gives great insight.”

It was his English nanny, Helen Dunne, who nurtured his love of art when he was a child. Dunne would encourage him and his two sisters to put up pantomimes for his parents and their friends. After attending Anglo-Chinese School (Junior) here, he left Singapore when he was 12 years old for private boarding school The Leys in Cambridge, UK.

He toyed with the idea of a performing-arts degree at Bretton Hall at the University of Leeds. But the pragmatic Asian thinking in him kicked in and he read business and international management at Oxford Brookes University instead.

“I was the only person in my co-education school who elected to take contemporary-dance classes, so the school organised private tutorials. Whenever there was a school play that involved a dance segment, I filled in – in my one-piece, sheeny white leotard. Despite having to continually justify to my rugby teammates that what I was engaged in was purely body movements in abstraction, I loved the momentary liberation it afforded.”

That later exposed him to visual arts, which he initially used to help him in business. “I believe that there exists a visual ideal of beauty that is universal. I started to appreciate not just the beauty of the objects but the stories that accompanied the works of art (as well as) the influence that great artists and art pieces had on successive generations, each contributing to that linear continuum of art history.

“Developing this sensibility and appreciation of the past has led me to understand that for true innovation to exist, one must have an intrinsic understanding of what has come before. That it is only through the mastery of the past that one can create something truly new. When I collect watches or modern and contemporary art, it is this which I fall back on to make a decision on the significance of the creator and that piece of work.”

Tay, who is also an avid cyclist and took part in the gruelling 2011 UCI World Masters Championships Race in Stavelot, Belgium, sits on the Singapore National Heritage Board, as well as non-profit visual arts organisations Platform and Singapore Tyler Print Institute.

Life partner
Whereas he used to escape to art fairs on his own, these days, he has company – his fiancee, 30-year-old Talenia Phua Gajardo, who is the founder of local online art gallery The Artling. Her father is Singaporean Chinese and her mother is Chilean. Their parents have been friends for a long time, though the couple got together only eight months ago, he shares.

This will be Tay’s second marriage. He was previously married to a fashion stylist. “I’m the luckiest man on earth,” he gushes. “I’ve met this incredible woman with whom I share so many passions in life – art, architecture and design, and, more importantly, whose personal values and life goals dovetail with mine.”

The couple travel the world to attend at least three art fairs together and will acquire a piece only if both parties agree. They recently bought a snapshot from New York-based photographer Ryan McGinley’s Fireworks series.

“She is considerate to a fault, has a boundless capacity for love and is prepared to share the rest of her life with me. And so, if we are blessed, in the next several years, I look forward to parenthood, especially to the trials and tribulations of being an overly anxious father to tiny toddlers.”

And, when that happens, Tay will likely be found rolling up his sleeves – to change diapers. It’s as close to the ground as one can get.

Find out why Michael Tay, who chairs NGO Mercy Relief, prefers not to donate to causes in the digital edition of The Peak here.