Loh Lik Peng has mastered the art of the pivot - The Peak Magazine

2022-05-14 06:02:28 By : Ms. USAMS SZ

MCI (P) 089/12/2021. Published by SPH Media Limited, Co. Regn. No. 202120748H. Copyright © 2022 SPH Media Limited. All rights reserved.

Loh Lik Peng has mastered the art of the pivot

From navigating Sars to running a global hospitality empire amid Covid-19, it’s all about pivoting, shares the Unlisted Collection: boss.

A nondescript oil painting of pigs hangs on the wall outside the meeting room at Loh Lik Peng’s office premises at Cantonment Road. Like how some entrepreneurs might choose an artwork of dragons or tigers to herald good fortune and business acumen, you wonder if the porcine theme, with its depiction of full bellies, is symbolic of what he does for a living.

Loh is, after all, one of Singapore’s most famous restaurateurs whose Unlisted Collection: empire comprises more than 20 F&B establishments and five hotels in cities as diverse as Shanghai and Dublin.

But, no, the affable businessman says, with an easy guffaw, that it is just an old painting from one of his restaurants, Salted & Hung, which uses culinary methods like curing and smoking to propel its nose-to-tail concept.

His simple, laid-back explanation—nothing too theatrical or philosophical, even for a magazine interview—is just one of the many ways in which the former lawyer exhibits a pragmatic approach to his businesses.

The mothership of a mastermind behind some of Singapore’s hottest restaurants and swoon-worthy heritage hotels around the globe is hardly what you’d expect. Look around Unlisted Collection:’s office, you will see that although it is three storeys high and nestled in a row of gentrified shophouses, its insides are unembellished, even mundane.

The meeting room is a cosy attic space packed with boxes of papers and a random 3D architectural model. “It’s so utilitarian, right?” Loh laughs. “We are quite a thrifty group, and we don’t splash money on flashy things, but we spend it where the customer is touching things.”

He lets on that being prudent is more of a personal value because growing up, his parents taught him not to waste money on frivolous things. “I don’t have designer clothing or watches, and I don’t drive a Ferrari,” Loh, who turns up for this interview in a polo T-shirt and Bermuda shorts, shares.

If you know his story, you wouldn’t have expected anything conventional of Loh, who turns 50 this month. He is, after all, a hotelier who stepped into the business in 2002 by converting— of all things — a former brothel at Keong Saik Road into Hotel 1929, one of the city- state’s first hipster boutique hotels.

At the time, the hotel scene here consisted mostly of either faceless chains or squalid pay-by-the-hour joints. The hotel premises were also where he kick-started his F&B ventures with Restaurant Ember.

“The old building was a brothel with many windowless cubicles and stepping into it sucked the life out of me,” he reminisces, adding that he paid less than S$4 million for the row of five adjoining shophouses in a mortgagee sale.

Hotel 1929 sparked his interest in the intrinsic beauty of old heritage buildings with their “previous lives” hiding behind layers of peeling paint. “At that time, people asked me: ‘do you know what you are doing?’ But I was young and stupid. Ignorance is good. It helps you to break convention.”

By the time he was done refurbishing the shophouses and converting them into a four-storey hotel in early 2003, Sars had emerged in Singapore. “Sars taught me how to bind the team together, make difficult decisions, and how to pivot. Surviving Sars gave me a lot of confidence.”

Today, it’s hard to avoid asking him about the other pandemic Unlisted Collection: has had to weather. “Covid-19 is a different crisis. Sars was an Asian thing, but Covid is worldwide, and we are still suffering the effects. There were times when we did not know how long this would last.”

Loh, who co-founded the #SaveFnBSG movement that addressed issues faced by F&B operators during the pandemic, uses the term “pivot” quite a lot and shares that one of the newer businesses under his group, Mylo’s, had to change its original concept.

The casual eatery at Gardens by the Bay was initially meant to serve healthy food for tourists and fitness buffs, but it morphed into “a pandemic concept”, when he observed that the only people turning up at the iconic tourist attraction were cyclists and pet owners walking their dogs. So Mylo’s became a casual cafe offering gelatos, pastries and, yes, dog-friendly popsicles.

He is also proud of how his team came together to face Covid-19, especially during the circuit breaker period in Singapore from April to June 2020 when dining out was banned. Revenue slid by 90 per cent, he reveals, but fixed costs like staff salaries and rent didn’t.

He had to be a cheerleader and he told them there would be some profoundly trying times ahead. “It was life or death. The message got through, and I was surprised by how fast my guys pivoted. There wasn’t a single one who was resistant because it was a matter of survival.”

All of his restaurants came out with take-out menus. Basque Kitchen by Aitor did burgers and the Bincho team rented motorcycles for food deliveries. The waiting staff helped with packing and taking orders, and surprisingly, there wasn’t a single idle staffer around.

As a result of the dynamic teamwork, Loh did not have to retrench anyone. Wages were cut, but he promised reimbursement the moment the restaurants had a positive cash flow— something he has since fulfilled, according to Loh.

The only Covid collateral damage was Jing Seafood Restaurant because it was located at the Fullerton waterfront where tourist footfall was zero.

Inspired by the take-out frenzy during that period, Loh even had plans to set up a central kitchen that would reproduce recipes from all his restaurants for online deliveries. He is, however, putting that idea on hold now that dining restrictions have been lifted, and take-outs have fallen off a cliff—“unless it’s just one hamburger”.

“I see more people returning to our restaurants, and it shows how they are not only about the food, but are communal social spaces as well.”

In previous media reports, Loh confessed that he prefers creating concepts to running them on a day to- day basis. But the pandemic kept him in Singapore for almost two years, and he became more heavily involved in the nitty-gritty than he usually would have.

For instance, in an urgent bid to find savings “because restaurants are brutal and suck up a lot of cash”, he invested in technology. Case in point: some of his staff used to spend hours polishing drinking glasses, but now dishwashers that use de-ionised water have eliminated that chore.

He has also used energy monitors that analyse the restaurants’ peak usage and that shut down equipment not being used. The result: substantial savings of almost 30 per cent at some outlets.

Although he became known as a hotelier in Singapore before he was a restaurateur, Loh has since sold off his first baby, Hotel 1929, as well as New Majestic Hotel and Wanderlust.

Asked if he is an unsentimental businessman, he thinks hard before admitting that selling off Hotel 1929 in 2013 was an “emotionally difficult” decision.

“Hotel 1929 was my first hotel, my first success. That episode taught me to realise when a particular investment has run its course and how someone else can take it to the next phase. I wasn’t making a loss with 1929, New Majestic or Wanderlust, but the margins were shrinking every year while the economic value of the land they were on was going up. It didn’t make any sense. My unsentimentality was driven by the economics of the projects. That was my head talking.”

As manpower and land costs here remain high, he is in no rush to find his next hotel project, but would create one “in a heartbeat again” if the right land parcel comes along.

“Hotels are my first love. Creating one energises me. A restaurant is created within three to four months but a hotel absorbs my life.” He has, however, been busy with his overseas hotel projects like Trinity Townhouse Hotel in Dublin, and 196 Bishopsgate and Town Hall Hotel in London.

There is also Sheen Falls Lodge in County Kerry and Castlemartyr Resort, a 17th-century country manor house adjacent to an 800-year-old castle, in County Cork in Ireland. Also representative of his love for heritage buildings is The Old Clare Hotel in Sydney, which is housed in two heritage-listed buildings, The Clare Hotel pub and the Carlton & United Breweries Administration Building.

In June, he hopes to retreat to Ireland with his wife of 12 years, violinist Min Lee, and his two children aged six and 10. Loh, who was born in Dublin to Singaporean parents practising medicine there at the time, still keeps in touch with friends from boarding school and wants his family to experience the nature, peacefulness and friendliness of the community.

Also chairman of School of the Arts Singapore (SOTA) and Shatec, among other roles, how does he find time to manage this many businesses across the globe and still have time for his young family?

The secret: he does not believe in micromanaging despite having more than 1,000 staff all over the world. “I give my managers a lot of autonomy and I reward them based on the profits they generate. That is my management style. Also, digital banking has transformed my life!”

His rather relaxed management style has also given him the time to dine at his restaurants in Singapore almost every other evening and post his food photos on his Instagram account. When asked how he decides where to eat each time, he doesn’t take it as a public relations opportunity to hawk his establishments. Instead, along comes yet another pragmatic reply: “It’s all about what I’m craving.”

(Related: Loh Lik Peng Embarks on Unlisted Collection’s First Business Venture in Australia)

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MCI (P) 089/12/2021. Published by SPH Media Limited, Co. Regn. No. 202120748H. Copyright © 2022 SPH Media Limited. All rights reserved.