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February 21, 2010

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From bird's nests to niche luxury

IT was the bird's nest trade that brought entrepreneur Paul Ling to China four years ago but wealthy citizens spending increasingly more on luxury goods are keeping him here.

Singapore-born, US-educated Ling, 39, closed his wholesale and retail bird's nest operation last year and set up a "niche luxury boutique" to trade high-end, limited-run products.

Edible bird's nests are a delicacy in Chinese cuisine and possibly the most expensive animal products consumed by humans. But Ling was importing them from his farm in Indonesia and the market became too competitive.

But all was not lost because he emerged from the experience with a network of wealthy buyers to whom he could market similarly ultra-expensive products, like limited edition watches and wines here and the odd yacht there.

Ling has acquired a taste for the good life and wants to share it with like-minded people. He made his money outside China through an investment company dealing in real estate, telecoms and food products and is now set to tackle the luxury goods sector.

"We want to provide a range of limited or exclusive products that even with money you might not have easy access to," he said in Shanghai last month. "We are purveyors of boutique luxury," he added.

"So starting with wines, we'll be selling limited production lots, say 150-200 cases a year, of mainly exclusive French wines. And with watches, similar for example to Corum or Jaeger LeCoultre, we'll be selling short runs of only 10 pieces," he said.

"We can't compete with the Guccis, Louis Vuittons and Cartiers because they're already here and appealing to the mass luxury market," he said, explaining the company would be shooting for a higher level of exclusivity.

His personal tastes are a driving force for the new business run through a private family company called Paul DC Christian, the DC being wife Dorcas and daughter Chelsea, and son Christian.

"I like to collect things that are not necessarily the most expensive but they're exclusive. They have to be classy and niche. For example, I drive an Aston Martin DB9. Most people like Ferraris and Lamborghinis, but I don't go for them like the mass rich."

Ling has a penchant for independent watch makers producing limited numbers of expensive items. "I appreciate the craft, I like the design and sometimes I delve into the history. But I'm more interested in what it represents, what it brings out, what it says to you. Is it flamboyant, is it understated, elite? I look at the whole design, the look and the feel."

He describes himself as a history-loving "hopeless romantic" and idealist. His undergraduate degree is in finance and two masters degrees are in software engineering and business administration. He has homes in Singapore, Australia, Japan and the United States. He sold his beloved Maserati Quattroporte because "it was a crappy car" and is holding onto his 1971 birth year Chateau Latour wine despite wanting to drink it.

"People ask why collect wines when they can become old and wither away as opposed to collecting a watch which can last forever. I say a watch is still man-made, but a bottle of wine from 1947 represents what the earth was like in 1947 and carries a piece of mother nature that you can never get again."

His business model is essentially to be a modern-day comprador sourcing elite goods for a network of customers. "Most people have shops, but we will do something more like a salon, more 'white glove,' more personable and exclusive. We'll do dinners, road shows, unusual events, and then follow up."

He is targeting a growing number of "sophisticates" that he says are creating a higher-end market niche. "We may not offer what everyone likes but there are people who want something special that not everybody can have. I know it sounds elitist but this country runs on that."

"As an ethnic Chinese myself, we are all guilty of being somewhat shallow at times and like to show off. But China is going back to being a very elitist society."

Ling talks affectionately about arcane details shrouded in the genetics of the goods he's started to source. "Very few people know the history of the time pieces of 18th century Swiss-born watch maker Jaquet Droz and the royal imperial family of China," he said, explaining the company founder did business with the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) royal family.

Ling is happy to be a valued customer of prestige watch maker Vacheron Constantin. "I love the design with the Maltese Cross. It takes me back to the days of knighthood, the Knights Templar."

He won't be dealing in fashionable clothes or accessories and while he demurs about listing his full range of goods it's safe to say he'll find the right product to match a buyer's palate and pocket. "I'm not trying to be a snob but I think there is a market here that hungers for sophisticated items," he said.

While acknowledging the wealthy "are not silly rich," he believes they are developing a discerning taste for quality and class. "Luxury is not just what you can wear, what you can carry, it is what you can obtain that is of intrinsic and extrinsic value. We offer a way to spend money happily and wisely."


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