Business challenges, courtroom dramas and casinos: 'Nightlife King' Dennis Foo goes On the Record

Business challenges, courtroom dramas and casinos: 'Nightlife King' Dennis Foo goes On the Record

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Dennis Foo retired as CEO of St James Holdings in 2014. He is now Chairman of CityBar Holdings Limited and his son, Gordon Foo is Managing Director. (Photo: Dennis Foo)

SINGAPORE: “I’m not a drunkard, okay,” says Dennis Foo as we look back on his career as Singapore’s "Nightlife King".

He also emphasises that while he is a known proponent of casinos as a tourist attraction, he is “no gambler”.

After 35 years of building and leading some of Singapore’s most popular nightspots such as St James Power Station, the country’s largest one-stop nightlife destination, Mr Foo decided to retire in 2014.

Today, the 65-year-old’s face might be wizened, but his eyes tell a different story.

While they possess a depth that is reflective of his decades of experience, they frequently come alight with an almost innocent, youthful exuberance as he talks about his ideas for the local nightlife and F&B industry during our interview.

But first, he wants to set the record straight. Just because he chose a career in nightlife and frequently hung out in clubs, he is not an alcoholic.

“Everybody assumes I drink all the time. I was there to run a business, not get drunk.”

However, he confesses to “really enjoying” his whisky and wine. Since retirement, pairing his meals carefully with alcohol to “bring out the best in the food” has become a frequent pastime.

His retirement routine includes an early breakfast at the neighbourhood coffeeshops and short walks to work off the prata, lontong, nasi lemak or the pork porridge he might have.

He catches up with old friends at the Singapore Cricket Club twice a week. 

“But most of the time I will want to be with my wife whether dining out or staying at home where she sips her wine and I drink my whisky while watching Korean or HK TVB movies.”

To listen to the full interview, click here.

Mr Foo stepped down as CEO of St James Holdings after a reverse takeover deal with property developer Perennial Real Estate Holdings.

Although the company had been seeing healthy profits, he cited a saturation in the nightlife business scene, higher business costs and the costs of keeping a company listed as reasons for the deal.

It saw Perennial's assets injected into Catalist-listed St James which transformed St James into a real estate developer combining Perennial's assets in Singapore and China.

St James’ entertainment business was divested and taken private under CityBar Holdings. Mr Foo is CityBar’s chairman while his son, Gordon is its managing director.

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"You are punishing the diligent operators along with the delinquents. That's not fair," says Dennis Foo about shorter liquor licensing hours for establishments in Clarke Quay. (Photo: Dennis Foo)

OBSTACLES IN THE NIGHTLIFE BUSINESS

However, in April this year, live Mandopop music venue and nightclub Shanghai Dolly in Clarke Quay managed by CityBar Holdings had to close its doors.

The younger Mr Foo cited the introduction of shortened liquor licensing hours in 2013 to curb unruly drunken behaviour as a key reason. He had said that business had decreased by 30 per cent since then. 

While, Mr Foo describes nightlife as a “tough business”, he never discouraged his son from entering the business.

“He has an interest in it. But to stay relevant, you need to be ever changing and keep up with the times as it’s trend sensitive. Over and above this, it’s especially tough in Singapore because of the small market and high costs of operations. However, if we can create a few world-beating concepts in Singapore and duplicate it overseas, then the scalability is still there. That’s what I have told my son.”

But he, like many other operators in Clarke Quay, still feels that the Government’s shortened licensing rules are unfair, even though I put it to him that law and order issues should not be ignored for the sake of business. 

“You are punishing the diligent operators along with the delinquents. Not all the bars have problems controlling their patrons. You should catch the people who are creating law and order issues. You punish them and make them an example That is the way to solve the problem. Instead, you go and penalize all operators.

"When operators came in, they were willing to pay high rents with the understanding that it was a 24-hour party zone. Once you take that away, of course it will hurt business and make it harder to even pay rent."

While Shanghai Dolly had never received demerit points for incidents of unruly drunkenness, St James Power Station, which is subleased to several clubs, was in the news last year for several incidents, including a murder that took place outside the club.

One of the clubs even had its public entertainment licence suspended after preliminary investigations by the police found that a vice syndicate was offering sexual services there. 

Mr Foo assures me that measures have been put in place to prevent such incidents, but maintains his stance that there are better, more targeted ways of dealing with such issues.

NOT BEING ABLE TO RELATE ANYMORE

I ask him why he decided to retire when he is still clearly passionate about the business.

“I can’t relate to the market as well as I did before. One of the major things for me when I started was being able to relate to the music and being able to bring in live bands that would draw in the crowds. These days, I can’t relate to the music at all. For example, rap. It’s just not in my DNA. To reinvent the business, this is important. So if I can’t be passionate about it, why continue?”

It was his passion for mainstream pop music of the 1980s that spurred him to turn his father’s Europa Restaurant in Changi Village into a lounge.

His father set it up as a western food restaurant in 1979, but died of cancer a year later.

“His last words then to me were, 'Take care of this place'. I had worked behind the cash register and bar at Europa, but his words made me realise I had to do more.

“Music is something I always liked since university days. I used to bring bands into campus. So I decided that I would do the same for Europa.”

At the time, live entertainment was mostly only allowed in hotel lobby lounges. He had to make an extra effort to obtain a license for Europa which was in a residential area.

He had to do it gradually.

“The first few times, I would apply for temporary week-long licenses during festive periods, like the year-end Christmas and New Year period and Chinese New Year. That meant that every other month or every month I had to go to the licensing unit. I had to make sure that we had no incidents and noise complaints.  

"One day, I think the lady at the licensing unit got tired of me seeing me so she said 'Okay, I’ll grant you a full-year license'. It was unprecedented at that time for a bar in a residential area,” he says, clearly proud of his achievement.  

His belief that live entertainment was key to his business saw him to go to great lengths to optimise conditions for bands and performers.

For example, he would buy premium instruments such as pianos and keyboards to facilitate their performances.

For Singaporean singer Anita Sarawak, he and a friend built a cordless microphone that would enable her to move around the room and interact with the audience while performing.

“Nowadays cordless microphones are common. In the 80s, not so, but I had a friend who graduated from polytechnic and he created a transmitter that was attached to a normal microphone and we had a radio receiver that could transmit very good quality sound. So I invited Anita to perform by showing her that we could help make her performance better with this.”

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Since retiring in 2014, Dennis Foo spends more of his time giving industry talks. (Photo: Dennis Foo)

“I WAS THE ELDEST SON. THE BURDEN WAS ON ME.”

Before he made it big in the nightlife scene, he endured trials and tribulations that seem to haunt him till today.

As an arts undergraduate, he had to drop out of university to help pay off his mother’s debts.

“She was a businesswoman running a goldsmith shop but her business failed because she was cheated by her employees at that time. So I asked for compassionate leave of absence from school to settle all this. I was the eldest son. The burden was on me.”

He sold insurance for a while to earn money and also worked as a director of a factory building filing cabinets for offices.

“We sold some assets, but also my girlfriend’s father was in the goldsmith business. I invited him to be in partnership with my family and that revived the jewellery business.”

Did he consider returning to school after that?

“In those days, fresh graduates would earn about S$800. I was already earning a few thousand running Europa by then, so I didn’t. But I do think about it sometimes. Maybe I should go back and finish my degree. When I don’t complete something, I don’t feel good.”

I wonder if he felt any resentment towards his mother as her problems were the chief reason for this.

“Yes, I felt resentment, but it’s not my style to lash out. In those days, I just focused on the problem and solved it.  Later on I was upset at the situation, but I couldn’t regret it too much. You have to move on.”

BUSINESS FAILURES AND COURTROOM DRAMAS

There were more trials to come.

Two themed theatre lounges he opened - Peppermint Park and Atlantis -  did not make it. They closed during the 1987 recession and made a loss of S$4 million.

These failures also had to do with “a lack of market research”.

“People were not ready for a Pirates of the Caribbean-themed lounge like Peppermint Park for instance. I should have looked into it more.”

He circled back to Europa and decided to corporatise it with three partners. By the mid-90s, Europa was the biggest pub and bar chain in the country.

Then came yet another trial.

He and his partners made a bid of S$100 million for a plot of land in Bukit Timah which was to become the Raffles Town Club.

This deal caused him to be sucked into one of Singapore’s longest courtroom dramas.

The club’s management had admitted an excessive number of members which caused a tremendous squeeze on its facilities, prompting a lawsuit by a group of members.

When I ask him about this, he grows visibly pensive.

“This is a period I’d rather not talk but now that you’ve asked, I’ll tell you my understanding of the case. It all started because we overbid for the land. An authority in the property market actually said we should have bid only S$44 million. We bid S$100 million so we brought in partners to pay half the value of the bid. We couldn’t do it with our own resources.

“With all these partners, the money grew too big and the loose ends were not tied up. So we ended up in court. That’s the best way I can describe it.”

Eventually, in 2001, he had to sell Europa Holdings in the settlement.

“The whole incident actually changed me completely. I was no more happy-go-lucky after that. Fifteen years of a life moving in and out of court is not funny. I lost some of my best friends in the process.

“But you learn and you do things more carefully after something like that. At the same time, you tend to be more sensitive and aware to anticipate potential conflicts and avoid them.”

After this incident, he famously declared to his wife that he “had nothing left”.

But her encouragement to “build an even bigger Europa” spurred him to start Devil’s Bar and later St James Power Station in 2006.

Today, as he looks at the nightlife scene in Singapore, he laments the changes in the social landscape that have impacted business.

“Today, people have found other ways to connect with each other rather than in clubs. They meet on social media and dating apps, so that has shrunk the market as well. That’s why clubs today have to be smaller to be sustainable.”

He mentions the closure of other mega clubs over the years such as the Butter Factory and Ministry of Sound.

“I will not redo a mega club like St James because today Singapore cannot sustain multiple mega clubs, especially in one location. I might have done better if I had opened a few small ones in different locations across the island. You have to change your business model. My advice to my son is to start two or three small ones here and if you’re successful, you can duplicate it overseas. This must be the formula going forward.”

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Dennis Foo at a Singapore Nightlife Business Association gathering. (Photo: Dennis Foo)

“THEY CAME WITH HAND GRENADES”

He himself never ventured overseas largely because of experiences that he says frightened him. 

“Back in the 90s, I went to Ho Chi Minh City to do business. We opened Europa there. Members of the underworld actually came to us and asked us for money. In those days, in Vietnam, they didn’t come with knives. They came with hand grenades. After three years, the lease expired and we gave up. That frightens me from going abroad again.”

He regrets having never done business in China though.

“China clearly is a big market with a huge hinterland. But when I tried to go there to set up in the early 2000s, I realised that even there, if you want to get things done, you have to entertain the politicians, the people who work in government agencies. You have to give them gifts.”

I remark that many businessmen see this as part and parcel of investing in certain countries and ask him why he couldn’t he accept it. 

“Because they perpetually have a hold on you. I don’t like that.”

SINGAPORE’S CHALLENGING BUSINESS ENVIRONMENT

He hasn’t lost hope in the Singapore market, although he feels that manpower costs could have been better managed by the authorities as the F&B industry in general is suffering the effects of such costs.

“If you have a foreign worker quota, why must you also impose a levy?”

I put it to him that without the levy, it is likely wages for Singaporeans working in the sector would be depressed further.

While nodding, he says it also might be too late to reverse this policy.

“It’s already entrenched in the system. Things like such levies and taxes support a lot of other beneficial Government initiatives for Singaporeans, so you can’t just take them away.”

Instead he suggests other ways of reviving the “saturated F&B sector” which has also recently seen the closure of Michelin star restaurants such as Joel Robuchon and Restaurant Andre. 

“The only way to mitigate this situation today is to increase the revenue via a higher average cheque per table at restaurants.  The only way to achieve a higher average cheque without people complaining that they are not getting value for it is to introduce another dimension of the dining experience.”

He suggests cultivating a dining culture that more often includes drinking alcohol with meals, something he feels is not a part of Singapore’s culture yet.

“Start cultivating people to, for example in Western restaurants, drink more wine and even at other casual eateries or hawker centres, have wine, beer or spirits to go with the meal.”

He is quick to add that he doesn’t encourage drunkenness, but merely an appreciation of moderately pairing alcohol with meals to bring out the best in the food, while helping restaurants sustain their business.

“It happens all over the world. In Japan you have sake, wine in Europe, rum in Jamaica. Once we do this, the best will survive.”

If F&B outlets do better, he feels it will have a knock-on effect on retail outlets in the vicinity too.

He also feels that more can be done to revive Orchard Road, suggesting music festivals and food trucks which also provide seating for patrons.

“There’s also a lack of nightlife there. So you’ve got to build clusters that support one another. Bars, live performances and food on the street that can support the retail sector too.”

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“I STAND BY THE IDEA OF CASINOS”

Among the more controversial suggestions that Mr Foo has made over the years has been that Singapore build casinos, a move that divided Singaporeans and continued to do so even after the Integrated Resorts (IRs) were opened in 2010. 

As a member of the Tourism Working Group of the Economic Review Committee, he wrote a white paper on the subject in 2002.

As part of the study, visited casinos in the United States and Australia. He bore the cost of his travels, including a loss of S$250,000 that he incurred while gambling in Tasmania.

“It hurt to lose money, but it was a necessary part of the experience,” he says.

I ask him why he felt so strongly about having casinos in Singapore and what he makes of the objections that are still heard in some quarters about the ill-effects of having them here.

“Back in 2000, I said the casinos were already here in the form of cruise ships to nowhere, sucking money out of Singaporeans and someone up North openly said they built a whole port with Singaporean money. The casino ships ply our waters, but create no jobs and pay no taxes. So I said as a defensive strategy, we should create a casino here.

"Within Asia, we are also unique. We have all the pre-requisites to make it world-class. We have security, infrastructure. We are a trusted brand. We are small and we are well-regulated."

In spite of the concerns over problem gambling, his view has not wavered.

“In terms of entertainment, casinos offer excitement and all the services built around them – hotels, restaurants, retail, conventions – bring in money too.

“I am aware of the social costs. I stand by the idea of casinos, but I agree the barriers need to be tighter. They charge Singaporeans S$100 per entry, but the S$2,000 annual entry levy is too cheap for unlimited entry for one year. You induce people to go there more. That is wrong.”

While latest reports show Singapore's IRs making profits, he acknowledges that they continue to face stiff global competition.

“IRs though transformational, are but catalysts to drive the overall tourism product. Only when the other components in the overall tourism ecosystem are really thriving then will we realized the IRs’ true potential. 

“Every sector must reinforce itself and support each other. In other words, for our IRs  to be competitive, complementary industries must thrive as well. Still, each IR must develop its own unique selling proposition to attract its core customers.”

Several years ago, he also suggested a legalised red light district in Singapore much like the ones in Amsterdam and Hamburg.

“If they go underground, it is harder to regulate. Right now, the activities are scattered. It’s not just restricted to Geylang. You see it elsewhere in Singapore too. The signals are not clear. It’s the oldest profession in the world. You can’t eradicate it. You can only accommodate it and control it. You accept the problems and create measures to monitor and tackle them.”

Some might describe him as someone who would cast morality aside for a money-making idea. Others would call him a realist making the best of the situation.

He is aware that opinion on such issues is split.

“I know there’s a stigma attached to some ideas. But I think if we can moderate these things and allow them to be commercially viable at the same time, as they already are, but in a more organised manner, why not?”

While Mr Foo says he has no concrete plans to return to the business world formally at the moment, he clearly has ideas waiting to be developed.

“I am a salesman through and through. If I had not taken over my father’s business, I presume I would end up in a sales job or if my entrepreneurial spirit got the better of me, I would have set up companies that would be selling some consumer products or something. Ultimately, I want to be remembered for having contributed something to society.”  

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