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Quay to Success
THERE are no restrictions on age when it comes to thinking big or making a name for yourself in the real world, but delivering on a single-minded vision is a different matter altogether. Youth didn't stop Kishin RK, 34, from dabbling in the property market when he was a teenager in junior college or a student at NUS - and it certainly hasn't stopped him now that he's an impact player in the Singapore real estate and hospitality industry scene.
Earlier this month, Kishin (as he prefers to be known) and RB Capital, the company he founded in 2006, put the finishing touches on Quayside, a redevelopment project in Robertson Quay with a firm focus on the art of hospitality and dramatically improving the quality of the food and beverage offerings in the area.
The goal was to elevate the dining experience, inject some panache and ignite the "quiet" end of Mohamed Sultan Road with the likes of a New York-style steakhouse, a design-forward restaurant-deli-and-bar, a modern Indian place and a sushi/snack bar concept, among various other F&B outlets. All 100,000 square feet of lettable space has been taken up by more than 20 outlets, with about half already in operation and the rest opening by October this year.
And that's not all. The F&B outlets are merely one major component of the more extensive Robertson Quay Project, which when completed later in the year will include a 20,000-square-foot private members' club called 1880 as well as a 225-room hotel managed by InterContinental Hotels. The integrated riverfront site sits on almost 120,000 sq ft of land comprising The Quayside and The InterContinental Hotel, acquired six months apart in 2013, and a service road between the two buildings.
The current valuation of the project is just under S$1 billion, and when combined with RB Capital's S$450 million Holiday inn Express Clarke Quay (which it developed in 2014), the privately-held company's holdings in this part of town alone add up to a tidy sum.
Big numbers and mega-deals don't scare Kishin, a man who seems determined to make a difference in his chosen field. He still rues the one that got away - a block of 42 Marriott hotels in the UK that RB Capital made a US$1 billion offer for in 2012, catapulting his then-unknown company into the global spotlight. RB was in the frame until late in the day, but lost out in the end to the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, the sovereign wealth fund controlled by the emirate's ruling family.
'I don't build round buildings'
"Elegance in simplicity" is Kishin RK's mantra, from his Zegna suits (shirt, no tie), Tod's loafers and ubiquitous jumper to the projects he invests in and the buildings he develops. "Everything I try to do is very simple and practical, whether it's the way I dress or my design philosophy," says Kishin, a scion of the Royal Brothers property group whose business origins (in the textile trade) in Singapore date back 70 years. "I don't build round buildings; clean, modern lines with a strong language is my preference - nothing too ornate or crazy."
The sharp dress sense takes a back seat to his business habits and the all-consuming passion with which Kishin approaches each new project. He spent over a year researching the market and mulling over various F&B options before deciding on the final tenant mix at Quayside, even going so far as to present his proposals to members of the local residents' committee for feedback. "The residents have to embrace it," he says. "We had a mindset of fitting into the neighbourhood and creating a unique experience rather than going in and disrupting it."
Notable outlets in Quayside's F&B cluster include Dabawalla, described by Kishin as "a cool curry-and-cocktails restaurant", the 14,000-sq-ft Publico, a collaboration with New York-based design and concept group AvroKO that will include a restaurant, traditional New York deli and 1920s-style Italian bar Marcello, and Wolfgang's Steakhouse, named for its founder - a former headwaiter at Brooklyn meat mecca Peter Luger.
For the Robertson Quay Project, Kishin and father Raj Kumar, 63, spent long hours working with primary design consultant SCDA Architects to carefully craft and curate the final product.
"The vibe in Robertson Quay is warm, friendly and unpretentious so you don't generally dress up to go out," says Kishin. "When I looked at Robertson Quay two years before acquiring The Quayside and the former Gallery Hotel, we conducted research to understand the gap in the market and what came out of it was the need to focus on the fine-casual dining sector. This influenced how we positioned The Robertson Quay Project. I didn't want a commercial development mindset or to go in with a shopping mall F&B approach."
SCDA founding principal Chan Soo Khian has first-hand experience of Kishin's full-tilt working style. "Father and son were very collaborative, detail-oriented and easy to get along with - they had very high expectations as well but, overall, it was a very amicable experience," says Mr Chan, adding that there were even more ambitious plans to rejuvenate the entire riverside, but these were scaled back in the face of prohibitive government regulations.
'We never sell, unless…'
Property in Singapore is RB Capital's primary focus, but the company also actively explores possibilities in the UK, Australia and Malaysia - it owns a 26-storey office block in Kuala Lumpur. While he is constantly on the lookout for lucrative deals, flipping properties for a quick profit is not part of the RB Capital strategy. "We never sell, unless an asset is not strategic to the group," says Kishin.
That was also the policy of the property empire built by his father and uncle Asok Kumar, known as The Royal Brothers. It started in the 1970s and was driven by the acquisition of retail units that now number in hundreds in shopping malls such as Far East Plaza, Lucky Plaza and Peninsula Plaza.Although hotels and office buildings were added in later decades, the brothers were tagged as the 'kings of strata retail'.
Raj and Asok divided the assets in 2011 in a restructuring exercise and Raj's Royal Holdings combined with Kishin's RB Capital to form a powerful all-in-the-family alliance valued by Forbes Magazine at US$2.7 billion, putting them among the Top 10 in Singapore's Rich List. Asok and his son Bobby have their own significant slice of Singapore's property pie with hotels, office blocks and shopping centres, run under the Royal Group Holdings banner.
In recent years, Kishin has brought hospitality and healthcare into the picture in the form of a newly-developed mixed-use project in Farrer Park comprising hotel, retail and specialist medical suites. By his reckoning, an all-F&B mix is the way of the future in the Robertson Quay Project and other pockets of town. Given the way the retail industry is going through the doldrums right now, he says he has less of an interest in retail-driven developments in Singapore.
"It was important for me to see the integration of F&B and real estate - to make the real estate that we own relevant, to understand what we need to do as a group to stay competitive," he says. "If we relied on the traditional retail approach, there is the risk of being irrelevant like CD shops and bookstores. F&B is probably the industry least likely to be disrupted by e-commerce and technology as the experience of dining isn't easily captured online. That was the main driver for me to emphasise F&B in our developments."
He adds: "I strongly believe that consumers are flooded with information. They want to walk into a space and feel a connection - that's the intangible that keeps real estate developers relevant."
He plans to take the same approach with an upcoming project - a proposed 60-storey office tower in Raffles Place, site of RB Capital's former head office.
'Acquire, curate, rejuvenate'
Having learnt the ropes from his father at a young age, Kishin developed a reputation among friends and schoolmates for having a firm grasp on the workings of the property market. Apocryphal tales of his encyclopaedic knowledge while a student in the NUS Department of Real Estate are still in circulation. "School was definitely important in getting the basic foundation and discipline, but what gave me knowledge was hands-on experience and being on the ground."
Work is simply an extension of the close personal relationship with his father. "My dad brings a lot of experience and gut instinct to the table and it's good to know how things were in the past - it shapes the decision-making process," says Kishin. "I tap into his knowledge, then I share with him research in terms of future trends, consumer behaviour both locally and internationally and then, what are the must-haves and the nice-to-haves."
In return, Kishin provides some insight into the way young consumers think. "He understands the emergence of social media and I showed him how people are living and purchasing in the online world," he says. "Now, he buys his necessities online and understands how this change of behavior will shape the future of retail."
Says Raj of his self-confessed workaholic son: "We have a dynamic, close relationship and have always respected and learnt from each other. "I'm extremely proud of the driven and successful man he's turned out to be. Yet he remains humble."
Says Kishin: "Where real estate is concerned, it is important to have a blend of both gut feel and a more studied approach. Being a private company and not beholden to thousands of shareholders helps because we can be more nimble - that's our USP.
"Rebranding areas using lifestyle, hospitality and F&B is where the group's focus will be, says Kishin. "Taking the traditional approach of retail and office is going to be challenging. With competition really stiffening in Singapore, the only answer for players like us is to find the next Robertson Quay - is there an area that we will be able to acquire, curate, rejuvenate?"
He adds: "That whole curatorial process is something I'm passionate about, I believe it has a huge part to play in terms of the future of real estate values. It's very satisfying to turn a once-sleepy waterfront area and transform it into something really interesting. Sometimes you need to do things that don't make a lot of sense, take a position on being unconventional."
'...it's becoming very challenging'
Kishin's take on the current property scene is "cautiously optimistic" he says. "The residential market is driven by government regulation while commercial property is being fuelled by a lot of foreign capital - it's becoming very challenging because land prices are extremely high and they don't exactly tally with the end-product value, which makes it difficult for developers entering the market now to acquire land and develop."
He adds: "Foreign capital flowing into Singapore real estate is a given. There is a fundamental difference in the way the foreigners view real estate in Singapore which usually tends to be a safe storage of their capital. However, we local developers would usually need a margin of profit to justify an acquisition ." In short, challenges and uncertainty remain but the future looks "stable".
When he's not dreaming of the Next Big Project, Kishin goes on 10-km runs and hits the squash courts with a vengeance - he's been playing at a high level for over 20 years. "He is very, very driven, on both a personal and professional level," says a close friend, running companion and investor who is in charge of a Singapore-based family office.
"If you want to know anything about real estate just ask Kishin. The guy knows the last transacted price and outlook, he will know about a specific plot of land, he is very passionate about his sector. We run together a few times a week - he will show up on site after the run to check on the status of a project."
On the personal front, Kishin projects humility and is genuinely friendly to everyone he meets, says the friend. "We often have meals together and he will greet people with the same warmth whether it's the server, a fund manager or a property tycoon - he's equally at ease with everyone. It's a strong quality to have - especially from a young entrepreneur perspective."