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Wee Teng Wen

Become – High Profiles
September 7, 2018

It was the allure of running Singapore’s first standalone rooftop bar, Loof that drew Wee Teng Wen back in 2005, and the challenge of building on its success that has kept this trailblazing entrepreneur here. Since then, Teng Wen, or Teng as he prefers to be called, has gone on to found a series of lifestyle and F&B concepts in Singapore, which have been instrumental in redefining the local culture and entertainment scene.

Collectively known as The Lo & Behold Group, one of the hospitality company’s latest entries is Straits Clan—a private members’ club founded as a broad platform for the Lion City’s most progressive and creative to converge, connect, inspire and be inspired. This is their most ambitious and publicised endeavour yet. Despite the trumpeting fanfare of its name and their highly fashionable outlets, The Lo & Behold Group has mostly abided by an understated management strategy, underscored by measured, if not quiet growth—mirroring Teng's own preference for staying out of the limelight.

Scion to the UOB family business, this maverick son is hardly the bold, brash or extroverted figure one might imagine. Slim and almost waifish in build, he cuts an elegant figure of restraint in a classic summer suit. “Timeless” is a term that comes to mind, and a singular notion that is a constant refrain with Teng, who has a penchant for restoring vintage cars, and revitalising overlooked heritage spaces. “Beauty is something that you can look at over and over again,” he says. And this sensibility informs his incessant pursuit for the ideal.

“We still feel the need to relook into a project, many years on, even if it's doing well. Even though we think and overthink a lot, we don’t get our projects exactly right from the get-go, and there’s a lot of contemplation and tweaking that happens after that.” Toeing the line between being fastidious and relentless, there’s no doubt that this approach has stood him in good stead for the last 13 years, and likely many more to come.

Conversations with Wee Teng Wen

Managing Partner, The Lo & Behold Group
Text by Teo Ren Feng
Photography by Yew Jia Jun

TEO REN FENG: What was your favourite cartoon or character as a child?

WEE TENG WEN: I was a huge MacGyver fan. It was this guy who was constantly being put in the most ridiculous situations and having to get out of them while solving problems of a life-threatening degree. I guess running a business is all about solving problems, or finding ways to solve problems better. 

REN FENG: Did you always know that you were going to be an entrepreneur?

TENG WEN: Yes, for as long as I can remember. I was always most excited about creating something, especially from scratch. I didn’t know what I would do exactly, or in what industry it would be in, but I always knew that it would be the most fulfilling and meaningful for me to be able to do my own thing.

REN FENG: You come from a prominent and very successful business family. How do you think that has affected/influenced the way that you do business?

TENG WEN: I think my family's approach has always been one where they have valued and emphasised the long-term and sustainable benefits over the short-term gains. It's been more about building a brand and trust, and treating people right. Perhaps consciously and subconsciously, those have influenced the way I approach the business.

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We don't set growth targets like how many restaurants we want to open, or how much money we need to make.

REN FENG: What is Lo & Behold’s long-term objective?

TENG WEN: We want to be the leading hospitality company in Asia, in terms of the level at which we execute, our ability to attract and retain amazing people, and how immersive our experiences are for our customers.

REN FENG: How far ahead do you plan?

TENG WEN: Ummm. . . three years? I'd like to think that our mission and goal is quite a timeless one, so we don't set growth targets like how many restaurants we want to open, or how much money we need to make. That's not something we're focused on. It's actually been quite unprecedented in how many that we've opened in one go.

REN FENG: Then what decides when and whether Lo & Behold begins a new endeavour?

TENG WEN: For the most part it's been following our heart into projects, while always ensuring that we have the right people to partner with or to help drive it. I think the starting point for our business has always been about how we can add a little bit more 'lovability' and soul to the Singapore scene. It's the first reason why we started, and to a large degree, remains a real driver for why we stay passionate about the business.

REN FENG: Do you feel that you are part of an effort to create a stronger, more distinct Singaporean identity?

TENG WEN: When we first started Loof, it was a very different landscape—a very obvious void at that point, where there were very few people who were trying to celebrate Singapore. So we felt that we just wanted to do something that would tell our story a little bit better, in our own way. It was time to have our own voice.

REN FENG: Does that motivation excite you the most about your job?

TENG WEN: It’s two things: one, because I think what we do is meaningful. We're creating concepts on a day-to-day basis, and motivating staff to create amazing experiences. The better a place looks, the tastier a dish is, and so, the more hospitable our team becomes. It just adds up to a very fulfilling mission. Number two is the fact that we're able to add a little bit to the scene in Singapore—in our own small way, to challenge the notion that Singapore is not that interesting or fun.

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REN FENG: Do you resent that notion? [laughs]

TENG WEN: Yeah, I always did, to some extent. Living abroad, people would always bring up the fact that chewing gum is banned here, or that we are very clean and our laws are very strict; those were very constant narratives and a misconception that I was inspired to fix, even though I didn't know how. I'm glad that with what we've created, we've been able to slowly change people’s perception. I think we've come quite a long way, compared to 12 years ago. There was no Dempsey, no Clarke Quay and Chinatown was dead when we first started out. Now there are so many clusters that are thriving.

REN FENG: Do you see this growing sense of a national identity as a natural progression of our society?

TENG WEN: Yes, I think so. It is part of the natural progression, but it should not be the be-all and end-all. The Singapore story is one that is important to tell, but ultimately, we shouldn't pigeonhole ourselves. It's important that we tell global stories, and that we are executing on a world-class level—be it producing concepts, products, brands or experiences—they need to be relevant globally. 

We often hold back a little bit from 'over-designing' our venues and doing too much, because we feel that what's more important is to create a brand that will stand the test of time.

REN FENG: What is your litmus test for whether a concept is truly relevant?

TENG WEN: Timelessness. In 5 years, will we be cringing when we see our work, or still get excited? We often hold back a little bit from 'over-designing' our venues and doing too much, because we feel that what's more important is to create a brand that will stand the test of time.

REN FENG: Where do you hope to see the Straits Clan in say, 50 years?

TENG WEN: It feels like such early days. Our inspiration and motivation were very simple because we are at a time now where we feel—and I feel—blessed to have so much going on here. There are so many exciting people pursuing grand and bold dreams across so many different industries. We really hope that we can be a central point and platform that brings them altogether—pulling them into a space that has a strong Singaporean element, and insightful programmes. 50 years on, if we can still bring interesting people together in a way that they didn't quite imagine, and inspire them through interactions and content, that would be super exciting for me.

REN FENG: Do you think you will ever work on anything else, or is Lo & Behold going to be your life's work?

TENG WEN: I think I have to find a balance between contentment and curiosity; there's a big part of me that's quite content with what we've already built in terms of the platform and the team. But there are still opportunities to improve and evolve; we should push ourselves to activate more spaces, bring interesting stories to life, create more impact on the local scene and perhaps grow beyond our shores.

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REN FENG: What does the name Lo & Behold say about your mission?

TENG WEN: We coined the term “Lo & Behold Group” after starting Loof and White Rabbit. It was the perfect name because it was an exclamation that aligned with our goal of really creating experiences and concepts that have wow factor and in some way, knock your socks off. The name set the bar for what we aspire to be. I also liked that it was an old-world, biblical term, and a lot of our projects try to activate a space or tell a story of yesteryear.

REN FENG: What is success to you, then?

TENG WEN: I was just talking to a friend who's passionate about architecture in Singapore, and he was asking: “Can you imagine Singapore without (blank)?” And that question sparked something in me. I realised that with what we’ve done, I would love for many of our venues and for the Lo & Behold group to inspire that kind of response.

REN FENG: What has been your greatest failure thus far?

TENG WEN: I think in the early days, we grew the company relatively quickly. We had Loof first, then opened White Rabbit two years later. It was a high percentage of growth in relation to the size of the group then, and that took a huge toll in terms of our culture and solidarity. We were at our weakest at about our 5 or 6-year mark: there was Loof, White Rabbit, Tanjong Beach Club, and OverEasy; all distinct venues where no one was talking the same language. No one felt like they were part of a group, and no one was helping each other out. Trying to manage the individual activities was a nightmare, and that’s when I truly realised that there was no way we could continue to grow and evolve without taking a step back.

REN FENG: What did you do?

TENG WEN: What we did was build a very intentional culture, one that puts the staff first. We had to be very clear on our mission and vision, and it was a wake-up call for me and a huge turning point for us. Had that not happened, we would not have been able to get ourselves out of that situation or be anywhere close to creating a functioning group.

REN FENG: How large is your team now?

TENG WEN: We have 400 people in the group.

REN FENG: Is your priority still your staff first?

TENG WEN: To be an employer of choice and the kind of place that people want to work at is for us a goal in itself, and not just a means to an end. I actually spend most of my time and design thinking on it. In an industry where it is generally hard to attract and retain people, how do you create an environment and a career for people, and help them see the joy in what they do? I think we are incredibly blessed, because everyone in my industry is at the end of the day, in a job that revolves around creating amazing experiences—which can be very fulfilling. Our job as an employer is to make sure that our staff are learning and growing, yet still have fun and find meaning in what they do.

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REN FENG: What is your greatest fear?

TENG WEN: Hospitality is such a fast-moving industry that I'm forced to be on my toes. I'm just scared of. . . it's important even if I don't have my ears to the ground, that I’m constantly working with a team that does—there has to be a collective passion within the group, with what we’re building. Having a lot more creative personalities adding life to our brands as we grow, is one way we can continue to ensure that we are truly adding vibrancy and relevance to the scene. We created a company that always asks ‘why’, and it’s important to always define that clearly for ourselves and our colleagues. Life is too short to do things just for the sake of doing them.

REN FENG: When did you last do something that made you intensely uncomfortable?

TENG WEN: I'm always intensely uncomfortable every time we open a new venue. There’s so much uncertainty.

We’re always tweaking and trying to fix something, even when it doesn't need to be fixed.

REN FENG: How do you know when to call it a day, when it comes to a business venture?

TENG WEN: Our level of persistence and stubbornness is really quite extreme. Even though we think and overthink a lot, we don't really get our projects exactly right from the get-go, and there’s a lot of contemplation and tweaking that happens after that. We still feel the need to relook into a project, many years on, even if it's doing well. White Rabbit is entering its 10th year now, and we're doing a brand refresh. We’re leaving no stone unturned—to stay or become even more relevant. So to answer your question, we don't give up that easily. We’re always tweaking and trying to fix something, even when it doesn't need to be fixed.

REN FENG: Have your priorities changed with fatherhood?

TENG WEN: Yes, I'm definitely clearer about how I want to spend my time, and the mornings and evenings are precious. All of a sudden you realise that your actions have a lot more impact. And there’s a greater level of responsibility.

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REN FENG: What would you like to give your child?

TENG WEN: Freedom and support, all at once.

REN FENG: Do you or did you ever feel like your family background overshadows your personal capabilities or achievements?

TENG WEN: There’s definitely a sense of. . . that the backdrop here is one of a certain amount of scale and business success. But on the flip side, I’m also very glad it means that I'm inspired by different things—I don't value success by scale or growth. . . they are not measures of success, or my success.

REN FENG: What are your personal aspirations in life?

TENG WEN: I may have to get back to you on this one, though very simply right now, it’s doing things that I love, constantly being challenged, staying curious, and having a happy and contented family life.

REN FENG: What do you think is our greatest purpose?

TENG WEN: I think we live to be fulfilled, and also to provide fulfilment for others. Life is a combination of those two factors, in balance. Some people do that in very deep and personal ways, while others do that via their work and a combination of the two. Being able to achieve that because of the work we do, is extra meaningful. 

 

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Edited by Wy-Lene Yap