Most small business owners know the exact date their lives changed forever. “Sept. 20, 1996,” Michael Vartanian replies immediately to the question of when he opened Marina Bay Watch Company.

For Vartanian, the son of Armenian immigrants, what has become a thriving family business has jumped a few high hurdles to land where it is now — in the mini-mall sharing space with Wharo Korean BBQ and Walgreens on the southwest corner of Lincoln and Washington boulevards.

At age 16, Vartanian received an offer he couldn’t refuse: a job at a watch shop in Lakewood making $4 an hour (minimum wage then was $3.25). He stayed there for nine years, learning the business. Over time his plans to attend medical school and become a pharmacist changed. Vartanian liked repairing watches.

“I love dealing with people,” he says. “I’m a people person. I love to make people happy and see them smiling, thanking me a million times.”

It’s not just locals. Glance at Yelp and you’ll see why people travel from as far as Santa Barbara to entrust his shop with their valuable keepsakes.

“People cherish pieces from their grandma and great-grandma,” he says. “They want to repair them, because of the memories and sentimental value. They want to keep them in the family and pass them from generation to generation.”

Vartanian’s business is 90% repair — all done in-house. He services everything from mechanical to quartz, but mostly high-end Swiss watches: Rolex, Cartier, Omega and Breitling.

It’s lunchtime on a weekday at Marina Bay Watch Company and several customers slide in with questions. Vartanian and his cousin are behind the counter; Vartanian with his signature loop resting on the top of his head.

“We’re busy all the time,” he says, gratefully. “People came in with their kids, and now their kids come in with their fiancés.”

But it wasn’t always like this. And it’s not luck, he assures me.

“This is my blood and sweat,” he says, “and providing great service.”

With the support of his father, Vartanian initially set up shop in Villa Marina Marketplace, in the spot where Ruth’s Chris Steak House is now. Wanting more security than a month-to-month lease, he found his present location in 2008, and business skyrocketed after the move.

“It takes an iron gut to endure all the problems in business. After three years, I was 300K in debt. But I worked really hard and paid everyone off. I plugged away building the business. I was a survivor. That experience made me smarter and stronger in business.”

And it isn’t just happy customers that make Vartanian love his job.

“With all the stress in the world, and the stress and problems in our lives, watches help us focus on one thing,” he says. “The work is intricate. It calms me. … You need to stay focused. One little mistake and you mess up the whole watch. Everything has to be on-point — perfect, literally.”

— Jessica Koslow

Photo by Courtnay Robbins