Smooth operator

PHOTO: Smooth operator

One of the longest-running clubs in Singapore's fickle nightlife scene got its start thanks to a father's faith in his 25-year-old daughter and her business partners.

Fresh out of graduate school with a masters in legal research from Oxford University, then-party animal Ms Tay Eu-Yen had no experience in running a business, let alone a nightclub. But her father, Mr Tay Siew Choon, pumped in $400,000 after she and three of her friends presented him with a business plan.

Fresh grad helped build Butter Factory into $10m business

  • One of the longest-running clubs in Singapore's fickle nightlife scene got its start thanks to a father's faith in his 25-year-old daughter and her business partners.
  • Fresh out of graduate school with a masters in legal research from Oxford University, then-party animal Ms Tay Eu-Yen had no experience in running a business, let alone a nightclub.
  • But her father, Mr Tay Siew Choon, pumped in $400,000 after she and three of her friends presented him with a business plan.
  • Recalls Ms Tay, now 34: "My dad just said, 'I'm going to invest this money and you make it or break it lah.' Thank God, we made it. He didn't doubt we were serious, he just didn't know where we were going to take the business."
  • Mr Tay, 66, is semi-retired but was formerly chief operating officer of Singapore Technologies, while Ms Tay's mother, Sheila, 63, is a housewife. She has a younger sister, Vicky, 32, who is a fashion designer.
  • The club in question, The Butter Factory, opened in 2006 in Robertson Quay. The 4,000 sq ft boutique "premium" hip-hop and R&B club quickly became one of the most popular nightspots in town, famed for the underground graffiti art and pop art that decorated its walls.
  • The company broke even within six months of operation.
  • The Butter Factory is now at a larger 8,000 sq ft space at One Fullerton. It has grown into an established home-grown nightlife brand with a Kuala Lumpur franchise outlet to boot.
  • The company has an average turnover of $10 million a year. It also owns quirky bar Sauce at the Esplanade and co-owns restaurant-bar Overeasy with lifestyle group Lo & Behold at One Fullerton.
  • Ms Tay (centre), who is executive chairman and majority shareholder of The Butter Factory, runs it together with long-time pal Celeste Chong (second from left), 34, and two other friends, Mr Bobby Luo (far left), 42, and Mr Ritz Lim (second from right), 51. Another shareholder who was an early investor in the club, Mr Woo Tsung Chwen (far right), 34, has been the company's operations director since 2008.
  • The young mother of one is candid about the company's fortunes, though she values her privacy and prefers to keep her family out of the media spotlight.
  • She chuckles as she recalls how The Butter Factory started: "One day, Celeste and I were hanging out, and we literally started drawing our dream club on pieces of paper at Fong Seng coffee shop near the National University of Singapore. We got really excited and we decided to open a club, so random right?".
  • Ms Chong, who was then working with Mr Luo (left) and Mr Lim at former nightclub Coco Latte at the Gallery Hotel, told her that she had to get the two men on board because they "were the most creative people she's ever met".
  • The club's unique name was partly drawn from "Cocoa Butter", the monicker that Ms Chong had used for previous parties she organised during her university days at Nanyang Technological University, while "Factory" paid homage to pop artist Andy Warhol's Factory concept from the 1960s.
  • Ms Tay adds that Butter also means "smooth" in rap speak, which went with the hip-hop music spun in their club.
  • She says: "There was no nice, premium place to enjoy hip-hop music at the time. If you liked that kind of music, a lot of the places were very small and not very mainstream, so we were hoping to have a comfy, premium VIP club that played this sort of music."
  • The place enjoyed a good three-year run at Robertson Quay before moving to One Fullerton in 2009. Business was so good, there were long queues where club-goers had to wait up to an hour to gain entry.
  • Ms Tay knew Lo & Behold's co-founders Wee Teng Wen and Daniel He from Raffles Junior College - they were her juniors - and thought it would be good for them to manage the restaurant as they had experience running F&B joints.
  • Bobby Luo and Ritz Lim.
  • In 2009, The Butter Factory also opened restaurant-bar Overeasy in a joint venture with the Lo & Behold group, which was running rooftop bar Loof at the time.
  • By 2011, her company was ready to manage its own bar. It pumped $250,000 into Sauce bar that became a popular chill-out spot for those after drinks and cocktails in a quirky setting.
  • And last year, The Butter Factory opened a franchise outlet in Kuala Lumpur, run by the club's franchisee, Malaysian group JV Entertainment. The 10,000 sq ft club was set up at a cost of $2.45 million.
  • Her enterprising streak started at age 15 when she, along with fellow Raffles Girls' School mate Ms Chong, used to organise alcohol-free shindigs for their friends from school and elsewhere, booking venues that could hold 300 to 400 people.
  • The parties ended when she graduated from Raffles Junior College and went to England to study law at Bristol University.
  • In the first few years running The Butter Factory, she held a full-time day job as a junior associate with Drew & Napier. She quit the law firm in 2008 after taking a three-month sabbatical when she trained to be a ski instructor in the Canadian resort town of Whistler, near Vancouver.
    Without going into details, she admits she felt the business was neglected for a while, and perhaps she could have "moved it faster, moved it bigger" if she had been able to concentrate on it fully.
  • She says her parents supported her move to quit law and go full-time into the nightlife business. "I've been brought up to believe I can do whatever I want, and if I didn't do what I like to do, I'd probably be very miserable."
    Her legal training has come in handy as it "gives an advantage in terms of corporate governance and structuring". She explains: "I save a lot of money on would-be legal fees because I draft every contract myself, even large ones like our Kuala Lumpur franchise agreement."

Recalls Ms Tay, now 34: "My dad just said, 'I'm going to invest this money and you make it or break it lah.' Thank God, we made it. He didn't doubt we were serious, he just didn't know where we were going to take the business."

Mr Tay, 66, is semi-retired but was formerly chief operating officer of Singapore Technologies, while Ms Tay's mother, Sheila, 63, is a housewife. She has a younger sister, Vicky, 32, who is a fashion designer.

The club in question, The Butter Factory, opened in 2006 in Robertson Quay. The 4,000 sq ft boutique "premium" hip-hop and R&B club quickly became one of the most popular nightspots in town, famed for the underground graffiti art and pop art that decorated its walls. The company broke even within six months of operation.

The Butter Factory is now at a larger 8,000 sq ft space at One Fullerton. It has grown into an established home-grown nightlife brand with a Kuala Lumpur franchise outlet to boot.

The company has an average turnover of $10 million a year. It also owns quirky bar Sauce at the Esplanade and co-owns restaurant-bar Overeasy with lifestyle group Lo & Behold at One Fullerton.

Ms Tay, who is executive chairman and majority shareholder of The Butter Factory, runs it together with long-time pal Celeste Chong, 34, and two other friends, Mr Bobby Luo, 42, and Mr Ritz Lim, 51. Another shareholder who was an early investor in the club, Mr Woo Tsung Chwen, 34, has been the company's operations director since 2008.

During our two-hour interview at Sauce bar, the affable Ms Tay is dressed cool and casual in a pair of black leggings and a pullover worn over a yellow tank top. The young mother of one is candid about the company's fortunes, though she values her privacy and prefers to keep her family out of the media spotlight.

She chuckles as she recalls how The Butter Factory started: "One day, Celeste and I were hanging out, and we literally started drawing our dream club on pieces of paper at Fong Seng coffee shop near the National University of Singapore. We got really excited and we decided to open a club, so random right?".

Ms Chong, who was then working with Mr Luo and Mr Lim at former nightclub Coco Latte at the Gallery Hotel, told her that she had to get the two men on board because they "were the most creative people she's ever met".

The club's unique name was partly drawn from "Cocoa Butter", the monicker that Ms Chong had used for previous parties she organised during her university days at Nanyang Technological University, while "Factory" paid homage to pop artist Andy Warhol's Factory concept from the 1960s. Warhol's Factory was a studio space in New York known for its hip underground parties and gatherings for artsy, creative types.

Ms Tay adds that Butter also means "smooth" in rap speak, which went with the hip-hop music spun in their club.

She says: "There was no nice, premium place to enjoy hip-hop music at the time. If you liked that kind of music, a lot of the places were very small and not very mainstream, so we were hoping to have a comfy, premium VIP club that played this sort of music."

The place enjoyed a good three-year run at Robertson Quay before moving to One Fullerton in 2009. Business was so good, there were long queues where club-goers had to wait up to an hour to gain entry.

In 2009, The Butter Factory also opened restaurant-bar Overeasy in a joint venture with the Lo & Behold group, which was running rooftop bar Loof at the time.

Ms Tay knew Lo & Behold's co-founders Wee Teng Wen and Daniel He from Raffles Junior College - they were her juniors - and thought it would be good for them to manage the restaurant as they had experience running F&B joints.

By 2011, her company was ready to manage its own bar. It pumped $250,000 into Sauce bar that became a popular chill-out spot for those after drinks and cocktails in a quirky setting. It had a garden-party styled alfresco area with eclectic furniture and astro-turfed floor.

And last year, The Butter Factory opened a franchise outlet in Kuala Lumpur, run by the club's franchisee, Malaysian group JV Entertainment. The 10,000 sq ft club was set up at a cost of $2.45 million.

Last year also saw The Butter Factory co-financing and producing the controversial Singapore film Sex.Violence.FamilyValues, written and directed by Ms Tay's good friend Ken Kwek. Her company invested about $70,000 in the film.

The film sparked debate on the limits of racial speech in Singapore when it was pulled from release just days before it was to open, following complaints over the use of racial jokes in its dialogue from people who had viewed the trailer online.

Eventually, it was released with an R21 rating and some edits.

Ms Tay says she invested in Kwek's film because "it was Butter's vision to never remain just as a club. It's our core business because we love to party, but we wanted to move into different areas of entertainment, such as movies".

Since then, she has been approached numerous times to fund films, but while she is keen in "continuing the film production route, we are very selective and not going to do it unless it is something that resonates with our brand".

Her enterprising streak started at age 15 when she, along with fellow Raffles Girls' School mate Ms Chong, used to organise alcohol-free shindigs for their friends from school and elsewhere, booking venues that could hold 300 to 400 people.

They used to frequent former space-age discotheque Shock Odyssey at Orchard Hotel and nightclub Rascals at Pan Pacific Hotel back in the 1990s.The parties ended when she graduated from Raffles Junior College and went to England to study law at Bristol University.

After graduation, she trained to be a barrister at the University of the West of England, and was called to the bar of England & Wales in 2002. She then did a masters of studies in legal research at Oxford University, before returning to practise law in Singapore in 2005.

In the first few years running The Butter Factory, she held a full-time day job as a junior associate with Drew & Napier. She quit the law firm in 2008 after taking a three-month sabbatical when she trained to be a ski instructor in the Canadian resort town of Whistler, near Vancouver. Skiing is a lifelong passion of hers and she has been skiing since the age of seven.

Admitting that she "waffled a bit" upon her return to Singapore instead of focusing on her business, Ms Tay says she ended up doing a year-long stint as a law professor at the Singapore Management University before returning to Drew & Napier as a part-time senior associate for 11/2 years. She left the legal profession in 2011.

Looking back, she says: "I guess I had this restlessness in me and one of the biggest mistakes I've made in running The Butter Factory is that I couldn't decide when to quit law. I should have quit earlier."

Without going into details, she admits she felt the business was neglected for a while, and perhaps she could have "moved it faster, moved it bigger" if she had been able to concentrate on it fully.

But she adds: "Thank goodness I have good partners that keep the vision alive when I'm distracted."

Her partners say the working dynamic has not changed much since she came on board full-time about 21/2 years ago.

Ms Chong says Ms Tay "makes a good leader" and "holds the directors together very well. She's become my go-to person when I'm stuck with a problem".

Mr Luo says Ms Tay "is always deliberate, disciplined and would think more strategically than most people". "She works hard to manage relationships and build consensus. There will always be disagreements in business, but somehow we always manage to get it tweaked and fine-tuned in the end."

She says her parents supported her move to quit law and go full-time into the nightlife business. "I've been brought up to believe I can do whatever I want, and if I didn't do what I like to do, I'd probably be very miserable."

Her legal training has come in handy as it "gives an advantage in terms of corporate governance and structuring". She explains: "I save a lot of money on would-be legal fees because I draft every contract myself, even large ones like our Kuala Lumpur franchise agreement."

She even drew up the constitution for the newly formed Singapore Nightlife Business Association, of which she is vice-president.

Its president and nightlife honcho Dennis Foo says of her: "It's interesting because the nightlife industry is usually dominated by men, but she is very qualified and we need people like her." He credits her as one of "the new generation of nightlife operators who have made a mark".

While Ms Tay has conquered many peaks, she says she is facing her biggest challenge now: juggling motherhood and corporate life. She has a nine-month-old daughter Ainsley.

At the interview, the new mum carries along a baby bag with a breast pump.

She says: "I don't know if I can overcome it. Balancing motherhood with work, and work in the nightlife industry at that. I'm not saying that it's easy to have a nine-to-five job, but having to lead a nightlife enterprise is a completely different ball game."

However, she says her husband, Mr Danny Ong, 38, a partner in law firm Rajah & Tann, is "hands-on" in taking care of their daughter. But the days of partying a few times a week are over.

The busy working mother lets her hair down just once a month these days, but does not mind in the least.

She says reflectively: "I count myself very lucky that everything that has come together in my life has enabled me to be who I am."

melk@sph.com.sg


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