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Grant Ashton in the wine cellar of Les Amis restaurant.

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67 Pall Mall in London.

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A rendering of the wine tower in the Singapore club.

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67 Pall Mall in London.

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Mr Ashton on the terrace of the Shaw Centre penthouse.

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Lelian Chew.

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The Atelier & Co's global headquarters in Delta House.

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The Atelier & Co's global headquarters in Delta House.

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The Atelier & Co's global headquarters in Delta House.

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The Atelier & Co's global headquarters in Delta House.

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The Atelier & Co's global headquarters in Delta House.

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The Atelier & Co's global headquarters in Delta House.

Ex-bankers turn passion into business

Grant Ashton and Lelian Chew are two ex-bankers who created lifestyle concepts out of their love for wine and roses
Aug 23, 2019 5:50 AM

Grant Ashton - 67 Pall Mall

IN ANOTHER LIFE, Grant Ashton was a city trader for 30 years, notably with the British financial institution Barclays, running the floor in the City and Canary Wharf. He also ran a hedge fund, but plans to keep doing that were derailed about five years ago when a couple of niggling problems in his personal life became too large for him to ignore. (see amendment note)

One, he was a wine collector with more wine than he knew what to do with. So did many of his friends, who were also big aficionados with a habit of over-collecting. Two, he was fed up of going to restaurants and ordering the cheapest bottles on the wine list because he couldn’t bring himself to pay the exorbitant markup slapped on them. As a collector, he knew exactly how much they cost at retail, and seeing them marked up anywhere from 100 to 300 per cent left a bad taste in his mouth.

THE BIRTH OF 67 PALL MALL IN LONDON AND SINGAPORE

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So, Mr Ashton, 52, decided to do something about it. He wanted to open a wine bar in Marylebone, but while scouting for a location he chanced upon the beautiful Grade II-listed building in St James, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, which had been empty for 15 years.

In 2015, that building became 67 Pall Mall, London’s first and highly successful private members’ wine club. Now with a list of 4,400 wines and 2,500 members, Mr Ashton - CEO and founder - is in Singapore to open the club’s first international outpost in the 27th floor penthouse of Shaw Centre in Scotts Road.

The business model is that while restaurants need to charge what they do to pay for overhead costs like rent, labour and building costs, the subscription fees help to balance out some of the costs and allows the club to subsidise the prices of the wine. Food is priced like a normal restaurant, but the upside is that members get to enjoy it with wine that is priced at more realistic levels.

“I founded this club based upon what I would want. I want low corkage, a huge list, tiny markups and good food.” At 67 Pall Mall, membership is priced at £1500 (S$2520) a year. A bottle of wine starts at around £40 and a glass at £5.

Mr Ashton and his friends expected maybe 600 to 800 people to join, but they ended up with 1,200 members even before the club opened. Membership has been growing even as the club has added more space and facilities.

SINGAPORE OUTPOST

In the same way that the 67 Pall Mall building ‘spoke’ to him, the penthouse of Shaw Centre also whispered sweet things in Mr Ashton’s ear when he first laid eyes on the 15000 sq ft space. Apart from being in the centre of town, it has a rich history as the home of film magnate Runme Shaw, who passed away in 1985. The apartment - with its amazing 360 degree views of greenery and the tops of surrounding shopping centres - was left empty for some 20 years before a spa operator took over for another decade. It gave up the space in 2017.

“I saw 20 places before this,” says Mr Ashton, who started coming to Singapore two years ago to scout for a location for the first overseas branch of the club.

He reckons that 60 to 70 per cent of the London club’s design will be replicated here but with tweaks to suit the local environment. One of the key features will be a wine tower holding 6000 bottles from a list that will feature 5000 different wines from 42 countries. “It will be the biggest wine list in Singapore, and possibly the biggest in Southeast Asia.”

Besides Singapore, other cities considered included Hong Kong, Shanghai, Paris and New York, but Singapore “won fair and square” after ticking off all the important boxes on Mr Ashton’s list of 25 criteria that included ease of doing business, logistics and wine storage.

Based on the London experience, he believes the concept will go down well with price-conscious Singaporeans. Membership will cost just S$200 a month with no joining fee, and for the first year, that will be for two people. There will be three Masters of Wine in residence to conduct classes, and 15 sommeliers on hand to guide you through the massive choice, especially the 1000 wines that will be available by the glass. At the same time, it will be a social place for people who want to come in and do a bit of work or meet with the five guests each member is allowed to bring in each day.

That it’s looking like a social club that’s much more affordable than say, 1880 or Straits Clan is not lost on Mr Ashton, who says that he is on good terms with the owners and plans to work with them - “the idea is to grow the pie, not shrink it,” he says, and adds that he is targetting mainly Singaporean residents rather than expats. The club will be financed by founding members putting in S$100,000 each, and he is confident of raising the S$10 million needed for the construction which will only begin after Chinese New Year next year. It is expected to open in September 2020.

Amendment note: Grant Ashton's name was misspelt as Ashford in the print version of this story. We are sorry for the error.

IN FOR THE LONG HAUL

He’s well aware that such a major project is not going to reap profits soon. After all, 67 Pall Mall lost £1 million in its first year, and £400,000 in its second year before it started to turn a profit in its third and fourth year. “We will make money this year, and in Singapore, we will lose money in the first two years - it takes a long time to get the money back.” But they will be taking a 15 year lease on the Shaw Centre space, similar to London, which it has extended to 20 years.

It won’t end in Singapore, either, as the plan is to open six clubs, including London, by 2028.

Yes, there are faster ways to make money, especially for someone with so much market experience, but “it wouldn’t be so much fun”, says the man who was supposed to leave town on Aug 9 but is still around to manage things especially after word broke about the Singapore branch.

“I enjoy wine, and I enjoy the intellectual challenge of (dealing with) new things every day. The reason I do this is that I get to do something different every day.”

LELIAN CHEW - THE ATELIER & CO

SERENDIPITY AND HARD WORK  are perhaps the words to define Lelian Chew’s dizzying rise from young private banker to wedding planner for the rich and famous.

Ms Chew is the founder of The Atelier & Co - the parent company of two of her biggest businesses, The Wedding Atelier and The Floral Atelier, which she started in Hong Kong but has just launched her global headquarters here in the form of a 7000 sq ft retail and event space at the top of industrial building Delta House.

A huge cold room takes centrestage, housing air-flown exotic blooms to be used in upcoming wedding events or bouquets for her florist business. There’s a long table good for workshops that she plans to hold regularly in collaboration with local artisans. A bar and a kitchen services clients or luxury companies wanting to hold a private event. It’s also a non-transactional place where people can just walk in for a look, and take away ideas and chat over a coffee.

Holding court is the quietly glamorous Ms Chew, 37, whose petite size belies her ability to juggle a client list of 10 to 12 weddings a year for tycoons mainly from China, Hong Kong and Indonesia.

Her story unfolds like a fairy-tale of sorts for the hopeless but determined romantic who worked her way up as a private banker with Goldman Sachs for seven years - surviving on three hours’ sleep a night doing trades on the US and Japan markets for her billionaire clients. When she was around 31,she fell very ill and was hospitalised - “crazy enough, it was just fatigue” - which led her to stop and re-assess her life.

When it happened, the Singaporean had been in Hong Kong for a year, where she had asked to be posted to join her then-fiance, and was assigned to an A-team to penetrate the China market (she is fluent in Mandarin).

“I realised that I had spent all those years trying to prove myself - I didn’t study finance so getting into a bank was a real feat - to the extent that I didn’t care about anything including my health,” says Ms Chew. “So I asked myself if this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.” She decided to quit, and plan her own wedding while deciding what to do.

Before she could even start, one of her exclients called her, asking her which bank she was moving to so he could move his assets to follow her.

“When I told him I was taking a break to plan my wedding, he said, ‘what - you’re planning weddings? My son is getting married, why don’t you come up and take a look since you’ve been taking care of our family all this while’.”

Since she was free, she flew up to Indonesia and what she saw blew her mind. In a room were six wedding planners. Not being interviewed for the job, but rather that was how many planners were needed for that one wedding. Ms Chew was the seventh planner.

“I helped out with the bride and groom, and I learned the ins and outs of doing a multi-million dollar wedding - the emotions involved and what the expectations are of a 3000 guest wedding.”

At the wedding itself, she ran into another ex-client - who was a guest - who asked her what she was doing. “I said, oh I’m planning this wedding and he too said, ‘oh, my daughter is getting married’.” One thing led to another and Ms Chew, who says, “I’m very commercial-minded thanks to my training at Goldman Sachs, and I knew there was something viable here.”

Leveraging on her contacts, her years of experience dealing with the quirks of the super-rich and being able to navigate tricky areas about privacy and Chinese etiquette, she was soon jetting around the world creating fairy-tale weddings on private islands, European vineyards and obscure hotels - to the tune of S$1 million and much more than her non-disclosure agreements will allow her to reveal.

In a sense, she had first mover advantage those six years ago as wedding planning was not a big thing in Asia at the time. Even big tycoons were more used to holding weddings in top hotels and letting their banquet managers do the planning. But a wedding planner does more than that - handling the bridal fashion, the food, the location, the guests - “and there was no one serving that segment of the market”. After two years, she branched out into flowers - a logical move since her team was doing the styling and conceptualising but outsourcing the flowers which could cost as much as S$1million.

She created The Floral Atelier after taking three months off to study flowers intensively in New York, so that she knew what she was talking about when pitching ideas to her clients.

Pitching to wedding clients is no different from pitching multi-million dollar deals, she says, apart from the flowers and the dresses and the connections to top French couture houses. Interestingly, she says that Singapore tycoons spend just one-tenth of what their Asian counterparts too due to a fear of flaunting, and if they really want to spend more, Ms Chew is likely to organise an overseas wedding for them.

Now that she’s set up her global office in Singapore, her plans are to add more companies to the Atelier & Co stable, including an events atelier and one on education to set quantifiable standards for the floral and wedding industry. And expansion to Shanghai is on the cards too, since that is proving to be her biggest market.

Ms Chew is also the subject of an upcoming BBC documentary aiming to get more insight into the lives of the hyper-rich in China, for which a film crew shadowed her over five months as she visited clients and scouted for locations, flowers and everything that goes into a fairy tale wedding.

Things may have fallen magically into place for her, but she’ll have you know that nothing is served to you on a silver platter. She attributes her success to the wise words a banking senior once told her: “If you can bring value to a client, he will ignore how you look, your gender and ignore everyone else who cannot give it to him.”

If she was doing this for money, she wouldn’t do it, she says. “There are faster, easier ways to make it. This is something very close to my heart. I’m a great romantic.”