Sam Lin on forsaking the high-tech world in favour of the lure of luxury auctioneering
Sam Lin of Madison Auction remains certain in uncertain times, seeing the glass (of wine) half-full. Fuelling his business mind with a sip of liquor and a puff of cigar, he hammers life’s odds – one bid at a time.
How did your career path take you into your role as Chief Executive of Madison Auction?
Back in the mid-90s, I developed my own system integration and service offerings, which were ultimately listed on both the Singapore and Hong Kong exchange markets. Asia Online, which I co-founded, was actually Hong Kong’s second Internet Service Provider. I then refocused my career on the luxury consumables sector, a move that was more in line with my family’s 30-year-old business with its focus on wine and spirits. This saw me integrate investment-grade cigars, wine and whiskey into the existing operation. As I had interned for some small auction houses in the UK, it was then a natural progression for me to also become an auctioneer for Madison Auction.
“The brand name was acquired from my partner’s existing business and we both agreed to persist with it.To my mind, good branding is essential for the success of any business”
What do you see as Madison Auction’s primary focus?
When we started, it was really about wine. More recently, though, we signed an exclusive deal with Pacific Cigar, the Asia-Pacific company behind the renowned Habanos Cuban cigar. In all, we have been auctioning investment-grade cigars for some six months now and it is gradually starting to take off for us. Looking back, there came a point where I had to choose between being a high-tech vendor or working in the luxury consumable sector, something I am passionate about. I chose the latter and that’s how the launch of Madison Wine came about in 2011. The brand was acquired from my partner’s existing business and we both agreed to persist with it thanks to its heritage. To my mind, good branding is essential for the success of any business.
Of late, have you seen any shift away from an interest in luxury auction items, with people looking to focus on more grounded essentials?
It really depends on where people are in their lives. As the world economy has been somewhat derailed over the past three years, some have, indeed, looked to re-focus on alternative investment opportunities. Fortunately for us, we also offer those kinds of opportunities. At the end of the day, though, any bid boils down to Economics 101 – the supply and demand chain. A lot of people have looked to alternative investment classes largely because the equity market has not been performing well. As a consequence, people have become more interested in investing in fine art wine or spirits hoping that they will appreciate in value. Even if they don’t, people know they will still be able to enjoy them afterwards for what they are. For me and for most people, happiness is always the ultimate priority.
To date, what has been the most expensive lot you have ever sold?
Well, we sold one lot of wine for more than HK$2 million and we sold a vintage cigar for about half that. In pre-pandemic times, when the world was still a lot more normal, we’d do three or four live online selling events every year and that was a really good business. But a lot of things have changed since the pandemic happened. Now, though, if I was asked to advise which category was likely to offer the most lucrative investment opportunity, I’d have to say whiskey. Over the past decade, it has given sustained returns of about 8% to 12% per annum.
Is it fair to say that auctions are solely reserved for the rich and famous?
Absolutely not. Especially for our category. We see a lot of participants from all walks of life. Of course, by default, auction houses have an affinity with the rich and famous, but as they have such smart purchase channels, there are also a lot of middle-ranking professionals who take an interest.
Today, I still believe that if you want to be successful, you need to immerse yourself in your chosen industry, which is something i share with my two children.
For you, what constitutes a good day at work and what constitutes a bad one?
As an integral part of the auction business, we entertain a lot of people at night, so it is definitely not a nine-to-five job. A good day at work inevitably involves a glass of wine or whisky and a cigar. A truly bad day at work, however, is one I have yet to really experience, partly because I always ensure I have lots of positive energy before I step into my office. I always tell myself to anticipate challenges, such as dealing with customs paperwork. It’s a good thing and I’m lucky to have such supportive and optimistic team with me. We all make each other’s job easier in a way. It’s good to also note that, people are people. We all make mistakes. To my mind, you have to deal with everything with a smile. As a manager, there’s no point in yelling at your staff. Instead, you have to ensure you have the right kind of communication, which inevitably requires a humanistic approach.
In terms of success, who do you admire and who inspires you?
Both Bill Gates and Steve Jobs have been inspirations to me. I grew up unable to afford a computer, while these two were emerging as IT pioneers. When I was 19, I applied to a number of tech companies, but no one wanted to hire me and I was advised to go back to school. Jobs and Gates were both college dropouts too, so maybe I can follow in their footsteps. When I worked in the hospitality sector, I had to teach myself every step of the way. Today, I still believe that if you want to be successful in your chosen industry, then you need to immerse yourself in it. I have two children of my own now, both in their twenties, and I wouldn’t, however, advise them to follow my example. Things are more complicated now. While I share my experience with them, I don’t recommend them to take the same approach. I believe in their own strength and talents. This is the best thing I can do as a parent.
How important has being based in Hong Kong been to your success would you say?
Believe it or not, I find great joy in being out and about in the further reaches of Hong Kong. It is a real contrast and welcome balance from being in the bustling centre of the city where I spend so much of my time. Aside from driving around the mountains and hanging out in country clubs, I also enjoy tram rides. Contrary to what many others might say, I find these more rural areas clear my mind even after just a few minutes. After a short break, I can bounce back to business with renewed energy. It always gives me a sense of belongingness to the city. It is truly the perfect short sweet escape from the daily Hong Kong busy work and grind life. I may be in and out of the city from time to time, but I will always come back to it. I find my home city has a very positive and unique energy.
(Interview by: Joseff Musa Photographer: Jack Law Art Direction and Styling: Jhoshwa Ledesma
Videographer: Kes Lei Venue: Club K7)