Entrepreneur

Lo & Behold's Wee Teng Wen On Building A Lifestyle Empire - "Prioritise People Over Profits"

Early this month, the Lo & Behold group founders Wee Teng Wen and Daniel He received the Outstanding Tourism Entrepreneur award for the stable of eateries they have built over the past decade.

With creative dining concepts, the Group has helped to establish Singapore’s reputation as a must-visit dining destination.

For those unacquainted, the Group currently helms 12 bars, cafés and restaurants under its name – Loof, Overeasy, The White Rabbit, The Rabbit Hole, Tanjong Beach Club, Extra Virgin Pizza, The Black Swan, The Powder Room, The Daily Roundup, Odette, Looksee Looksee, and Po.

Most recently, it also made its first foray into the hotel business with The Warehouse Hotel, which opened doors in January 2017.

Image Credit: The Warehouse Hotel

Clearly, the Group’s business portfolio has grown so much over the years – and it got me thinking about their secret to building a lifestyle empire.

Some cynical ones would simply say: money.

After all, co-founder Wee did hail from one of Singapore’s wealthiest families – he is the son of United Overseas Bank (UOB) chief executive Wee Ee Cheong, and grandson of banking tycoon Wee Cho Yaw.

Grandfather Wee is apparently worth an estimated US$5.5 billion (S$7.6 billion) and is Singapore’s seventh-richest man, according to Forbes’ Singapore’s 50 Richest list last year.

Family Wealth Did Not Build His Success

Wee insists that his privileged background did not contribute to his success thus far. While the money certainly helps, plain hard work counts for more, he pointed out.

His first F&B venture was Loof in Odeon Towers, which started in 2005 as Singapore’s first standalone rooftop bar – he was only 25 back then.

After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in finance, management and psychology, Wee partnered up with his Anglo-Chinese School friend Daniel He, who remains his business partner now.

Wee Teng Wen and Daniel He / Image Credit: Singapore Tourism Board on Twitter

They pumped in $400,000 of their own savings to kickstart the venture, and they broke even in less than a year – within eight months, to be exact.

“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,” said Wee in an interview with The Peak.

Unexpectedly, what started off as a mere experiment – Loof only had 10 staff members at launch – soon became successful. It’s not an overstatement to say that the joint pioneered the rooftop bar trend in Singapore.

According to Wee, F&B is “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,” he said.

But he also confessed that having family backing to fall back on, should he fail, is never out of the picture. “It has freed me a little, yes. To say no would be unrealistic,” he told The Peak. 

It’s clear that this 32-year-old man does not take his wealthy family for granted – and that his success is based purely on merits and hard work.

Here are three key business lessons we learnt from this accidental entrepreneur:

1. Focusing On Your Passion

Interior of The White Rabbit / Image Credit: The White Rabbit

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, this means a strategy of creating timeless products that “people can experience with every sense”, and “forming an awesome and lasting relationship with all [their] guests”.

He is also very involved in his business, and he oversees all aspects of every project – ranging from design, operations and marketing, together with a team of equally passionate colleagues.

Part of being passionate is also to be stubborn and curious. “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 inspiration for these projects “usually stems from the space itself”, said Wee.

“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.”

2. Creating A People-Focused Company

When Lo & Behold first started 12 years ago, looking at the profitability of each brand or business unit was the main focus for Wee.

“I was always thinking about ideas and strategies for each of my venues. Over the years, I’ve realised the importance of a company that functions on a group level,” he told The Business Times.

“Evolving as an entrepreneur meant learning to prioritise people over profits, long-term benefits over short-term gains,” he added.

Lo & Behold team / Image Credit: Lo & Behold

Hence, he spent the last few years finding, grooming, and retaining the best talent; building a company culture, shaping the group’s values, missions and culture.

Since attracting and retaining talents is an ongoing challenge for Lo & Behold, Wee aims to nip the problem in the bud 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 told The Peak.

In a separate interview by The Peak, Wee described people as the “most vital component” to the Group’s success.

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.

Even Chef Julien Royer , Wee’s business partner for fine-dining restaurant Odette, described him as a “people guy” in a Female interview.

“His focus is on people, and at the end of the day, what we do in the hospitality field, is to serve people, giving them an experience, and you need the right people to do that.”

3. Treating Failure As A Lesson

Among his string of successes, one particular venture didn’t take off.

A Curious Teepee, a lifestyle and design store at Scape, closed last year after a two-year run.

The now-defunct Curious Teepee / Image Credit: Takenouchi Webb

On bouncing back, Wee said: “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.”

That single failure never daunted him. In fact, Wee said that the failure taught him an invaluable lesson in choosing the right location and partnering the right landlords.

Building the right partnerships is key, he emphasised.

“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.”

Entrepreneurship Is A “Practice”

Being an entrepreneur at the tender age of 25, it is so easy for someone to f**k up due to the lack of experience (and immaturity too).

On starting out young, Wee said that entrepreneurship is a “practice”.

“[It’s] not a science, nor an art.”

And given the Group’s monumental success over the years, it’s no surprise if he ever has his nose up in the air. But this man knows success can be fleeting, and is determined to keep his feet on the ground.

“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.”

“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.”

Featured Image Credit: Buro 24/7 

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