Andrew Li is Chief Executive Officer of Zouk and that is no small potatoes. A global contender in the clubbing scene, the brand originally founded by Lincoln Cheng transformed the local nightlife scene. For more than two decades Zouk kept the Red Dot in the hotspot of the international club scene.
It even climbed its way into DJ Mag’s top 10 list for clubbing. In 2015, however, Cheng announced his intention to sell Zouk and the Genting Hong Kong group was ready to take it on. Li has been running things ever since.
With an introspective yet wildly adventurous mind, he has been guiding the iconic club through the tempestuous storm of pandemic realities and continues to pivot the brand into a “Covid-proof” behemoth spanning not just clubbing but also food and beverage and, eventually, retail.
Could you give us a summary of how Zouk got from there to here?
We are close to 1,000 staff now (Vegas accounts for 500). I came on board about six years ago with Genting Hong Kong, after the opportunity arose to acquire Zouk from Lincoln Cheng. We saw the potential of the brand going into more of a lifestyle and hospitality segment because what it did extremely well was being at the forefront of this kind of nightlife concepts. We thought that it was great in that respect but why can’t you take that forward thinking and bring it into other concepts as well? We could do this in a few different ways. One was to develop our own concepts and also bring concepts from the US, into Asia, which was how Five Guys came in. We wanted brands that possess that vibe and DNA of music ‒ something quite experiential.
We are not very accustomed to looking at Asians and thinking, wow, these guys come up with entertaining nightlife concepts. So what do you feel is the main driving force at Zouk?
I agree with that. But I also disagree because Zouk itself is a 30-year-old nightlife brand, and probably one of the oldest nightlife brands in the world. Its longevity points to its enduring appeal to generations of clubbers. We’ve been rated by DJ Mag in the Top 10 of the world and the top Asian Club. In terms of nightlife in a small city state like Singapore, Zouk has a lot to shout about. And since buying it over, we have been able to take a Singapore icon and translate it for Malaysia and now Las Vegas. Those have been no small challenges. We were very mindful of the emotional connection that Singaporeans have with the brand, and we knew we had to translate that affection and nostalgia into a hospitality experience. While building a world-class team in Las Vegas, I’ve had to take team members from the best clubs and then blend it all together to have the best of worlds, if that makes sense.
So do you do you feel, being Asian, we bring a different perspective to concepts we put out there?
I would say it is for me. It is the hospitality aspect. Do you know we have some guests who literally come in every day? And when we ask them why, they say it almost feels like coming home and the staff know them well. There is a feeling of family. I think the ability to extend warmth is a very Southeast Asian quality – be it in Singapore, Thailand, or Malaysia. It’s very strong in our culture.
Guests can’t come to Zouk as they used to because of the pandemic. Would you say that’s the most challenging situation you’ve had to manage?
Absolutely. I think in the last two years, I’ve probably had the two biggest challenges of my life, and I can’t say they’re over yet. The clubbing industry has not been open for 19 months now and many places have just packed it in. It was painful to have to consider reducing your manpower because you’re not making any revenue from the original nature of your business and there is still no end in sight.
But all this is no fault of our staff members. And then we thought: what if we tweaked the nature of our business. So we did our best to pivot. We brought Spin Cycle classes to the club. We developed Capitol Kitchen and started building new concepts that could be “Covid-proof” even though our bread and butter was always going to be nightlife.
My second biggest challenge was opening in Las Vegas, and Ayu spans 130,000 square feet of space. It’s almost crazy: who opens a casino during a pandemic? People need to wear masks and avoid socialising… we were taking a huge gamble on the space. Touch wood, it is working out well for us. The silver lining was that without the pandemic, we wouldn’t have been able to get top class DJs like Tiësto nor at their normally fees.
We also picked up top-notch talent from the other clubs that didn’t survive. Hence the pandemic has merely pushed us to accelerate our expansion into a lot of areas we were originally only thinking of doing. But when you’re profitable, you’re just chasing statistics. It was very painful entering the new verticals the way we did but now we have new revenue streams, especially in the US, which is doing extremely well. We can only get stronger from here on.
Whose idea was it to have Spin Classes in Zouk?
Honestly speaking, ideas come out from everywhere. I remember having a conversation with Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Kiat, we were just talking about how much the fitness industry had suffered and he said, “You guys should work together. Zouk should curate music for fitness clubs.” For me, it didn’t sound particularly profitable, but that idea triggered something else, I was thinking to myself how hard it was to go to the gym because they’re fully booked because of distancing guidelines. So the spark was, Zouk has a huge space, an amazing sound system and screen and we can fit a huge number of bikes upstairs and downstairs, so we approached a few spinning studios and they were all super excited. In some ways, the instructor is almost like a DJ and you could play Mambo Nights (a Zouk tradition) where everyone is just dancing on their bikes, it was really about finding ideas to utilise the strengths and infrastructure you already had.
What would you credit as your biggest source of inspiration?
I think my background has been quite colourful, I was born in the UK and lived in Hong Kong for a bit and went back to UK boarding school, worked in the UK, and worked in Bangkok, worked in Malaysia, eventually going to Hong Kong, I think having that wealth of exposure was extremely important.
Is it this global perspective that gives you the courage to bring a Malaysian day club to Las Vegas and then bring Here Kitty Kitty from Las Vegas to Singapore?
We had to understand our infrastructure and I think it was always our idea to kind of become a global business so that we could become more resilient in the future and not just rely on one revenue stream or country. We like to take things that do well in each country and transplant them elsewhere in the world, I would love to have an Ayu Day club in Sentosa.
Ayu is in the mountains of Genting, we have one in the deserts of Nevada, and to have one next to the sea would be amazing. Even things like bring Boon Tong Kee chicken rice and Springleaf prata to the US is all about education and telling all these amazing stories of the culture from Asia that they may not have been able to experience themselves.
It’s very gratifying to be an Asian and to do this and the cultural exchange goes both ways, bringing the best burger brand from the US to Singapore and Malaysia has been extremely successful as well.
“I FEEL THAT THERE IS INNATELY IN ALL OF US A SENSE OF DESIRE TO SOCIALISE AND BE TOGETHER IN A COMMON COMMUNITY SPACE, THAT WAS WHAT ZOUK WAS BUILT ON. WHETHER IT WAS MAMBO NIGHT, TRANCE NIGHTS OR DJ NIGHTS, WHEN YOU GO THERE, YOU’RE BEING BROUGHT TOGETHER. NOW, MORE THAN EVER, THIS IS SO IMPORTANT”
You’re in multiple territories, are you banking on the fact that there’s something that appeals to what’s common in all of us regardless of country?
I feel that there is innately in all of us a sense of desire to socialise and be together in a common community space, that was what Zouk was built on. Whether it was mambo night, trance nights or DJ nights, when you go there, you’re being brought together. Now, more than ever, this is so important. Even though nightlife hasn’t opened here, there are underground house parties because people need to get together, it’s this inherent need that we all have.
I’ve seen this in Vegas, my staff tell me that they have not seen people partying or spending or enjoying themselves like this in the last five years. Everyone’s been cooped up or locked down and they just want to go out there and escape. If you bank on that, you are in the business of making new good memories and providing an escape from what’s been happening in the world.
What was your third biggest challenge?
It was back when I was in Hong Kong working for Prive Group (note: not linked to Prive Singapore). It was a nightclub group that was expanding into restaurants with an ambitious plan of getting a Michelin star. We managed to find a chef from Noma Copenhagen, I was new to management at the time and the group itself had no experience in F&B, and so we basically catered to all the chef’s desires, and it became a super expensive restaurant where all the food was the best quality money could buy.
We did get that Michelin star within four months. It was an incredible achievement for the team, but we weren’t profitable from the day we opened. [laughs] It was an extreme realisation that we needed balance. You can’t just cater to the chef’s dream of top notch waygu, caviar and 1,000 bottles of the finest vintage in the wine cellar.
The Michelin star doesn’t make a difference if you’re not profitable. That was a strong lesson for me: you can have outward appearance of success but inside, you’re struggling. People look at how Zouk is pivoting but the revenue that we’re generating is still less than 20 per cent of what we made before the pandemic. That said, it still makes a difference.
You had a lot of creative ideas because it was either sink or swim, what other qualities do you feel leaders should cultivate or nurture?
This sounds very cliché but one of the things that has helped me in the last two years is meditation. I started intensely meditating, maybe three years ago, and I’ve just increased it over the years, where now I meditate for about 20 to 30 minutes a day in the morning. I feel that when you let emotions cloud your mind, it’s difficult to see the big picture. You’re like an open pond, every day there’s so much input into your mind, whether on social media or interpersonal interactions, every time this happens, it’s like someone dropping a pebble into your pond and the ripples obscure everything. Meditation cuts through all that and “keeps the water still”, keeping you focused on the important things that need your attention.
Does turning the negative into the positive come naturally to you?
It’s something that has probably become a little bit more apparent in the last three to four years. Even though it’s been one of the hardest periods in my professional career, it’s also been one of the best times for me. During the beginning of Covid-19, I got a dog and she’s the love of my life. I usually travel often for work, but travel restrictions meant we could be together. I took the time to potty train her and we formed a bond that is amazing. My older brother also came in from Jakarta and I had my mother come in from Hong Kong for nine months. I’m very thankful for the health and roof over our heads. These blessings don’t become apparent until the hard times hit.
Does anything ever get you down?
[laughs] Yes, my mom.
Hashtag Asian parents?
I’m very close to my family. It’s important to have family you can lean on. It doesn’t matter if it’s a mentor or family, knowing that you have their support if you fail at work is a psychological benefit for you to take those bumps. I’m very close to my family and they feature strongly in everything I do.
What gets you going? Do you prefer criticism or encouragement?
I don’t need either to be honest. I self-motivate. I know what we’re doing is really special and it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. It would be a tragedy if I don’t give it my best shot.
How do you draw the line between being driven as opposed to being toxically busy?
I would say that there are times when its non-stop. Las Vegas was a literal two months of non-stop work with 12- to 13-hour days. The project itself needed me to be on 24-seven. Back in Singapore, I’m still doing all those meetings, but I’m with my dog and I cook my meals, which I enjoy. These things remind me I’m not working for nothing. You have to have days to brainstorm and strategise of course.
In terms of management style, is it better to be loved or feared?
I’m someone who sees when staff put in their heart and soul into their work, I’ll have their back and do whatever I can to get them properly compensated. I’m also someone who can be quite cut-throat if need be and even if the Zouk restructure was extremely tough, I knew I had to make that cut for the survival of the business. My management style is one where I try to instill a culture where effort and determination is rewarded and where there is no room for slacking or toxic behaviour.
Do you have guilty pleasures? What does Andrew Li do to relax?
I enjoy eating, which is why I have to work out a lot. And you know I’m into watches and going into sneakers now, which is not great [laughs]. I like to have targets in my head that I can work towards, it’s like having a cherry on the cake. Nothing crazy.
Speaking of sneakers, I read that Zouk was getting into retail…
In some ways we were already doing some retail. For example, we have collaborated in the past with Havaiana’s on slippers for Zoukout. We have also collaborated with Ray-Ban. But I think we are now ready to get into retail in a more serious way. I think Vegas will come out with some really amazing range of hats, T-shirts, and shorts, but we know we need some kind of a hook for all of them, and that’s where the idea of selling sneakers came in, because right now sneakers are all the hype. We hope to take that sneaker reselling concept, but then slowly infuse our own brand into it, and hopefully do more collaborations.
Are you catching anything on Netflix?
The last Netflix series I really enjoyed was The Queen’s Gambit. I was surprised because I thought how engaging can a series about chess be? But I watched it and I was like wow, I really enjoyed that. I binge watch quite a lot because it helps me switch off.
Do you ever use Netflix to get switched on?
Some of the food documentaries are really good. Chef’s Table gets me really hungry as well. All those documentaries are about different cultures.
So in other words, you’re still travelling, just on Netflix?
Yes. I think when we thought about Famous Foods as a concept, I’m sure some of the inspiration came from there, right down to the origins of char kway teow.
What would Andrew Li today tell the version of himself who was just starting out?
I was always trying to chase that promotion or end-goal, but everything just fell into place. Some may call it luck, some say fate, but you just have to trust the process. My generation is too eager to get to that next step but that exposure and experience you cultivate during the first few jobs is invaluable.
You need to have that in order to manage and lead a team. Funny story: when I was 26 or 27, I was in the Four Seasons management training programme and one of the sections I had to work in was housekeeping. I was there for a year-and-a-half and for three months I was in the laundry department and all I did every day was take towels and put them into machine where they folded them for you. I did that for nine hours a day, every day.
My head was exploding from the tedium. My parents sent me to school in the UK and there I was, folding towels. I went to my general manager and asked what I was doing there. He giggled and asked me to think about how everything connected: if there was no one folding the towels then housekeeping wouldn’t be able to make the rooms, hospitality wouldn’t be able to provide a service at the pools, everything is connected to the overall business.
Once you understand that and are able to do that job well, it does wonders for overall culture and the respect you have for fellow workers. I was impatient initially, but I learnt to trust the process.
(Photos: Allan Tan)