You know, I once heard a saying: ‘Jewellers are the tastemakers of society’,” Dato’ Sri Meer Sadik Habib muses as he waits for the next round of photography to begin for The Peak’s cover shoot. Given that the Group Managing Director of Habib Group is sporting a Tom Ford suit with a classic high-collared white shirt, it seems Malaysian society is in safe (and stylish) hands indeed.
For few other brands, of course, are as synonymous with jewellery in this country as Habib Jewels, which – over the course of 60 years – evolved from a small family business in Penang to one of Malaysia’s premier jewellers. With 30 showrooms spread out across the country, Habib Jewels’ reputation for quality, world-class designs and value still stands today.
As Dato’ Sri Meer will attest, however, it’s taken an enormous degree of pragmatism and astuteness to navigate the ever-shifting jewellery market and to ensure that the company remains both relevant and successful. “When it comes to our products, the quality and the creativity has to be there,” he says. “Timelessness and modernity are equally important to the Habib Jewels brand, so it’s a big challenge, but, hey, if there’s no challenge, there’s no brand in what we do.”
GOOD AS GOLD
A large portion of Dato’ Sri Meer’s childhood and teenage years were spent at Habib Jewels’ first shop on Pitt Street in Penang, then known as ‘Jewellers’ Corner’. He remembers returning from school and learning how to adjust the manual weighing scales for gold and diamonds. “You had to have a very steady hand! There’d be customers who’d come in on a trishaw in their kebayas and makeup, and they’d be laughing and smiling. I was quite dazzled just watching people arriving in their fashionable clothes and being so proud of their jewellery.
“My father, Datuk Haji Habib Mohamed Abdul Latif, used to tell me that the reason why he went into this business was that it’s one of happiness. When people visit the doctor, they’re always unhappy – they’ve had an accident or they’re not well – whereas when people go to a jewellery store, they have a reason to celebrate, like a birthday, anniversary or engagement.” When asked whether he and his father (who passed away in April last year) were very much alike, Dato’ Sri Meer replies: “He was quite different from me, so that’s something I’ve always worked at, in trying to keep up with him. For instance, he’s very forgiving – sometimes, I struggle with that!
“He was also very caring towards everyone. He’d stop and talk to employees about their family or ask the driver if he’d had lunch, while I tend to go straight into business and focus on what needs to be done! But these were lessons that he taught me, many of which we’ve incorporated into Habib Group’s core values and kept alive. The foundation of it rests on integrity, and doing everything with honesty and sincerity. In Malaysia, people buy jewellery for two reasons: one is for adornment, and the other is for investment. People like to know who’s behind the brand, so it’s not only important to be honest in our business, but you have to be seen to be doing the right thing.
“You see, when my father started his business, his competitors were all wellestablished, whereas he had to struggle to build his capital. But suppliers were prepared to work with him on a consignment or credit basis because of their trust in him. He’d already spent 10 years in the jewellery industry and they knew if he’d promised something, he’d do it before the time was due. So, our entire business was built on trust.” The only son of five children, Dato’ Sri Meer was always aware that the responsibility of taking over the family company would one day be his, and after studying for degrees in gemmology and business in the United States, he dutifully headed home.
“I came back wanting to relieve my parents of their responsibilities because I’d seen them do so much for us while I was growing up. On the evening of 15 January 1986, I arrived in Malaysia and started working the next morning – until today! Originally, I didn’t have a plan. I wanted to see what I could do but, after a few months, I began thinking long-term about how to develop the business. I looked at what our brand was all about and asked myself: what had my father been doing that was right? He’d always listen to customers, rather than thinking about making a sale.
“It’s always about relationship-building and talking to people, where making a sale is the result of what you do, not the intention of selling something. That’s why his approach will always be part of our company’s core values.”
Beside his father’s lessons, there were those that Dato’ Sri Meer had to learn on his own as he expanded Habib Jewels, some of which were harder than others to take. There was the time a group of conmen made off with MYR300,000 worth of loose diamonds – “I felt I’d let everyone down,” he recalls. “But going forward, I vowed to make back the money as fast as possible and worked doubly hard to recoup our losses.” Then there was the hair-raising currency crisis of 1997, where it had recently become the first-ever public listed jeweller in Malaysia, only to find it owed its overseas suppliers a great deal more than expected while still having to hit its profit guarantees.
From a more ordinary perspective, there’s also the challenge that comes with seeking national recognition as a local brand: “You’ll find brands that have an Italian-sounding name but are actually Malaysian. Not us – we take pride in being Malaysian. But to set up a showroom in a shopping mall, compared to an international brand that might be given a good location, we’ll get a higher rental rate and a lousy location, so it’s a constant fight,” he says. “Then again, Habib Jewels thrives whenever there are lots of challenges. The strange thing about our business is that every time there’s some big crisis, we tend to do very well!”
Although Habib Jewels first took root as a wholesale jewellery business, Dato’ Sri Meer moved the company in the direction of engaging directly with Malaysia’s growing consumer market. Offering affordable and accessible products while maintaining the brand’s prestige, however, took a certain amount of careful navigation. “We thought about going very high-end, but we’re proud of being a Malaysian brand and we wanted to be accessible to everyone. That’s been the most difficult thing – but it’s not impossible.
“Think of an airline, where you have First Class, Business Class and Economy Class. If you provide extremely good service and you’re able to cater to different market groups, then everyone is happy. We have a concept of our jewellery being world-class: the quality should be the same as international brands, but for a reasonable price. We worked really hard on our branding and marketing, and we wanted to ensure we wouldn’t seem intimidating to, say, a young graduate who’s just started working and wants to buy something small.
“We even get workers from Bangladesh or Indonesia who want to purchase a nice gold chain before going back home, and they’ll know they’ve got the right quality and price. Everyone is important as a customer – we need to respect each and every individual.” Habib Jewels is no stranger to high-profile bespoke requests – it has crafted jewellery and official crowns for several Malaysian royal houses – but Dato’ Sri Meer is just as proud of the brand’s traditional 22K gold (or 916 gold) jewellery.
“The majority of 22K gold jewellery in Malaysia is quite generic because it’s sold on a piecemeal basis and it’s almost purchased like a commodity. We’ve managed to come up with a lot of interesting 916 gold jewellery that’s produced in Italy exclusively for us, offers fantastic choices to our customers, and is priced on the cost of gold, so it’s incredibly good value – which is what we’ve always wanted to do. It took two years of R&D to produce, but Oro Italia was a hit when we launched it.
“Quite recently, a customer told me: ‘You’ve revolutionised the jewellery business in Malaysia. You’ve come out with products nobody else has seen before, and I can’t find your Oro Italia range anywhere else in the world. It’s just very Habib’.”
In addition to Habib Jewels, Dato’ Sri Meer has cannily brought in brands under Habib Group such as Les Georgettes from France, Hearts on Fire from the United States, Pandora from Denmark, Ice-Watch from Belgium and Stephen Webster from the United Kingdom, all of which have proved enormously popular with Malaysian consumers. “We like to build brands,” he explains. “Once we’re passionate about a brand, we want to build it, especially if it fills a certain gap in the market by giving different varieties and options to our customers. We want to bring in world-class products and we want to believe they’ll do well here, because we understand Malaysian tastes and what Malaysians want.”
Not only has Habib Group emerged as one of the best-performing distributors for many of these brands (two of their staff have topped the global sales charts for Hearts on Fire, while Dato’ Sri Meer’s wife, Datin Sri Zarida – the Managing Director of Pandora Malaysia and Executive Director of Habib Group – has steered the Pandora franchise to success here), but it’s also diversified into local ventures such as Islamic pawnbroking and hospitality. “One of my sons always says that the three most valuable things in life are collectibles, finance and property,” Dato’ Sri Meer remarks.
“We, as a group, are involved in all of these three parts and we do make investments in property. In all of them, there is a synergy: we might want to open another branch of Ar Rahnu Express, our Islamic pawn shop, so our real estate department will do all the research and buy a shop lot. We also have architects, interior designers, quantity surveyors and engineers working for our property side, because we have nearly 100 points of sale for Habib Group’s brands, enabling any renovations and business interiors to be done in-house. All the different businesses we operate work together synergistically.”
There’s even a Habib Academy in the works, which will be based in Ampang, close to the company’s head office, where its 1,000-plus employees can receive training in jewellery knowledge, retail and customer service, and leadership skills. With an eye on Malaysia’s dynamic retail scene and the numerous projects scheduled for construction – The Exchange 106, PNB 118, EcoWorld’s Bukit Bintang City Centre development, and Mid Valley SouthKey The Mall in Johor – Dato’ Sri Meer is already determined to prepare his team for any and all plans for future expansion.
“My primary responsibility is to manage the company, ensure it thrives and to provide opportunities to grow. If we as a company continue doing the same thing, we’ll be obsolete. We have to keep coming up with interesting ways of doing business so that we don’t only survive, but thrive.” As for synergy at a more personal level, is there a chance that one of his three children will step in to help at Habib Group? “We’re in an era where we have to leave it to them,” he says evenly. “Everyone’s got a mind of their own – this generation has a lot of options and they can do what they like, which we encourage.”
From the sound of it, they’re on the right track: Dato’ Sri Meer’s daughter Marissa currently works for the ultra-ritzy Forms Jewellery in Hong Kong, while his youngest son Mirsham is in the process of setting up a social enterprise business that uses ethically sourced jewellery to fund charity projects in Haiti. Meanwhile, Mirzan – his eldest son – appears to have inherited his father’s excellent horological taste, with an eye on launching a multi-brand timepiece boutique in Kuala Lumpur. “He’s selected some very interesting brands from Switzerland, Canada, Sweden and France that are high-quality cult pieces for watch collectors, though still reasonably priced,” he comments with no small amount of paternal satisfaction.
In effect, they’re all excellent training grounds for what may be to come, for as Dato’ Sri Meer points out: “That’s our criteria at Habib Group and Habib Jewels. Anyone can produce something that’s exclusive, albeit above price. To produce something that’s really good at the right price, on the other hand – now that’s a challenge.”
TEXT RENYI LIM
ART DIRECTION AUDREY LIM
PHOTOGRAPHY KIM MUN/HOPSCOTCH
PHOTOGRAPHY PHOTOGRAPHY ASSISTANT NAQIU