The Life Interview With Edward Chia

The Life Interview with Timbre Group's Edward Chia: Changing Singaporeans, one tray at a time

With technology and cash incentives, Timbre Group's managing director Edward Chia hopes to engineer social change

Mr Edward Chia runs some of Singapore's most successful bars and has a hit on his hands with latest venture Timbre+, a mixed- concept eatery in the west of the country.

But he wants more. He wants to engineer social change, one tray at a time. "I'm told that, nationally, 20 per cent of people return their trays," says the 32-year-old. He laughs, a little ruefully.

In the hospitality business here, in a tight labour market, shaving a sliver off the headcount makes all the difference.

Mr Chia's analytical mind breaks down the formula. He uses "units" to refer to the mess diners leave behind - bowls, chopsticks, trays.

"We realised the problem was unit times a function. Function being the cleaners required. We asked ourselves if we could reduce that number," says the Timbre Group's managing director.

The solution for the 800-seat Timbre+ - a "gastropark", as his team calls it - is a typically Singaporean approach.

I saw five people come in together. Some people stack the trays because they don't like to eat from them. End of lunch, one guy took the whole stack, without the plates, to get the deposit back. His colleagues shouted at him: 'The whole point is to take everything back!' He was so embarrassed. That's the most satisfying - when customers propagate the system.

MR EDWARD CHIA, on people who try to game the tray technology

He is using technology, plus cash incentives, to change group behaviour. Diners pay $1 for a tray, which is returned automatically when they take the radio-chipped trays to the washing point.

To make it easy, the site's designers put the washing area in the middle of the space, located at the one-north district of Ayer Rajah Crescent, with a mix of hawker stalls, restaurants and food trucks, as well as live music in the evenings.

So far, it is working. Since its launch last month, Mr Chia says 95 per cent of trays have been returned by diners - all the more impressive when you consider they might have downed a few at the beer stand. Instead of the usual eight cleaners needed for a place of that size, it employs three.

Mr Chia says he is pleased. Not just with the reduction in cost and manpower or the IT-powered tray system, which he and the technology provider have filed a patent for.

"We are changing human behaviour. We are changing culture. That is the most pleasing part to me. We created an idea that might fix a national issue," he says.

This social engineering stuff might sound grandiose, but his business record shows that he has trained customers to like things they did not know they liked.

When he launched Timbre at The Substation arts centre in 2005, he took a risk by giving local bands a stage.

Also, he banned "ridiculous" drink sales strategies such as one- for-one promotions and ladies- drink-free nights - not just because they encourage binge drinking, but they also attract bad customers who drive out the good, loyal ones.

That desire to experiment can be seen in Timbre+.

The tech and media hub of one-north is hardly Clarke Quay. But Timbre+'s nightly crowds show that it has become its own nightlife zone. Seating capacity was just raised from 700 to 800 to ease the squeeze and fan ventilation has been beefed up.

Mr Chia hires local musicians for the stage (with the help of chief creative director and Timbre co-founder Danny Loong). And he did not mind that there was no air-conditioning on the site, which used to be a hawker centre (and still operates as one, in the morning).

We sit at the National Museum's cafe as Mr Chia - who still looks like the college kid that he was when he founded Timbre at The Substation - talks about Timbre+'s labour-saving changes and becomes animated when he says he hopes foodcourts all over the island pick them up.

He brings up another broken system he would like to fix: the landlord-tenant relationship.

"Landlords give tenants heart attacks. Something has to be done," says the business owner with operations around Singapore and one, newly opened, in Kuala Lumpur. Property owners act as if they owe nothing to tenants, even as tenants pay rents that jump every time the lease is renewed.

Landlords have to step up and take a stake in the success of tenants, he argues. It is more urgent now that malls are going empty.

Mr Chia does not sound upset, but it is clear the topic has been on his mind.

Hard lesson from breeding hamsters

Like any businessman, he has had ups and downs. Some Timbre Group outlets are gone, but new ones have replaced them.

Apart from Timbre+, recent additions include Switch, a Mandarin- English live music spot in Bras Basah Road; Barber Shop, a live jazz-blues music venue in Empress Place; and 12-inch Pizzas & Records, a music-themed pizzeria at V Hotel.

The bedrock Timbre bar-and-live music spots at The Substation, The Arts House and Gillman Barracks are still there, as are stakes in catering, The Music Academy music school and events such as Beerfest Asia, of which a majority stake was recently sold to Singapore Press Holdings' events arm Sphere Exhibits.

Mr Chia's life in business began early. As a child, his first venture was breeding hamsters. He remembers roping his younger sister into the scheme.

"I gave her the Yellow Pages and asked her to call pet shops," says the alumnus of Maris Stella High School.

The shops bought hamsters at $3 each. He learnt a hard lesson about costs because at that price, he barely covered the cost of hamster feed.

At National Junior College, he threw himself into student politics, student organisations and sports.

His love of leading took shape in the form of non-profit group Arts For Us All, which he created to hold arts events for other young people, while raising money for charity.

Mr Chia - the eldest of three children born to a housewife and a now-retired businessman who ran an events and exhibition company - says that at the time, he had an "arrogance" and knew he could pass examinations if he crammed at the last minute.

He found running organisations more interesting than schoolwork.

Through organising music gigs, he met the much older Mr Loong, then band leader of blues outfit Ublues.

Mr Chia mentioned to him about turning his non-profit's social mission - promoting local musicians - into a business. Mr Loong thought it could work.

At 21, a couple of months before he entered National University of Singapore, he opened Timbre with Mr Loong, then 33. "We were both very naive," he says.

It was a struggle, but the two food and beverage novices made it thrive. The turnout at the bar- restaurant was boosted by popular act EIC, from which the duo Jack and Rai would emerge.

The band believed in what Timbre was trying to do for local music and gave a discount on their usual rate to help the place establish itself, says Mr Chia.

He was working in the kitchen and cleaning toilets while trying to get a degree in economics and political science.

He promised his parents he would not drop out. He kept his promise, though it did mean very little sleep, zero social life and a lot of missed lectures for several years.

Mr Loong tells The Straits Times he met Mr Chia because the then-student was a friend of band Ublues. One day, over coffee, they discovered their shared dream of running a place where live music took centre stage.

"You might call it a gut feeling," says Mr Loong, about why he chose to go into business with a 21-year- old greenhorn.

Mr Chia might have been inexperienced, but Mr Loong says the young man's maturity was evident.

But other bars had tried putting local bands on stage.

Few have made it work as successfully as Timbre. Mr Loong says he and Mr Chia realised early on that you do not just stick a band on stage and think the job is done.

"We had to make the audience feel engaged. From day one, guests feel like they are a part of the night," says Mr Loong, 43.

They set up a system for birthday and other song dedications, which they still use at every outlet.

Music acts are rotated, marketed and groomed and their setlists have to be a mix of original and cover tunes.

Mr Chia says the two of them do not agree on everything. That is when the group's co-founders and co-owners have what he calls an "active discussion".

"Someone has to make the final decision, to take the lead. And I'm thankful that in the 11 years we've worked together, he supports my decisions," he says.

That faith has held, in spite of projects that Mr Chia backed that have gone south.

A foray into an online ticketing service to compete with the likes of Sistic was an expensive flop, says Mr Chia.

But that is behind him now.

Timbre+ is a hit. Mr Chia holds it as proof of what can be achieved when a landlord wants tenants to succeed.

Timbre holds the lease from JTC and is the de facto landlord to the food vendors to whom it sublets spaces.

The group selects tenants that complement, not cannibalise, one another. It takes care of marketing, organises the musical entertainment and invests in innovations such as the tray-return technology.

Mr Chia's wife Rena Chua, who is in her 30s, works in marketing. They have a two-year-old son. "He's the highlight of our day," he says.

The new dad likes to see families turn up at his outlets, especially at spots such as Timbre at Gillman Barracks, which has bouncy castles and free arts and crafts for kids.

"Women feel safe at Timbre. We've never had to hire bouncers. It's not that kind of place.

"I want people to feel like they can bring their parents and kids. Today, we have regulars who came before they were married and now they bring their kids."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 23, 2016, with the headline 'Please return the tray'. Subscribe