Trendsetter who fought shy of limelight

He stayed out of the limelight and shied away from the media, so few might know that Mr Jopie Ong Hie Koa was one of Singapore's true trendsetters.

The late managing director of Metro Group, who died suddenly on Tuesday night at age 75, was the first to introduce luxury brands such as Mont Blanc, Cartier and Gucci here, long before Singapore was considered a shopping destination.

He was even the first to introduce a splash of colour to men's fashion, recalled long-time business partner and friend Nash Benjamin, the chief executive of fashion and lifestyle group FJ Benjamin.

"In the early 70s, Metro imported a line of shirts from Whitmont, an Australian brand. At the time, men's shirts in Singapore were all white. But these Whitmont shirts were purple, mustard, red," he said.

"He brought me over and made me pick out one in each colour. So he started the trend of coloured shirts here. He was always on trend."

Indeed, Mr Ong had a great talent for spotting the next big thing, not only in fashion but in the wider world of business.

It was under his leadership that Metro grew from a two-storey shophouse at 72, High Street - a textile store founded by his father, Mr Ong Tjoe Kim, who hailed from Indonesia - into a retail behemoth and later, into a substantial property player with interests in China, Japan and Britain.

Mr Ong joined Metro in 1964 and was appointed to the board in 1973, the same year he guided the firm to a listing on the Singapore Exchange, where, for many years, it was considered a blue chip.

Metro had its heyday in the early and mid-1980s, when it became known as a purveyor of posh European brands such as Cartier, Burberry, Givenchy and Yves Saint Laurent, making it a haunt not only of wealthy tourists but also Singapore's increasingly affluent, English-educated middle class.

It had moved aggressively into Orchard Road, with four or five stores along the stretch. But by that time Mr Ong, always ahead of the curve, was looking at expanding his business interests further. In the early 1980s, thanks to an idea by Dr Jannie Chan, he entered into a joint venture with her and Mr Henry Tay to set up The Hour Glass, which specialises in quality Swiss brands such as Rolex and Patek Philippe.

Then in 1985, he entered the auto industry, starting Komoco Auto, now Komoco Motors, with two partners. It started by distributing Hyundai cars.

The move complemented Mr Ong's own love of cars: His was apparently the first Lamborghini to be driven on Singapore's streets and his collection of rare, luxury cars included several Ferraris and a gold Porsche sports utility vehicle.

But it was also a shrewd decision that capitalised on Singapore's then booming demand for affordable family vehicles.

"He had the foresight to see ahead and was always searching, wherever it may be, for new business opportunities," recalls Komoco managing director and co-founder Teo Hock Seng.

"Singapore was in a recession when he came up with the idea to get into the auto trade.

"We were supposed to be recession-proof and so we had to have prudence in our approach. And for the last 30 years we have been profitable. People accepted the product, which was value for money."

It was not long before Mr Ong was involved in yet another business project. By the early 1990s, even as Singapore was fast gaining a reputation for being a top-notch shoppers' destination, Mr Ong could see that retail was not going to be as lucrative a business as it once was due to increasing rents and wages, so he started repositioning Metro as a property firm.

He entered a joint venture with Ngee Ann Kongsi to build Ngee Ann City, from which Metro would earn a handsome rental income.

Today, property is a core business for Metro alongside retail. The firm has interests in prime retail and office investment properties in first- tier cities in China, as well as residential and mixed-use development properties, held mainly for sale.

It also has stakes in a mixed-use development in Manchester and a residential project, The Crest in Prince Charles Crescent, in Singapore.

On the retail side, there are now only three Metro department stores in Singapore - at Paragon, The Centrepoint and Woodlands. The website lists nine in Indonesia. Metro also operates speciality shops for the Monsoon, Accessorize and M.2 brands here.

Throughout the years, Mr Ong shied away from the media spotlight, so much so that when Metro held a press conference on its financial results in May 2008, it was the first time the company had done so in at least a decade. The fact that Mr Ong himself fronted the conference was as much news as the numbers he was there to announce.

But away from the limelight Mr Ong lived large and generously. Friends recall not only his flashy cars and ceaseless smoking, but also the dinners held at his District 10 bungalow in Bishopsgate - monthly affairs that would include about 300 guests at a time and at which the host himself would often cook.

A big fan of local hawker fare, he was known to whip up a mean nasi lemak, yong tau foo and leg of lamb.

The twice-divorced Mr Ong leaves four children and four grandchildren.

He also leaves a business in good shape - Metro's net profit climbed 33 per cent to $142.4 million last year. His sister, Mrs Wong Sioe Hong, oversees the retail operations and the acting group chief executive is his right-hand man of many years, Mr Lawrence Chiang.

Still, along with the rest of the retail and property industry, it faces a challenging business environment, especially as China, its key real estate market, is experiencing slowing growth.

Without Mr Ong's guiding hand to lead the ship, investors will likely be keen to see how the company steers through the choppy waters ahead.

This article was first published on February 7, 2016.
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