Wimaladharma and Sons: building a timeless legacy
Founded in 1939, this family business is built on a passion for watches that no challenge can sour, not even a global pandemic.
From all the cliched quotes about time—like ‘Time waits for no one’ or ‘Time is money’—Leo Tolstoy’s ‘The two most powerful warriors are patience and time’ best describes how Wimaladharma and Sons Pvt Ltd, a family business, is building its legacy. The company is the authorised retailer for over 30 of the top global watch brands from Swiss legacies like Rado, Longines, Tissot, Roamer, and ranging to other Swiss brands like Swiss Military, Continental, and Aviator along with many other designer and ever-trusted Japanese brands. Founded a decade before Sri Lanka ended the British occupation, the second generation of this family business, Preethi Wimaladharma and his wife, Shyama, together with the third generation, are gearing for a period of growth. Here, Preethi and Shyama, and their son Geshan, talk about the company’s formative years, the impact of COVID-19 and the future outlook.
Can you tell us about the company’s founding and its journey thus far?
Preethi: My father, Sirisena Wimaladharma, started doing business in 1939 as a trader of timepieces, clocks, and radios. He went around the country and formed connections with dealers, especially in Kandy, and built a loyal network for the business. Soon, he established a reputation for servicing Swiss, other European brands of watches, and timepieces that were popular in the colonial era. These timepieces have a nostalgic value, and even today continue to be passed down from generation to generation as a family heirloom. So, retail sales and servicing watches were the core business throughout the 50s, 60s and 70s, and this remains the same to this day.
Shyama: Few people would appreciate this today, but back then, watches were not a mass-market product. It was almost a luxury to own a watch, and most of the brands were either Swiss-made or came of places like Germany, and were built to last for generations. In the 60s and 70s, we had a closed economy so watch imports were banned. We could not even get the spare parts. People either inherited their watches or bought them when they travelled overseas. So Wimaladharma and Sons started assembling clocks and radios from the names of Rinca and Nation, and established itself as a reliable partner to ensure these timepieces are taken care of and serviced so that they can be passed on to the next generation.
Preethi: The big break came in 1977 when the economy opened up. Around this time, I was already involved in my father’s business, and later my wife sacrificed her legal profession and joined me. Together we ran the operations and grew the business. It was not easy. We slowly opened branches and expanded our dealer network, but all this took several years to do. The economy opening up suddenly made watches more affordable and it was slowly becoming a mass-market device.
Shyama: We had to overcome several challenges along the way. The scariest was the civil unrest in the 70’s and late 80s caused the youth insurgency. We can still recall one period where we were constantly pressurised and warned for constant closure and opening of shops when the riots were at its peak. It was a harrowing period, but we focused on the business because we wanted it to grow and continue to serve our customers. Another challenge we had was from the open economy itself. While it helped us to increase our brand offering up to about 10 Japanese brands and clocks, cheap Chinese imports were flooding the market too, and these could be discarded after several months. Our brands had value for money, and after-sales service was exceptional having the expertise and skills servicing top European brands. This helped us to maintain our reputation and also expand the business. We opened a service centre in Colombo, and by 2001 we had expanded our islandwide dealership network to about 50 outlets. Also, major credit should be given to Geshan and Ramesha for working hard with their teams. While Ramesha looks after the smoothness of the process of our service by doing the hard yards, Geshan brings innovation and new aspects which gives us the edge and keeps us a step ahead at all times.
Preethi: We worked hard to grow the business and were able to educate our children in Sri Lanka and overseas with freedom to choose their paths. Both my daughter and son had completed university and had the opportunity of settling down without returning to Sri Lanka. But like us, they have a great passion and interest in watches. Around 2009, the 30-year conflict ended, and the government removed import taxes on timepieces, and that presentted a huge opportunity for us. We could now import those time-honoured European brands and designer watches. However, the market was not ready for these because the Japanese brands still held dominance here. While people were aware of some of these brands, we also had to inform and influence the market. Involvement of our children was instrumental in building our brand portfolio from 10 to 35 today. New ideas that the youth brings help us innovate and kept the company going through the COVID-19 pandemic. Today we have number of experience centres in and around Colombo which we are planning to expand in the near future. Our next stage of growth will come from the luxury watch market, which is at the nascent, but there is tremendous growth opportunity as incomes, lifestyles and aspirations improve. We are excited about this, and I know every watch lover in this country will be excited too.
Will digital technology ever replace watches?
Geshan: Wrist watches would not die in the near future. People wear watches as an accessory that can be worn any day formally or informally. There is a growing appreciation for the sophistication of the movements, the precision, automatic and self-wind functions in watches. As income and lifestyles improve, people tend to aspire to move up to higher-end brands. For functionalities sake, people still prefer quartz watches, smartwatches and/or just using their mobile phones to know the time. However, this does not mean watches are becoming unpopular, rather there is growing interest worldwide. An automatic timepiece is something to own, but most people start with an entry-level watch. We give them a chance to explore other brands which is why we have a wide choice. As a company, we also started with Japanese brands, then moved to designer brands and later to higher-end brands. We would like our customers to aspire to go through the same evolution. Every one of us at Wimaladharma and Sons is a watch lover, we are passionate about watches and this is what connects us to our customers who share that same passion and appreciation.
What can you tell us about the market for watches in Sri Lanka, and the future outlook?
Geshan: Before talking about the future outlook I would like to note how the 2nd generation of this business—my parents’—held on to this business with an attitude of never giving up. For what I have seen, it was then that the hardest challenges were faced, with the death of founder, Sirisena Wimaladharma during their youth. They managed to hold on and overcome many challenges and kept their heads high though the harder 70’s to 90’s period, where many good businesses were forced to close down.
In the future, we see a lot more room to grow the market — in my view, we are only getting started. Interest is just picking up for designer watches, but as income and aspirations improve, there will be a shift to more legacy brands and the luxury end too. We don’t see a need to get into other areas as the business grows, we need to focus on what we do well. That’s where the growth will come because watches are an inspirational product and will never go out of use, at least not in the near future. Most people use their phones to tell time, but they still wear a watch because it means something much more to them than a mere device. It’s a symbol, not necessarily a status symbol, but a callout to their growing appreciation of beautiful craftsmanship and the complexity of the movement that gives a watch its functionality, from digital watches to automatic watches with tachymeters and chronographs.
The lockdowns have impacted customer footfall at our stores, but our online retail with innovation and different options has grown over 400% over the past months. Technology has been a great enabler
We will invest in showrooms and experience centres so we can give watch lovers not only a choice, but an experience of each brand. It is not about selling a watch: we always encourage clients to buy a watch that sits well on their wrists. That should be the primary factor they need to consider, and we always encourage them to do so. We tell them: do not try to impress others, but first be comfortable and love your watch. People are also becoming more aware of what watch to wear for each occasion. For instance, you need a simple watch with a leather strap for formal wear, you can have a silver bracelet for office wear, and maybe a hardy watch on a rubber or fabric band or outdoor activities. But all this can change depending on your personal preference and your personality as there is no rule in choosing your style. We try to cater to all these needs so we have a collection of accessories that allow people to change straps to suit each occasion. But people now tend to have more than one watch.
How has COVID-19 impacted the business?
Geshan: The global pandemic has taught us many important lessons: One is to focus on doing what we do best, the way that suits the situation. The lockdowns have impacted customer footfall at our stores, but our online retail with innovation and different options has grown over 400% over the past months. Technology has been a great enabler. We carry out marketing campaigns on various new platforms and continue to test latest trends. Our online store continues to generate encouraging volumes. We built an islandwide delivery network and introduced same-day delivery. Most of our online clients are based outside the Western Province which is very encouraging. We hope to bring innovation and excitement to play in future to keep providing our customers a unique and a reliable experience with Wimaladharma & Sons.
Dr. Jehan Perera - Executive Director National Peace Council