Kishin RK needs tea, a packet of mints and a tall glass of sparkling water. Ordinarily, we’d take no notice of what a newsmaker chooses to quench his thirst on, unless it’s champagne with a gold leaf in it. But our nation’s youngest billionaire has just announced the creation of an international cloud kitchen network aimed at “making food ordering relevant for the future”. Specifically, his year-old food-tech company TiffinLabs has acquired access to 1,000 delivery-enabled kitchens globally.
He’s also just told us: “I love food, and I’ve been passionate about it since very young”. So even a glass of sparkling water could be revealing of the man’s palate or his thirst for new challenges. At the very least, it tells us the 36-year-old notorious workaholic is parched from back-to-back meetings.
Kishin holds multiple jobs but is primarily known for founding real estate acquisition and development company RB Capital, which has an asset base of over $5 billion.
“The whole concept of restaurants and food has always intrigued me, because it’s putting passion and science together,” he explains. “But what got me more focused on the restaurant business was our real estate — developing Robertson Quay and Cuppage Terrace at RB Capital. We use F&B as the main trigger in our neighbourhood regeneration efforts.”
“But food has always been my passion. My passion then became an important trigger to regenerate my real estate, and that then triggered into TiffinLabs as a natural next move.”
Co-founded in early 2019 by Kishin, restaurant industry specialist Shaun Smithson, Facebook alum Sam Ahmed and tech-focused mergers and acquisitions strategy expert Phuminant Tantiprasongchai, TiffinLabs currently operates nine digital-first restaurant brands in Singapore, including Publico Express, Huraideu and the soon-to-launch Singapore Makan. But progressively from later this year, TiffinLabs’ footprint will balloon to include smart kitchens across Chicago, Austin and San Francisco in the US, and London, Manchester and Birmingham in the UK, with a potential reach of over 15 million households.
By harnessing data analytics to identify food trends and consumer preferences, and by leveraging on its AI-driven kitchen operating and management system, the food-tech firm promises to re-engineer the food delivery ecosystem while serving up high-quality meals to diners who choose to stay home.
“By understanding data and the demand for each zone, it allows us to give people what they’re looking for, which otherwise they’re not able to get through delivery. And it allows us to work with supply chain partners to ensure whatever we serve is provided to diners in its freshest form,” Kishin says.
One impetus for TiffinLabs is the rapidly growing food delivery market that is projected to more than double to US$200 billion ($278 billion) by 2024. That’s not all; there’s Kishin’s acumen and very deliberate business strategies. Speak with him, and conversations gravitate to what consumers want. The gaps and opportunities he sees in the marketplace. His firm belief that businesses need to disrupt themselves rather than be disrupted. And all manner of ideas that reveal the constant itch he feels to roll up his sleeves and sink his hands into something new.
It is these insights we relish in asking him about. But first, may we have more sparkling please?
Did the pandemic play a part in pushing you to scale up TiffinLabs?
What Covid-19 did was to force the digitisation of the restaurant industry. It’s very similar to what happened to the music industry in the late 2000s, when people moved from going to CD shops to listening to music on iTunes and Spotify. Food delivery was already growing, but the pandemic compressed this shift into a short period of time. Around the world, people not yet used to ordering online were now forced to adopt e-commerce or food delivery. We’d been working on TiffinLabs since late 2018, with no idea about Covid-19. And why we got into it is purely because we saw this shift in the way consumers viewed dining. We saw it firstly as an emerging trend, and secondly, as a trend that’s here to stay.
What’s your relationship with food like?
I love the interaction with chefs, the ideas, the curation, menus, presentation. Food for me is authenticity. One thing I love about it is that it gives me the ability to taste the energy of the environment I’m in. If I’m in Italy, India or wherever, food gives me a very clear perspective of how the economy and local culture ticks. But what got me more focused on the restaurant business was real estate. At RB Capital, we use restaurant concepts as a tool to create the energy and vibe within real estate. Then in 2018, we realised that food delivery out of our restaurants was on the rise and becoming very important.
Is TiffinLabs also a response to where you see the real estate space heading?
RB Capital has four verticals within our real estate business: Retail, office, hotels and we got into healthcare in 2012. To be relevant, we have to move to where we see gaps in the market. I wouldn’t want to be a victim of being stagnant. So why TiffinLabs and how does it create real estate? I view cloud kitchens as another asset class within real estate, just like retail, office, industrial, residential, co-working, co-living spaces, etc. And I think cloud kitchens will hold their own ground globally, where real estate is concerned. Why is it interesting? Because the mantra has always been location, location, location when we talk real estate, but cloud kitchens defy that. When we take over underutilised kitchens, we’re taking real estate that may not be considered prime because it doesn’t capture eyeballs or footfall.
However, we’re not generating revenue from footfall. What we’re doing at TiffinLabs is plugging in our operating platform, generating revenue online and linking real estate to the digital economy.
TiffinLabs also launched Food is Love Foundation, which provides meals to low-income families. In Singapore, it provided 30,000 meals during the pandemic. Tell us about the foundation.
Food is Love Foundation was built to give back to the cities we will launch TiffinLabs in. What we did was look at the gaps within society and we were very clear which groups we wanted to provide some sort of relief, from a food perspective. That’s what Food is Love Foundation is all about. I think it’s very important for us to give back, not just in Singapore during Covid-19, but also in every single market that we go into. The foundation will mirror TiffinLabs’ expansion plan.
Just to get your thoughts on this subject: Is Corporate Social Responsibility an expectation these days?
CSR is extremely subjective. If a company has a set of values, it sets a tone for everybody that works there to know that there is a deeper meaning than just financial gain. But I don’t think you can force CSR through. CSR takes different forms around the world. In some countries, some companies may see CSR as a tax-efficient way of structuring. In others, it is a highly political topic, where companies are mandated to [give back]. And yet in the rest, it is a culture, a value system. So I think CSR, as an overarching umbrella, is an important effort, no matter how you do it and what triggers you into it. It benefits a certain layer of society that needs help. That is the most important thing.
You talked about regeneration earlier. Tell us about this fascination with building and placemaking.
It’s definitely a passion. I sit on a few [Business Improvement District (BID)] committees within URA. One is Raffles Place Alliance, another is Singapore River One, which is regenerating the Singapore River. What tickles me a little is the ability to look at dirt and think about what I can create out of that. Maybe it’s triggered because land is scarce and very expensive in Singapore, and I’ve skewed towards looking at every square foot for its potential and what I can do with it. So regenerating neighbourhoods is primarily something I enjoy doing. Whether it’s Emerald Hill, Cuppage Terrace, Robertson Quay [the EFG Bank Building] where we’re sitting, or regenerating a petrol station, which I did when I started in 2006. Being a younger developer, I don’t have the competitive edge of some of my peers who sit on land banked in the past and who develop something when time permits. I had to pay high prices for land, relatively speaking, and for me to survive and thrive, I need to look at things differently.
You bought your first apartment when you were 12. What’s that like? You must have enjoyed the experience.
I think it’s been taken out of context in many different articles. Let me put this in perspective. I had interest in real estate and I was provided decision-making rights at a very young age by my father. These were for properties that were personal investments. At the age of 12, I was able to make a decision, and it was executed. Even if it was a wrong decision; not that it was a wrong decision! So that linked my decision-making to responsibility immediately. Because I was responsible for any loss or profit, I was forced to start thinking about numbers and thinking about feasibilities. And that got me hooked.
As a next-generation business leader, what lessons have you learnt from those before you?
In real estate, you’re bound to ride cycles. So manage indigestion; don’t take on too much that you cannot swallow, even when the markets are booming. When the markets are good, put reserves aside to weather bad times. And managing leverage is absolutely critical. Covid-19 has shown us, in many countries around the world, that over-leveraged companies will not fare as well as lowly-geared companies. On top of all that, focus on cash flow. Every acquisition at RB Capital, we digest it and create cash flow within 18 months, and then go on to the next project. We don’t take on projects, projects, projects, have no cash flow and then get stuck in a crisis. [The formula] is a beautiful blend, like a choir — one bad singer and the whole thing comes out wrong. It all has to work hand in hand perfectly.
These were gleaned from your father, Raj Kumar?
One hundred percent my dad, but then I also look for different versions. So if he tells me, “You have to manage your debt”, I take that and I look at others who have done this well, which gives me different perspectives to what he said. Makes sense, right?
Nearly every article written about you mentions you started RB Capital by selling an apartment gifted to you by family. You’re your own man. How does it make you feel?
How does the truth make me feel? I think the family being in real estate provided me with a platform in the early years, which I used not as a safety net but as a trampoline. And that, to me, is exactly the way I’d look at a space or kitchen or at anything. I look at it as an opportunity and how I’d be able to sort of bounce off it higher. If someone provides me with a trampoline, even today, I would jump on it immediately. I think maybe the way I view things is a little bit different.
Are you as hungry as you were 15 years ago, or even
more so now?
More so now. The need for change now is much more than when I entered the business in 2006. Life was a little simpler then. Business was a little bit more predictable. Disruption was less evident. Today, evolving is critical to staying relevant. You need to evolve, not just be ahead of the game — being ahead of the game is a bonus. But to survive, whether you’re in the print business, music or in taxi, you want to disrupt yourself.
You mentioned not wanting to be “a victim of being stagnant”. How do you ensure business transformation is a constant? How do you future-proof your business?
Understand and anticipate where the future of your business potentially lies. What are the changes happening? Be aware of changes; don’t be afraid of them. It’s also important for us, as for any business, to disrupt ourselves and not allow others to disrupt us. If we disrupt ourselves, we are able to create a revenue source that basically compensates [any potential losses]. So if I owned a CD shop, I’d want to create Spotify. That’s how I’d future-proof my business.
Is there anything in the pipeline for RB Capital?
There are a few things coming up. I’m seeing an opportunity within the global hospitality space. Travel and hospitality, outside Singapore specifically, has been hit quite badly. Here, the quarantine and SHN (Stay-Home Notice) business has been an important source of revenue. But outside Singapore, I think there is going to be a lot of opportunities in the debt space, because of the risk appetite of banks and the need to borrow from companies. I think there is going to be an interesting opportunity where there is a gap there. We will announce it quite soon, in the next few weeks.
Your advice to budding entrepreneurs.
One thing I would say is never waste a crisis. If you look at the 2008 crisis, Uber, Spotify, Airbnb were created out of that. As the economy sort of resets itself, being relevant in that change basically allows you on a trampoline. That is a once-in-a-lifetime trampoline. Hopefully, crises don’t come often, but since we are in the midst of one, be aware of the risks and don’t waste the opportunity to not just be part of the difference, but to really create a difference.
You’re a billionaire. You’re only in your 30s, yet even your future grandchildren are taken care of. What do you seek?
I thrive with change. And I want to be ahead of change, and that keeps me motivated and excited every day.
This article first appeared in the August 2020 issue of A Magazine.