"I’m Just Not That Interested In Growing An ‘Empire’," Says Unlisted Collection's Loh Lik Peng

Close Up

March 9, 2018 | BY Hong Xinyi

The trail-blazing hotelier and restaurateur tells us it's not just business when it comes to his projects.

The cover shoot with hotelier and restaurateur Loh Lik Peng takes place in Nouri, the restaurant he opened with chef Ivan Brehm last year to instantaneous acclaim, and it is a space with a cool touch of Zen. “I think it looks very beautiful,” Lik Peng says, as the photographer asks him to attempt a contemplative look. By way of encouragement, we quip that he should just think about his empire, which includes award-winning establishments in Singapore, Sydney, Shanghai and London. In response, Lik Peng gives his signature hearty laugh. “Actually, I’m just not that interested in growing an ‘empire,’” he tells us. “Our projects are based on passion. We do take the business side of things seriously, but it’s not purely driven by money.”

Steering passion projects was somewhat simpler when he kickstarted the boutique hotel trend in Singapore with Hotel 1929 in 2003, followed by New Majestic Hotel in 2006. These days, demand for such conservation shophouses is white-hot. He sold Hotel 1929 in 2013 for $35m—10 times what he paid a mere decade ago. As for New Majestic Hotel, it closed in 2017, and the property is now leased to new private members’ club Straits Clan. “From a business point of view, closing New Majestic was a logical decision. We’d have had to invest a lot to renew the hotel,” Lik Peng explains. “But from an emotional point of view, it was a difficult decision. I mulled on it probably longer than I should have.”

(Related: Nouri’s Food Highlights The Beauty Of Our Shared Heritage)

“We can’t work with the numbers being bandied about for these sorts of conservation properties anymore”, he says matter-of-factly. “It’s become a big boys’ game because the prices are astronomical. The level of adventurism that used to come with those spaces, I think that’s much harder to achieve now. I have mixed feelings about it, frankly.”

It may come as a surprise that he very much considers his umbrella brand Unlisted Collection to be a niche player. “And we are happy to stay that way. We don’t go into malls, we don’t try to open 50 restaurants under the same brand. I don’t think I’d be very good at that. The ability to innovate and move to new spaces all the time remains important to us.”

Happily, such adventures in creative agility can still be found overseas. This year, refurbishments will likely begin for Trinity Lodge, a newly acquired hotel in Dublin, where Lik Peng was born and attended boarding school. His affection for the city is still palpable. “It’s a beautiful old property, with lots of potential. It’s got a very central location, on a cobbled street full of old Georgian buildings, a typical beautiful old Irish street. I would like to do more there in the future, maybe more F&B projects.”

(Related: This Is Not Goodbye, Says Andre Chiang)

As for Singapore, a new restaurant will soon take over the Bukit Pasoh premises previously occupied by the two-Michelin-starred Restaurant Andre. Chef Andre Chiang’s decision to close the much-lauded restaurant surprised the industry, and “we did try to persuade him otherwise, because, frankly, it was a very successful restaurant, so for me it was very painful to watch it being closed”, Lik Peng says. “But he was determined. And once I knew that, I didn’t try to change his mind and we worked with him on the transition.” 

The restaurant that replaces Andre’s may well be the only new addition to Lik Peng’s determinedly niche empire this year. “Last year was a bit frantic, so it’s time to take a breather and make sure our house is in order. Maybe there’ll be a bit more consolidation this year rather than trying to open new concepts all the time.” But since passion projects are his thing, he knows full well that passion doesn’t play by the rules. “Sometimes, something great comes up and I just can’t help myself.” 

Photography: Eric Seow
Fashion Direction: Desmond Lim
Grooming: Delanie Wong and June Goh/Indigo Artisans, using Make Up For Ever
Photographer’s assistant: Eric Tan
Stylist’s assistant: Joey Tan

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