Nightclub leading light steps down but not out

Nightclub leading light steps down but not out

After 35 years as a leading light in the local entertainment business, nightclub boss Dennis Foo is finally calling it a night.

The chief executive of St James Holdings will step down once a reverse takeover deal with property developer Perennial Real Estate Holdings goes through.

It will end what has been a fascinating journey, one that put Mr Foo in the front line as Singapore's entertainment industry transformed itself from frumpy wallflower to one of Asia's premier party spots.

But there is that reverse takeover to seal first. The deal, which was announced last month, will see Perennial's assets injected into Catalist-listed St James.

That will in turn transform St James into a real estate developer that combines Perennial's assets in Singapore and China by the end of this year. The existing St James entertainment business will be divested and taken private, also by the end of this year.

St James has 13 bars and clubs in Singapore, including Peppermint Park and Mono, both in its sprawling St James Power Station venue, and the mandopop club Shanghai Dolly at Clarke Quay.

Mr Foo told The Straits Times that the high saturation of players in the nightlife market, the difficulties in expanding abroad and the cost of keeping a company listed were behind the Perennial move.

He points out that renowned international nightclubs such as Ministry of Sound and Crazy Horse could not compete in Singapore and bailed out.

In addition, he notes that the other two listed nightlife brands in Singapore are also going private - Harry's delisted in February last year while Lifebrandz announced its own reverse takeover deal in February this year.

Mr Foo, 61, says the move to take his business private, as well as his impending retirement, will mark the closing of a chapter in St James' history.

Mr Foo is a majority stakeholder of St James through Dennon Entertainment, a private company controlled by him and his family. St James had revenue of about $30 million last year.

However, he believes the time is right to leave his executive position as he can no longer relate to the needs of such a rapidly changing market.

"Nightlife is a business that caters mostly to younger people. It is ever-changing, fast-paced and physically taxing for operators. I do not think I can keep up with them at my age," he says.

Responsibility for running St James will fall on his 32-year-old son Gordon, who has 12 years of experience in the industry and is the firm's coordinating director of operations.

He might be a fixture in the game now, but Mr Foo's move into the entertainment industry was pretty tentative all those years ago. His first taste came in 1975 when he was the president of the music society in the University of Singapore and had to book musicians for events.

He dropped out the next year to help run his parents' goldsmith shop in Joo Chiat but got back into the entertainment scene in 1980, opening Europa Lounge at Changi Village.

The club, which was the first to open in the Europa Holdings brand, closed in 2002 - a life span of a whopping 22 years, which is an epoch in the fickle bar industry.

Mr Foo had left the Europa holding company in 2001, eventually setting up entertainment venues such as the dance club Powerhouse and the now-defunct mandopop club Dragonfly at St James Power Station in 2006.

He brought them all under the St James brand and on to the stock exchange in 2008.

There have been massive changes over the years but some challenges that affect the sector never change.

"There is a labour crunch in the hospitality industry," he says. "Singaporeans generally do not like to wait on people. Nightlife is the graveyard shift of hospitality."

St James employs more than 300 people - 40 per cent of them foreigners. This amounts to almost $1 million in annual foreign worker levies.

Though Mr Foo recognises the labour woes of all businesses in Singapore, he maintains that the nightlife sector requires the human touch and that cannot be substituted with technology, unlike mechanised assembly lines for manufacturing or prefabrication in construction.

Rising rents are also a persistent problem. Mr Foo said a 2,000 sq ft bar in Clarke Quay would have cost no more than $10,000 a month 10 years ago. Now, it would set you back at least $40,000 a month.

In addition, the 25 per cent hike in alcohol tax announced in the Budget in February has led to some suppliers increasing the price of spirits by 5 to 15 per cent, according to Mr Foo.

Despite these issues, he is confident the nightlife industry will grow bigger and better on the back of increased tourism.

"In the last decade, Singapore has built two integrated resorts, more than doubled our hotel rooms and (there is the upcoming) Sports Hub at Kallang," he notes "All the people who come here must have something to do at night."

Mr Foo predicts a sunny future for the nightlife business as more young entrepreneurs set up bars and clubs. He singled out Ms Tay Eu-Yen and Mr Edward Chia as up-and- coming movers and shakers in the nightlife business.

Ms Tay, 34, owns and operates The Butter Factory club at One Fullerton while Mr Chia, 30, is chief executive and managing director of nightlife operator Timbre Group.

"Every industry needs new blood... I am impressed by them. Many are very passionate, determined and smart," says Mr Foo.

He also believes the future of the industry will see more mid-sized clubs and bars with live music, such as Timbre and Aquanova, pitched against larger dance clubs like Zouk and Fenix.

But after 35 years of what for many people sounds like a high life of glitz and glamour, Mr Foo is keen to change gears.

He wants to spend more of his nights with family and focus on his public work as a member of public councils, such as the Workforce Development Agency Council and the Pro-Enterprise Panel established by the Ministry of Trade and Industry.

However, he does not intend to leave the nightlife business altogether. He is open to taking on a non-executive, advisory role in St James. And as president of the Singapore Nightlife Business Association, he hopes to share his expertise with all those newcomers to the industry.

But the guard is changing, as he happily admits, and the torch is being passed to the next generation. "For the drinks in my clubs, my son has already replaced my favourite Johnnie Walker whiskey with Chivas Regal," he says with a smile.

"Perhaps it is time that he gets to call the shots."

ivantyh@sph.com.sg

This article was published on April 7 in The Straits Times.

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