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His Own Man: Kishin RK

In 10 years, Kishin RK has changed the way his father's Royal Holdings does business. Now he's changing Singapore's landscape. He's 32.

In 2012, when he was all of 29 years old, Kishin RK faced two choices. Go through with a pivotal acquisition and risk being labelled by industry watchers and peers as a brash player, fuelled by the arrogance of youth and immense wealth.

Or, walk away from the sale, in which case he would lose what could be the deal of a lifetime, certainly an addition that would propel his then six-year-old outfit into one of the largest hotel owners in Singapore in quick time – with a sizeable presence in the West to boot.

In the end, the chief executive of RB Capital, after securing a spot among the top three bidders – and significant press coverage – withdrew his US$1 billion (S$1.4 billion) offer for 42 Marriott hotels in the UK (totalling over 8,000 rooms), losing out to sovereign wealth fund Abu Dhabi Investment Authority. Nonetheless, he calls it his “most successful failure”.

Explaining the move, Kishin says: “I had to be rational yet competitive with my bid; pull the plug when it was the right time to do so. Numbers have to take precedence. The moment that I feel I have to win all the time, I’m in trouble. It’s painful because so much effort has been invested. But I’ve made it a point to never fall in love with a transaction.”

“The moment I feel I have to win all the time, I’m in trouble.”
Kishin RK, CEO, RB Capital

It might have been a very public lesson, but it clearly demonstrates the 32-year-old’s restraint. For those who do not know him, this conservative streak may seem incongruous with his privileged background. As the only child of billionaire property tycoon Raj Kumar of Royal Holdings, he has access to the metaphorical bat to hit a home run.

But Kishin didn’t grow up in a commercial powerhouse of a family without absorbing some of its business savvy. And he’s augmented the lessons learnt with his drive and initiatives to propel RB Capital from a dabbler in real estate in 2006 to a juggernaut in less than a decade (see timeline below). Today, its assets in the hotel, commercial and retail space are valued at about $2.5 billion. As part of succession planning, a merger between RB Capital and Royal Holdings is in the works. When complete, the combined holdings will total just under $5 billion. The pair aim to double that to $10 billion by 2020.

By any measure, that’s a lofty goal for a scion barely out of his third decade.

(RELATED: Satinder Garcha and Loh Lik Peng, too, have been shaking up the Singaporean hotel scene.)

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(Click here to skip timeline.)

    • 2006: Founded RB Capital. After selling a 5,000 sq ft apartment in Meyer Road, a gift from his parents, he invested that seed capital in a freehold retail podium of 6,000 sq ft on the ground floor of Malacca Centre that he bought in 2006. That same year, he acquired the Menara Genesis building in Bukit Bintang, Kuala Lumpur, for RM55 million (S$18 million). HSBC is its anchor tenant.
    • 2007: Snapped up Satnam House and Amaraj House here for $40 million and redeveloped the North Bridge Road site into the EFG Bank building, named after its anchor tenant. The nine-storey building, which is opposite the Parliament House, is said to be worth over $200 million today.
    • EFGBank

      The EFG Bank building on North Bridge Road.

    • 2008: Bought the former Shell station on the ground floor of Coronation Plaza in Bukit Timah for about $6.3 million and transformed it into a thriving retail space. Today, that property in Bukit Timah Road is worth some $25 million.
    • 2010: Reportedly outbid heavyweights Far East Organization and City Developments, and paid $101 million for a hotel site in Clarke Quay. Kishin turned it into the 442- room Holiday Inn Express which is aimed at mid-tier travellers. It is also Southeast Asia’s largest Holiday Inn Express hotel.
    • 2012: Banking on Singapore’s growing popularity as an advanced medical care destination, he paid a record $151 million for a 33,326 sq ft plot in Little India above the Farrer Park MRT station in 2012, reportedly outbidding Far East Organization, Capitaland and Hong Kong’s Harilela Group. The 99-year leasehold area is being developed into 42-unit Farrer Park Medical Suites and a 300-room five-star hotel managed by Park Hotel Group, with a retail podium on the ground floor.
      MedicalSuites

      The Farrer Park Medical Suites, estimated to be completed in 2016.

    • 2014: Acquired the former Gallery Hotel at $232.5 million, following the purchase of the adjacent The Quayside’s retail podium for $69 million.
    • 2015: Redeveloping the 16-storey RB Capital Building in Raffles Place into a 63-storey building; and the repositioning of Cuppage Terrace with a hotel component.

  • 2016: Expected completion of Farrer Park Medical Suites, Park Hotel Farrer Park, Intercontinental Robertson Quay and The Quayside Robertson Quay.

Who He Is

To think that when I first met Kishin nine years ago, it was to discuss his fashion style. This morning, though brimming with the same easy charm, the man seated across from me is eager to be taken more seriously. “Oh, I was hoping you wouldn’t mention (the fashion article)!” he says with an embarrassed chuckle.

We are ensconced in the EFG Bank building’s plush penthouse office that he designed. The interior is more glamorous hotel lobby than sterile workspace, with its white leather sofas, glossy monochrome tiles and dark French doors. The view from the office’s floor-to-ceiling windows arguably equals that of a ritzy suite at Marina Bay – a panorama of the city’s skyline fronted by Boat and Clarke quays.

Even if guests aren’t aware of the company’s stake in this neighbourhood, there’s no mistaking whose office it is: magazines featuring Kishin and/or his father are prominently displayed at the reception area, along with a spread of Forbes and Fortune.

Looking for the jet-setter in the businessman, I enquire about the rumour that he’s in the market for a private jet, which, aside from being a status symbol, has become increasingly popular with frequent business travellers for the efficiency and convenience it offers.

He shrugs off the speculation. “The numbers don’t add up,” he insists. “I’m only 32. Who am I to own a private plane?”

So, a self-aware man to tackle serious business then. These days, many are watching what would be his biggest enterprise yet – Robertson Quay’s much-needed facelift come Q3/Q4 next year. The project encompasses The Quayside’s retail podium as well as the former Gallery Hotel, which RB Capital acquired in 2013 and 2014 respectively.

It’s been almost two years in the works and, when completed, it will house Singapore’s second Intercontinental hotel with a 227-key property, as well as nearly 100,000 sq ft of F&B retail space. There will be at least 40 outlets, including Thai joint Soi 60, Mexican eatery Super Loco and Japanese restaurant Wagokoro by Hide Yamamoto, all of which have opened. Award-winning architect Chan Soo Khian’s SCDA is helming the design, from master planning to landscaping.

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QUAY TO LIFE When completed late next year, RB Capital’s Robertson Quay project will house Singapore’s second Intercontinental and nearly 100,000 sq ft of F&B space.

Kishin later takes me through mood boards that he and his team have created on Pinterest, enthusiastically explaining the type of look he wants to create for the waterfront asset. He looks unfazed by the scale of this potential game changer – not just for his group but also for the Singapore riverfront landscape that has lost its shine over the years. Perhaps buoyed by his previous successes, he’s confident in his vision and strategy for the company.

LET’S START WITH HABITS

When he joined the family business, he knew that for it to continue to prosper, it had to expand beyond mere buying and managing of existing buildings. The key is to understand consumers. “I had to see where the gaps and opportunities were, and where I could be relevant,” he says. “When you’re in for the long term, you need to understand how you’re going to ride the waves and make your business relevant over a long period of time.”

He explains the shift in strategy, saying: “We don’t merely focus on business-to-business (B2B) – I build a unit, you buy it from me or I build a unit, you pay me rent. We focus on business-to-consumer (B2C) first, which allows us to shape the positioning of that property. So it’s B2C then B2B. When we talk to tenants/partners, there’s a very clear vision of who the consumers will be and how they will spend.

“You can glorify real-estate development any way you want but we build boxes – whether they are office, retail, residential, medical suites, or hotel. If you don’t understand your consumer well, you can’t future-proof your box well.”

He believes his youth helps him adjust to change and understand the behaviour of a technologically driven generation. Then, there’s the experience of his parents, which rounds out his judgement. “Dad’s the go-getter and likes the excitement of deal-making. We talk about business a lot, even when we’re having dinner. Mum is present in most conversations and gives us her unbiased perspective which can be very different and makes a lot of sense.

“I’ve never got into the whole sex appeal of real estate. I build the business on stable cash flows. Which is why my first hotel is a 442-key Holiday Inn Express (in Clarke Quay). There was a gap in the market for a hotel with limited service in the prime central area. If I wanted a sexy hotel, it would have been a 15-, 20-room hotel with a funky restaurant that I could take my friends to. But, no.

“I’ve never done anything, especially on the career front, to prove anything to anyone. It’s not in my nature.”

MAN WITH A MISSION

Kishin is clearly comfortable in his own skin. While some scions venture outside the family fold to test their wings, this former Anglo-Chinese School (Independent) boy joined his father right after completing formal education. There’s no need to keep up with the Joneses, or waste time getting his feet wet outside of what he’s meant to do. Real estate is in his blood and he’s kept this focus ever since.

Take social media. He can’t be bothered with it for all its distractions. Certainly, he prefers the limited functions of his Blackberry to the plethora of apps on the latest smartphone – though he admits to having just bought an Apple Watch “to track my health”. “On social media, you’re so bogged down by information that may not be relevant. I’d rather control the information I absorb. Otherwise, I lose out on the big picture,” he says, reaching for his fourth cup of coffee at 11am. He usually consumes double that amount daily.

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No social media for Kishin RK – buying into it runs the risk of information overload.

At this point, I remember him quizzing me about the media landscape, among other topics, at the start of our meeting. “What are you most curious about these days?” I ask this strict curator of his information consumption.

“Human behaviour and how it evolves,” he says without missing a beat. “That keeps me interested in real estate. Take the changes in the office sector, where we see an emergence of co-working spaces. I recently visited New York co-working space Neuehouse whose users include former CEOs, and MDs of banks who are fulfilling their entrepreneurial aspirations. Property development is a lot more than just building boxes. How you cater to a changing demographic is where it becomes exciting. It’s where you differentiate yourself from what the rest are doing.”

He cites New York’s vibrancy and constant evolution as a major source of inspiration. For ideas on design, he turns to New York’s Ace Hotel, which has turned its lobby into a communal workspace that attracts beautiful people and cool creative types. Another inspiration is Dutch hotel chain CitizenM, which democratises the guest experience by offering only one room category and dispensing with unneeded amenities – including check-in desks and concierges – to keep prices reasonable.

CitizenM

Among Kishin RK’s inspirations – the CitizenM chain of hotels – which’ve adopted a no-frills design philosophy and passed on the cost savings to guests.

In a few months, he will be tearing down the office they are in “to make it relevant and dynamic”, replacing the boardroom and desk cubicles with an open-office concept.

“I have a clear focus, from a design point of view. If a restaurant is designed to have leather high-back chairs, then I know it’s going to be more formal. If there’s a wooden low back or bench-type sitting, then it’s relevant to all ages and you can be comfortable in more casual clothes. A simple chair can drive the demographic and the type of experience,” he shares.

“I’ve always put blinkers on and run my own race.”
Kishin RK

“My father told me to never do anything that I don’t understand well. Only invest in something that, if I have to be in the driver’s seat tomorrow, I would have the expertise to do so. This is why I’ve stuck to this and not jumped into five different businesses.”

The public can judge this sum of all parts for themselves when The Robertson Quay Project opens next year.

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BONUS – A peek into Kishin RK’s psyche.
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