Friday evening, five o’clock. It’s the Formula One weekend in September, and the Shenton Way office crowd is just starting to knock off. With the road-safety barricades up around the Central Business District (CBD), the air is electric and everyone is itching to party.
The mood is no different at The Black Swan, an Art Deco-inspired restaurant occupying a former bank building at the corner of Cecil Street and Market Street. Inside, amid the glamorous double-volume interior decked out in crystal chandeliers and dark wooden tabletops, 33-year-old Wee Teng Wen seems to know everyone, as a handful of different people stop and say hi. He suggests we order a couple of drinks, picking out Good Night Peru, a modern camomile tea-infused take on the classic Pisco Sour cocktail.
It may look like we’re having an uproarious, booze-filled time but, the truth is, the founder and managing partner of The Lo & Behold Group, which operates the two-month-old restaurant, becomes much more serious once the interview gets under way. He is quiet and unassuming, and his answers are careful and thoughtful, never flippant. It’s clear that business comes first.
He takes care, for instance, to spell out the different challenges he’s faced as an accidental entrepreneur. A former strategy consultant based in Boston, Wee never imagined that he’d one day be at the helm of a lifestyle group. Although the group is only about five years old, its history goes back a little further: His first F&B foray was Loof in Odeon Towers, which started in 2005 as Singapore’s first standalone rooftop bar – and kick-started the trend.
Wee, whose friends call him Teng, says of that venture: “We really had youth on our side. We were young upstarts, who didn’t really know anything at the time. We thought it would just be a one-off exercise. But we gave it our all.”
GROWING THE BUSINESS
That experiment has become one of Singapore’s most prominent lifestyle groups, with seven restaurants and bars, including The White Rabbit in Dempsey, Overeasy at One Fullerton, Tanjong Beach Club in Sentosa and two Extra Virgin Pizza restaurants in Asia Square and United Square. Loof had 10 staff members when it opened; the group now counts 200 full-time staff and 100 part-timers in its books.
(UPDATE: This article was published 2013 – Wee’s group has prospered considerably, and attracted new talent, since then. )
With new restaurants opening almost every day, the F&B market in Singapore is highly saturated. To stay on top, his approach is simple: Focus only on ventures he is “truly passionate” about. For the group, it means a strategy of creating timeless products that “people can experience with every sense” – touch, smell, taste, sight and sound – and “forming an awesome and lasting relationship with all our guests”.
Wee says that he “oversees all aspects of each project – design, operations and marketing, together with a team of passionate colleagues”.
Like many operators in Singapore, hiring and retaining service staff is an ongoing challenge. His approach has been to turn the problem on its head, by creating a company that people want to work for. “It’s why I’ve focused on turning our group into an employer of choice, and I take a long-term view on making that happen,” he says.
For example, besides opening The Black Swan, its “most ambitious and glamorous project yet”, the group “will continue to grow, but in a measured and sustainable way”. He says: “We don’t feel the need to chase growth, hop overseas, nor jump onto trends. We will always follow our heart into projects, and this makes the future especially difficult to predict, but very exciting.”
Asked about which part of the business he finds the most fun, and you expect him to say sourcing for cool locations or putting a personal touch on the designs, but no.
After all, the group is known for its quirky marketing, such as the Bear Essentials promotion at Overeasy, where its signature mini-burgers go for $1 each if the Straits Times Index closes lower for the day. At The White Rabbit, whimsical slogans regularly find themselves on its signboard along Harding Road.
But what really gets him going is creating a strong Lo & Behold identity, structure and culture – think a fulfilling work environment that inspires and motivates, and an organisation that focuses on staff welfare and development.
He says: “Building this foundation of a restaurant group, more than any one restaurant in particular, is the most exciting part of my work these days.”
Some would say, however, that Wee has had it easier than most. He comes from one of Singapore’s wealthiest families, the son of United Overseas Bank chief executive Wee Ee Cheong and grandson of banking tycoon Wee Cho Yaw, who’s worth an estimated US$5.3 billion (S$6.6 billion) and is Singapore’s fourth-richest man, according to Forbes.
Wee is reluctant to talk in detail about his privileged background; he’s been known to be media-shy because he prefers not to draw attention to that particular fact. Yet, he does let on that his “very happy and carefree childhood” was a possible reason for going into the lifestyle business.
He says: “I was just watching some old videos and my mother made birthdays very magical for my brother and me.
“She had an incredible knack for throwing the best parties – we even had pinatas and playgrounds – and bringing everyone together. Perhaps that is something I enjoy in F&B – the orchestration of people, food and fun.”
“We were young upstarts, who didn’t really know anything at the time. We thought it would be a one-off exercise. But we gave it our all.”
Asked if one needs deep pockets to make it in the F&B business, however, and he says that while it certainly helps, plain hard work counts for more. “Comparatively, it remains one of the most democratic and accessible industries. Barriers to entry are relatively low, and creativity, hard work and a good work ethic often count for more than the depth of one’s pockets.”
Yet, he admits that having family backing to fall back on, should he fail, is never out of the picture. Wee, who is engaged to artist Dawn Ng, says: “It has freed me a little, yes. To say no would be unrealistic.”
Wee, however, points out that he’s come this far under his own steam. Loof was his first venture which he started at the age of 25 – after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in finance, management and psychology – with an old friend from their Anglo-Chinese School days, Daniel He, who remains a partner in the business. They put in $400,000 of their own money, which was recouped within eight months. The group’s expansion has come about purely from retained earnings, says Wee.
So, did he ever feel pressured to follow in his father and grandfather’s footsteps? His answer is a simple no. “My parents always gave me the freedom to pursue what I wanted and that is what I chose in the end. I am always grateful for that.
“I guess I’m not very good nor patient with following other people’s paths. I love the unique opportunity entrepreneurs have at creating something from nothing, and generating solutions that can help make a positive difference.”
Wee’s independent streak – he says he’s just being “stubborn and curious” – is just one reason why his business has been so successful. “I’ve always relished finding creative solutions to business problems. Instead of doing it for other brands or clients, it is much more exciting and fun to do it for projects I truly feel for.”
The Black Swan is the latest example, a 7,000 sq ft restaurant and lounge housed in a 1930s heritage building that was once the Kwangtung Provincial Bank. The restaurant’s design is inspired by the space itself, as well as by Grand Central Station in New York. Wee, an avid traveller, envisions it to be a “bustling, all-day institution for the CBD, a catalyst that will help inject new life into the area”.
The inspiration for these projects “usually stems from the space itself”, he says. Wee also enjoys old, restored cars, and has two 1970s models: a Fiat 124 Coupe and a BMW 2002, quirkily named George and Ernest respectively. “Falling in love with a location is usually the starting point for each new project. From there, a generous amount of imagination is thrown into the mix to ensure that the personality of each venue is brought to life.”
Creating classic European restaurant The White Rabbit from an old colonial chapel, for instance, was “a dream come true”. In 2009, it clinched the Singapore Tourism Board’s “Best Dining Experience” award. As for Tanjong Beach Club, an all-day destination on a stunning stretch of beach in Sentosa, it attracts thousands of sun seekers to the island every weekend, and has in its own way added to the beach culture in Singapore.
“I guess I’m not very good nor patient with following other people’s paths.”
Loof, a play on the word “roof”, had its own Singaporean twist in the form of an outdoor standalone shop on its premises called The Mama Shop, which opened in May last year selling nostalgic souvenirs and knick-knacks like five stones and toy tops.
Among this string of successes, one venture didn’t take off. A Curious Teepee, a lifestyle and design store at Scape, closed last year after a two-year run. On bouncing back, Wee says: “I think the industry moves on so quickly that we do not have time to feel sorry for ourselves or mope over things that don’t work out. When you’re running a business, there’s very little time to linger. And we’re fully aware that 70 per cent of all new F&B businesses fail in their first year.
“However, Teepee taught us an invaluable lesson in choosing the right location and partnering the right landlords.”
Another slight detour from his F&B business, but no less of a passion project, is environmentally friendly dry-cleaning company For The Love Of Laundry, which he started with his younger brother, Teng Chuen, in 2011. This venture, he says, came about because of a chance to “tackle the dry-cleaning industry from a fresh angle”, by using all-natural, toxin-free solvents. It operates an island-wide delivery service and has just opened its fifth outlet in Asia Square last month.
BEING AN ENTREPRENEUR
As the interview winds down and the restaurant’s decibel level picks up a couple of notches, Wee lets us in on one of his favourite quotes, by Andy Warhol. “Good business is the best art,” he recounts, saying that being an entrepreneur can be a rightly creative process as well. Warhol’s quote in full is this: “Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.”
Wee is keenly aware that his company’s rise has taken place in a relatively short period of time, so he is determined to keep his feet on the ground. He knows success can be fleeting, just like Warhol’s other expression on 15 minutes of fame. He says: “My view has always been that experience and a proven track record on the part of a restaurateur are never guarantees of the success of any future restaurant. This keeps us on our toes.
“I certainly don’t think I have reached that highest point yet. I hope I don’t get there too soon. A big part of the fun is in getting there.”
ADVICE FOR THE YOUNG
Wee is the first person to admit that his becoming an entrepreneur at the age of 25 was purely by “circumstance”. Still, he has managed to glean a few lessons from his experience and hard work. He says: “Entrepreneurship is not a science, nor an art. It’s a practice.”
Choosing the right partner is especially relevant to SMEs as, generally, it may take years before you can fill all key posts with high- level, strategic managers. It’s important to be honest about your strengths and weaknesses, and find long-term solutions and partners to bridge these. Also, it’s critical that you share a common vision.
Once you have started your own business, it’s almost impossible to retain a distinction between work and life. For young entrepreneurs just starting out, think, beyond the initial business goals, about what you value most in your life and what you may have to sacrifice to achieve
Plan your goals
Entrepreneurs often end up working 80-hour weeks in order to avoid working 40 hours a week. The entrepreneurial “dream” of this generation often draws young people to start a business, without giving due consideration to how this will fit into their 10- or 15-year life plans.