Deep below Goldbell Towers lies a few tiny, climate controlled, electronically locked vaults that can only be accessed via two sets of fingerprints. One of them belongs to Alex Chua. The nondescript exterior belies their contents. Inside, hundreds of wine bottles are stored in crates scattered on the floor, with more stacked haphazardly on shelves. “I’m a hoarder,” Chua laughs. “Wine is my passion. I have more bottles overseas because there’s no space here. When they are ready to drink, I will bring them back.”
The 42-year-old is the CEO of Goldbell Financial Services (GBFS) — part of the Goldbell Group — and 2021’s Ernst & Young (EY) Singapore Entrepreneur of the Year in the financial services category. He has been hard at work building the company since he took over the helm five years ago, although he believes he “never works, and just hires the right people”.
The Business of Food
Now that GBFS is humming along smoothly — the company has cumulatively loaned over a billion dollars to SMEs and startups — Chua has set his sights on conquering another field: F&B. It’s a natural expansion of his personal interests. His Instagram feed is filled with mouth-watering dishes matched with fine wine (and the occasional whisky or three), along with photos of his wife and four children.
Following years of eating at restaurants and chatting with the chefs, Chua realised that the scene needed an overhaul. “In the industry, career progression and training are rare. Chefs and service staff typically do not own any equity in the company. They both work themselves to the bone and get disgruntled. How can we empower them?” Chua asks.
His holding company CA Concepts intends to answer that. Co-founded with Jose Alonso, the former executive chef of Binomio, CA Concepts now manages Kulto, Kilo, and Lumbre. True to his self-deprecating nature, Chua credits Alonso for the success of the three restaurants. Kilo and Kulto are frequently booked out during lunch and dinner, while Lumbre receives rave reviews. Chua guffaws, “I’m only in this partnership because Alonso says he’s never seen anyone eat so much.
The truth, however, is much more grounded. The two work extremely well together. Alonso’s extensive F&B experience and Chua’s analytical mind and social connections have propelled their establishments. Their weekly meetings consist of an hour-long tennis game — “Alonso always trashes me!” — every Wednesday. They discuss every detail, even down to how many prawns to use in the seafood paella. This month, they are also visiting Spain to gather ideas for a new multi-concept F&B space.
In many ways listening to Chua speak about table turnover, inventory management and supply chain processes is like watching Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind — most of the concepts go over your head, but the artistry and intensity awe you.
He follows a simple formula. Rent cannot exceed 10 percent of revenue. The cost of labour should not exceed 30 percent. All the other pieces then need to fit into the mathematical puzzle.
Kulto and Kilo’s success — they took over the latter when it faced trouble during the pandemic and turned things around — attracted significant attention from industry stakeholders. Chua mentions that a few have approached CA Concepts with struggling restaurants that need the duo’s Midas touch.
A Novel Approach
They are applying the same rigour to staffing issues. The industry is facing its greatest labour crunch in years because of the pandemic. The Restaurant Association of Singapore notes that F&B currently faces a 20 to 30 percent workforce gap; many foreign workers who went home during the pandemic have chosen not to return.
“We want our staff to work less,” Chua proclaims. “Everyone does what they are hired to do, whether it’s serving our customers, cooking the dishes or cleaning the restaurants. There is no need for them to do work beyond their core competencies. Most organisations milk their employees by getting them to do as much as possible to save costs. When needed, we all pitch in, but it’s not often. Talent is everything to us.”
Their strategy is working. Since opening its doors in March 2021, Kulto’s front of house staff has had zero turnover.
But that’s not all Chua and Alonso are doing.
“People leave for a few reasons. They are not paid fairly, have no autonomy over their work, or are not fired up by the vision. The question is how do you make them stay?” Chua says.
Thus, they have created career paths for their employees and provided them with training so they can advance upwards. The apex: potentially owning equity in the restaurant. This is a startlingly novel concept, and Chua is so committed to it that he’s also creating an accelerator programme.
Despite considering external funding, he is currently leaning towards using the earnings from CA Concepts. “We want to ensure that it succeeds before we risk other people’s money.”
A Stomach For The Future
The accelerator programme, scheduled to launch at the end of the year, will provide capital to chefs who want to open their own restaurants. Besides teaching them about business strategy, Chua will help them connect with the stakeholders and vendors they need to operate the restaurant. Alonso will guide them through the ins and outs of daily operations. After the chefs pay off the loan, they will receive their pre-negotiated equity.
Of course, they won’t leave them to fend for themselves. They want to take the participants on a journey to develop a sustainable, scalable ecosystem. This programme aims to empower chefs to become restaurateurs and owners who can then empower their staff by providing equity in the business and, perhaps eventually, help them create a place they can call their own.
“The problem with many restaurants today is that they aren’t professionally run. They haven’t yet implemented the type of data analytics and efficiencies we’ve built into our outlets so there is no time or manpower wastage. The restaurants that are doing well don’t care because they are making so much money, and the ones that aren’t don’t have the money to invest in software like this,” says Chua.
To take the F&B industry to the next level, he believes data, not automation, is the key. His is a contrarian opinion, but Chua has done the math. Unless restaurants reach a certain size, automation won’t help them reduce costs. Labour is still cheaper.
He sees the same trends in finance. GBFS has built an impressive set of digital tools, including programs and algorithms, that enable them to not only make decisions faster, but also help the startups and SMEs under its wing to progress sooner. The truth is, you don’t know what you don’t know, Chua says.
The company is also capitalising on his EY Singapore Entrepreneur of the Year win by expanding its suite of services. It recently launched asset management tracking and a sustainable life cycle asset management programme of IT products for companies of all sizes, and is doubling down on personal automotive financing through a digital partnership with Carousell.
Chua says many financial institutions, like banks, look at current profit-and-loss numbers when deciding whether to fund a project. GBFS has a different approach to financing. By examining SMEs and startups through the lens of venture capital firms, it takes a forward-looking approach. “Successful founders are looking for investments that can add value to them, not just money. Startups could only raise funds through equity rounds in the past. This is dilutive. Debt plays a big role in this ecosystem, and we provide non-dilutive working capital to help them grow. We have been doing this for four years, and I believe that this is the future of financing.”
Growing As One
There is one consistent feature of Chua’s approach to people in both CA Concepts and GBFS. To foster trust in the ranks, he continually reminds his staff that everything can be questioned, even his decisions. He has been told off repeatedly by staff, but he does not take it seriously nor does he punish them for voicing their opinions. “You must make everyone feel safe. It’s why everyone treats the office like a second home. Everyone here is like family to me,” he says.
Speaking of family, besides teaching him how to view the world from a child’s perspective, Chua is also grateful to the pandemic for allowing him to slow down and spend more time with his wife and four children.
“I learned unconditional love from my children,” he says. “They love me because I am their father. They think so clearly, and there is no guile in their thinking. I want to understand people as my children do.”
Spending so much time at home also made him realise how much effort his wife puts into making their home perfect. His love for her is obvious. His smartphone wallpaper is a picture of her and their kids, and he kept trotting to her side during breaks at the photo shoot to give her a peck on the cheek. Until he witnessed it first-hand, he did not comprehend the sheer amount of effort required. “It is harder to run a family than to run a business,” Chua says without a trace of humour.
The experience made him realise how hard his parents worked to raise him and his brother. It brings him a lot of fond memories to look back on the past, particularly the times when his father and he used to drive to the now defunct Nadaman Japanese restaurant in Shangri-La Singapore to drink sake.
“We always share alcohol. It evokes quite a lot of emotions in me,” Chua says. He believes the hundreds of wine bottles in the cellars at Goldbell Towers symbolise that tight family bond. He encourages a similar atmosphere at all his companies. It is said that if you want to go fast, you should go alone. To go far, however, you should go together. Chua is in this for the long haul.