Lifebrandz shuts down: What went wrong with the nightlife behemoth

Industry insiders think expanding too quickly and inexperienced management are among reasons for nightlife behemoth's downfall

There was a time when the champagne and cocktails flowed freely at the glitzy Clarke Quay nightspots owned by public-listed group Lifebrandz. Hip brand-name spots such as Kandi Bar, Barfly and Cafe Del Mar were places to be seen. Thousands of partygoers grooved to the beat at Ministry of Sound (MoS), the crown jewel of Clarke Quay.

At its peak in 2006, according to a report in The New Paper, MoS was reportedly taking in $2 million in sales every month.

A decade since the group made its stratospheric debut as a nightlife behemoth, it seems the party is over, following a series of business failures in a highly competitive market. Last Friday, Lifebrandz announced that it had closed its five outlets in Clarke Quay, the last vestiges of its Singapore nightlife empire: gourmet hotdog eatery Hopdog, live music venue Aquanova, Mulligan's Irish Pub and nightclubs Fenix Room and Playhouse.

Landlord CapitaMalls Asia says it is looking for new tenants for the 57,000 sq ft space Lifebrandz has surrendered in the The Cannery, where all five nightspots were housed.

The Manpower Ministry (MOM) is investigating after it was found that employees under Lifebrandz's subsidiaries, which manage the five nightspots, had not been paid salaries since Feb 7.

Lifebrandz chief executive officer Eddie Chng Weng Wah, 52, has filled the hot seat for less than two months after his predecessor Cedric Chong resigned in February. Mr Chng tells Life! the company is working with its subsidiaries "to address all the outstanding issues in accordance with MOM laws".

He adds: "Whatever happened is unfortunate and honestly, I'd like to apologise to the staff. It is important for the management of the subsidiaries to get their act right."

His predecessor, Mr Chong, who reportedly quit to pursue personal interests, is director of the subsidiaries managing the outlets. Attempts to reach him on his mobile phone were unsuccessful.

Despite having no experience in nightlife, Mr Chng, who is also chief executive of public-listed electronics trading company Equation Summit, joined the company and became Lifebrandz's executive director in January to "try something new". He had hoped to "turn the business around", as he was well aware it was "losing money".

He did not say how much money was owed to employees, but said "all necessary steps will be taken to close this chapter".

Competition from other nightspots, lower spending by patrons and government restrictions on liquor licensing hours in 2013 were what led to the group's decision to shut down the outlets here, said Mr Chng. The group still owns the pub Mulligan's in Pattaya.

Industry insiders here are shocked at the tanking of Lifebrandz's nightlife ventures.

Ku De Ta entertainment manager Joshua Pillai, 34, who was a part-time DJ with Lifebrandz, says: "I feel a bit sad because Clarke Quay is a nightlife entertainment area and Lifebrandz played a big part to create that atmosphere."

Limited Edition Concepts' director and co-founder Godwin Pereira, 40, who was music director for all of Lifebrandz's clubs for 2½ years in 2006, says: "It's shocking and unfortunate that the outlets would go underwater just like that."

Mr Pereira, who left the group in 2007 after a management change, says MoS and the other outlets did "super well". Lifebrandz was "a raging bull" when its Clarke Quay outlets first opened, giving the area a new dynamic, he adds.

Founded in 2001 by former bankers Michael Wong and Kenneth Goh, Lifebrandz started as a beauty and health products company, achieving commercial success in 2002 with the launch of Extrim, a slimming product. Two years later, it made its debut on the Singapore Exchange.

It made a splash in the nightlife scene in 2005 when it opened the 40,000 sq ft Ministry of Sound, linked to the famous London nightclub, in Clarke Quay.

The group followed with five more outlets, investing a total of $16 million to operate the 80,000 sq ft The Cannery entertainment complex. They included chi-chi clubs Kandi Bar by Hed Kandi, Barfly under Buddha Bar, Fashion Bar and Bice Bistro. In 2007, it opened beach bar Cafe Del Mar in Sentosa.

Not everything was smooth-sailing though. The company ran into legal entanglements with the London-based parent company of MoS, leading to the termination of the licence agreement and the club's closure in 2008. That year, almost all the outlets it opened between 2005 and 2006 closed, including Kandi Bar and Bice Bistro.

In the following years, Lifebrandz launched and closed several home-grown brands in Clarke Quay, including live music venue Yello Jello, Asian club Lunar, danceclub Zirca and Asian fusion club Coco. Most of them closed within four years of business.

Industry sources trace Lifebrandz's woes to when it started expanding aggressively in 2006. With resources spread thin, it became difficult to sustain healthy profits, they say.

A nightlife operator in his 40s says: "Opening all the outlets at one shot cannibalised business from MoS. The market was not big enough to support all outlets."

Clubbers like Mr Conrad Chua, in his early 40s, say many of the new concepts Lifebrandz rolled out after MoS' closure did not have the same traction as the megaclub. "Those concepts had a bit of momentum, but faltered. I'm not sure if it was because they were competing with danceclubs like The Butter Factory and Avalon," says Mr Chua, the retailer of Diamond Walker bespoke shoes.

"Clubs go through ups and downs because people get bored. When clubs change a bit, regulars won't find them as appealing as before, so they find new places," he adds.

A seasoned nightlife operator in his 40s says the Lifebrandz management team lacked experience in the business, adding: "Most of them were not people from the nightlife industry. They never had a Dennis Foo or a Lincoln Cheng."

Cheng is the founder of iconic club Zouk, which is now in its 24th year of business, while Foo has more than 30 years' experience running bars and nightclubs here, and is president of the Singapore Nightlife Business Association.

In the late 2000s, Lifebrandz's outlets came under the stewardship of radio veteran Bernard Lim, who joined in 2007 and was appointed CEO in 2009. He took over from then-CEO Clement Lee, who used to run a club in Marina Mandarin hotel called Livehouse in the mid-1990s and was also behind Kingfisher productions, a concert organiser in the early 1990s. Mr Lee stepped down as executive chairman and director of Lifebrandz in 2013.

Attempts to reach Mr Lee and Mr Lim for comment were unsuccessful.

When Life! contacted Lifebrandz's original co-founder Kenneth Goh, he admitted a lack of experience in nightlife made the job "too difficult for me". Mr Goh, 46, now chief executive of public- listed company Artivision Technologies, would only say he left Lifebrandz a few years ago.

He is sad to hear about the closures and says of his own experience managing the group: "As you know, the nightlife business is competitive and it's one of the few businesses where you dump a lot of money first, then you pray hard."

He adds: "It's tough because I didn't come from nightlife - I'm from finance. It was my first experience running nightspots and I realised it's not easy. It's a challenging environment and the Singapore market is small."

Lifebrandz's annual reports, based on previous media reports and public records on SGX, show that since 2006, it had been running million-dollar losses annually, with the exception of 2010 when it posted a profit of $23,000; and in 2013, when it had a profit of $202,000. For the fiscal year ending July last year, it posted a $6.77 million loss.

In the past 10 years, it has had five CEOs and several changes in its board of directors.

In a bid to turn the business around, Lifebrandz inked a deal with another nightlife operator Massive Collective in 2013, allowing Massive Collective to play a major consulting role for Lifebrandz's outlets.

Massive, which then co-owned successful nightclubs Mink and Royal Room in Pan Pacific Singapore hotel, also became a major shareholder in the company. One of Massive's directors, Mr Cedric Chong, was later appointed Lifebrandz CEO in 2013 when Mr Lim stepped down.

Under Mr Chong's leadership, the group launched several new outlets, including nightclub Fenix Room and Hopdog.

Life! understands that there were plans for Massive to buy over all of the nightlife businesses owned by Lifebrandz, but the talks fell through about two weeks ago. A Massive Collective spokesman says it has "resigned any executive authority and therefore all working relationships with Lifebrandz" as of Feb 6.

She adds that the company remains a shareholder of Lifebrandz with "no current plans to change this position", adding that all existing Massive Collective outlets are unaffected by the management issues faced by Lifebrandz.

Massive currently operates nightspots Bang Bang and Match in Pan Pacific Singapore, and lifestyle hub 50 Raffles Place, which houses restaurant Sear and club lounge Empire.

Ironically, this tie-up with Massive Collective may have complicated matters for Lifebrandz, says one nightlife operator who declined to be named, as this created a situation where "the people that manage Lifebrandz have other interests in the same industry".

Asked to comment on the saga, nightlife honcho Foo, 61, says the nightlife scene is going through a "major shake-up" this year.

"Only the fittest will survive and grow stronger whereas marginal players will disappear," he adds, citing increased operating costs as a challenge most "good clubs" face.

More boutique and mid-sized venues have also popped up, including restaurant-bars, which have added to the competition, says Mr Foo, who is also chairman of CityBar holdings, which operates Mando-pop club Shanghai Dolly in Clarke Quay.

On Jan 27, three directors, including former CEO Bernard Lim, stepped down from the board of Lifebrandz.

On Feb 6, a day before employees of Lifebrandz subsidiaries were supposed to be paid, CEO Cedric Chong announced his resignation and was replaced by Mr Eddie Chng.

Lifebrandz's current board of directors include Mr Chng and three independent directors - Mr Lim Kee Way Irwin, Mr Toh Hock Ghim and Mr Chee Keng Koon.

When Life! headed down on Saturday night, Clarke Quay was still party central, with nightspots F Club and Attica running at full capacity at 1am.

Tenants such as Attica and The Pump room say the shorter liquor licensing hours may have affected business in Clarke Quay. The new hours allow businesses to sell booze up to 4am now, compared to 6am previously.

Other challenges such as high rent and manpower issues are problems F&B operators face, say tenants. But some say these problems and Lifebrandz's exit from Clarke Quay will not impact the area's reputation as a leading nightlife destination.

Clarke Quay's centre manager Ong Kee Leng says there are already plans for new "international F&B concepts" to launch in the second quarter of this year in the neighbouring block of The Cannery from where Lifebrandz's outlets are.

A spokesman for long-time Clarke Quay nightspot The Pump Room says: "There will always be someone else to take Lifebrandz's place."

melk@sph.com.sg


LIFEBRANDZ TIMELINE

2001: Lifebrandz is founded by Kenneth Goh Tzu Seoh and Michael Wong.

2004: Lifebrandz, known for selling health and beauty products such as Extrim slimming pills, makes its debut on the Singapore Exchange.

2005: Launches several outlets including nail spa Dashing Diva in Suntec City Mall, shoe shop Nue in Paragon, and cafe-lounge Balcony at The Heeren. In December, it launches brand-name nightclub Ministry of Sound to the tune of an estimated $7 million.

2006: Five more outlets open in Clarke Quay. They are Kandi Bar, a licensed name from established UK music brand Hed Kandi; Barfly by Buddha Bar; Paris-based Fashion TV's Fashion Bar; Italian eatery Bice and multi-venue concept Clinic. In total, $16 million is invested to operate the 80,000 sq ft

The Cannery entertainment complex, which takes up a third of Clarke Quay.

The group sells off its beauty products business to focus on nightclubs and restaurants.

2007: The group launches Cafe Del Mar, a 35,000 sq ft beach bar in Sentosa.

Lifebrandz executive director and chief brand officer Clement Lee is appointed CEO, taking over from Michael Wong.

Radio veteran Bernard Lim joins the company as its executive vice-president.

The London-based parent company of Ministry of Sound (MoS) files suit against Singapore franchise for breaches in contract, including the way the company is being run.

The group sells off shoe label Nue and nail spa Dashing Diva, and opens Asian club Lunar.

2008: Fine-dining restaurant Aurum, part of multi-concept venue Clinic; Barfly by Buddha Bar; Bice bistro; and Kandi Bar by Hed Kandi close.

Lifebrandz terminates licence agreement with MoS International, and closes the club here. It rolls out new concepts including danceclub Zirca, live music venue Yello Jello and hip-hop club Rebel.

2009: Fashion Bar closes. Mulligan's Irish Bar and Italian restaurant Borgata Trattoria Osteria open. Bernard Lim is appointed CEO.

2011: Lunar closes. East-meets-West themed club Coco and live music venue Aquanova open.

2012: Lifebrandz downsizes its space in Clarke Quay from 80,000 sq ft to 60,000 sq ft. Yello Jello, Borgata Trattoria Osteria and Cafe Del Mar close. Coco closes and Asian-fusion club Playhouse takes its place.

2013: Lifestyle group Massive Collective becomes a major stakeholder in Lifebrandz and plays a consulting role in the management of all Lifebrandz venues. Nightclubs Fenix Room and Dream open. Bernard Lim steps down as CEO and is replaced by Cedric Chong, a director with Massive Collective. Clement Lee resigns as executive director and chairman.

2014: Gourmet hot dog eatery Hopdog opens.

2015: Cedric Chong resigns as CEO and is replaced by Eddie Chng Weng Wah. Chong remains director of subsidiaries owned by Lifebrandz, which hires staff for outlets in Clarke Quay.

More than 70 employees lodge complaints with the Ministry of Manpower over unpaid wages. Two days later, Lifebrandz announces it will shut down all its F&B establishments in Clarke Quay.

Information based on reports in The Straits Times