Obituary

Robert Wu turned Eslite bookshop into a lifestyle store

Mr Robert Wu struggled with losses for the first 15 years of running Eslite (left).
Mr Robert Wu struggled with losses for the first 15 years of running Eslite.PHOTOS: BLOOMBERG, ESLITE CORPORATION
Mr Robert Wu struggled with losses for the first 15 years of running Eslite (left).
Mr Robert Wu struggled with losses for the first 15 years of running Eslite (above).PHOTOS: BLOOMBERG, ESLITE CORPORATION

Mr Robert Wu was a former property salesman whose Eslite bookstore combined books, fashion goods and dining

Mr Robert Wu, founder of Taiwan's famed Eslite Group of bookstores which is much-loved by bibliophiles not just in Taiwan but also in China, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore, died on Tuesday of heart disease, the company said. He was 66.

Mr Wu, a former real-estate businessman turned bookshop entrepreneur, had long suffered from congenital cardiomegaly or an enlarged heart. He underwent major operations for the condition in 1988, 2000 and 2006.

His illness did not stop him from becoming a successful property salesman, even taking over the company where he worked when he was only 30.

In 1989, he founded Eslite - better known among Mandarin speakers as Cheng Pin. By eschewing the traditional bookstore for a lifestyle emporium and juxtaposing books with luxury apparel and other fine goods like wine, Mr Wu kept Eslite financially viable and turned it into an iconic destination, even as other bookshops floundered.

Mr Wu, who was to unveil a new book on his company today, was rushed to Taipei Medical University Hospital on Tuesday evening after his heart condition flared up. He was pronounced dead at the hospital, the Taiwan media reported.

The Eslite Group, at which Mr Wu served as chairman, announced his death at about 9.30pm on Tuesday. It said the board would hold a special meeting to elect a new chairman.

The humble and mild-mannered Mr Wu struggled with losses for the first 15 years of running Eslite, when the company specialised in books on art and architecture. But he persevered.

"I believed that reading is an integral part of life and I did not want to see bookstores disappear in the commercial world," he said at a talk at the City University of Hong Kong in 2014.

In 1999, he turned Eslite into a lifestyle concept store combining books, fashion goods and dining. One of the company's stores in Taipei even began operating 24 hours.

The strategy worked.

By 2015, Eslite posted NT$3.82 billion (S$172 million) in sales, up 9 per cent from a year earlier. The company also expanded to Hong Kong in 2012 and opened its first outlet in Suzhou, China, in 2015.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 20, 2017, with the headline 'He turned bookshop into a lifestyle store'. Print Edition | Subscribe