Meet The Man Who Revitalised Robertson Quay, Kishin RK

Close Up

April 15, 2018 | BY Hong Xinyi

The property developer shares the story behind Robertson Quay's transformation and explains how he hones his eye for untapped opportunities, even as he is eyeing what to venture into next.

Defunct nightclubs may not inspire as much melancholia as other heritage sites at risk of disappearing, but these markers of Singapore’s more ephemeral history can nevertheless induce a twinge of nostalgia for communally misspent youth. From the late 1990s to the mid-noughties, Robertson Quay was party central for clubbers, home to several pioneering nightlife concepts. These days, however, the area grooves to a different beat.

The InterContinental Singapore Robertson Quay opened last October, and is part of the 120,000sqft Quayside at Robertson Quay development spearheaded by RB Capital Group. Chatting with the company’s founder and CEO Kishin RK one morning in the InterContinental penthouse, we ask how the neighbourhood’s nightlife heritage factored into the conceptualisation of the area’s rejuvenation. 

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The 35-year-old has a reputation for being utterly fascinated by every facet of the real estate business, and his well‑considered answer certainly lives up to that reputation. For him, the key to success here lies in looking forward rather than backward. “Robertson Quay has gone through a very interesting journey,” he says. “It used to have many warehouses, then it moved towards an era where it was known for its nightclubs. Then, there was a transformation again when there were many residential plots tendered out. That brought an influx of residents and the nightlife positioning didn’t sit well with them. So from 2010 to 2013, this area went through a little bit of a lull period, or what I call an identity crisis.” 

Caught in this transition from an unruly bacchanalia to a more serene style of waterfront living, the newly sedate neighbourhood presented a great opportunity for a developer with a clear vision of what a vibrant Robertson Quay could look like in this new chapter of its story. “We started looking at this area in 2011, 2012, because we saw the potential. It was ripe for a transformation,” says Kishin.

“There was a strong captive audience in this area—residents from not just Robertson Quay, but also River Valley, Kim Yam Road and St Thomas Walk. This catchment area has many expatriates and young families, and the average age of the adult residents is mid to late 30s. And there was nothing exciting at the time, in terms of lifestyle offerings that catered to them. That’s the reason we came in.” 

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To make sure RB Capital understood these target consumers well, a team was formed to start initiating conversations with residents. From this legwork, clear demand patterns emerged. Many residents talked about wanting a place where they could work remotely—that is one reason Quayside is now home to private members’ club 1880, which includes a co-working space. For dining, residents wanted fine casual options that are child- and pet-friendly. “From there, we could start to understand exactly how to curate that experience for them,” Kishin explains. “All the restaurants at Quayside are not intimidating in terms of design, approach, service, and pricing. What we are trying to do is move from that typical landlord-tenant relationship to a landlord-consumer relationship. We went from a B2B to B2C model.”

This thoughtful approach guides the design of the entire development. Because Quayside is situated within what is now a largely residential area, Kishin opted to work with SCDA, an architectural firm known for its work in the luxury residential space. “We needed to take a more organic approach in the way we took on this development—we didn’t want to shock the neighbourhood too much. An architectural firm that only does hotels might not be able to understand what the residential feel is like, and that might have resulted in a more typical commercial hotel experience that may not sit well with the residents here,” he elaborates. “We have to weave into our surroundings; whatever we do here needs to fit like a glove.”

It makes good sense to understand and please one’s primary target audience, and indeed, Kishin is justifiably proud of how Quayside’s offerings have subtly invigorated the neighbourhood over the past few months. Embedded within his evaluation of the project are also clues as to how he views his company’s strategic direction. “Today, the residents look at Quayside and they can connect with it, not just from a transactional point of view, but also from an emotional point of view,” he believes. “They can spend their Sunday afternoons here with their families, there are lots of options for them to dine out instead of cook at home. It’s become a community. Maximising profits is one thing, but what’s important is to really understand the positioning of an asset in a neighbourhood. Fitting into the surroundings, complementing it, and taking it to next level—that’s our approach to staying relevant in the longer term.” 

SITES TO BEHOLD

Connection, emotion, community, relevance—these are the magic words that echo through many legacy industries today, concepts that are increasingly seen as crucial for sustaining brands and businesses through waves of disruption. That these ideas recur often in Kishin’s musings about his work is no surprise. Once seen as the safest of bets, real estate has not escaped the headwinds of the new digital economy. Take brick-and-mortar retail, which has traditionally been a key source of revenue for property developers. It has now become a sector struggling to cope with the onslaught of e-commerce. 

“If you don’t have an emotional connection with a brand, then you’d buy online,” Kishin points out. “That way, you get your product cheaper, and you don’t need to go to a store. I need something to get you to the store, and the only thing I can work on is that emotional connection, and how to give you an experience that you can’t get online.” 

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Kishin’s father, Raj Kumar, entered the hotel business in Singapore, Australia and New Zealand in the late 1980s, and is also known as the king of strata retail for his long-standing stakes in malls such as Far East Plaza, Lucky Plaza and Queensway Shopping Centre. “In that era, the strata retail space was what was relevant, it was what consumers wanted,” says Kishin when we ask how his approach to development sits with his father. 

“But in this day and age, there have been a lot of changes in behaviour. Being the true entrepreneur that he is, he gets it. He’s tried buying stuff online just to experience e-commerce, and that’s changed his thinking. The first question prompted by that experience was: why do I need to be in the store? The next question is: what will it take to get me into the store? We have very interesting conversations about how we need to change, to be relevant and to maintain our relevance.” With Quayside now up and running, new adventures beckon. RB Capital has been approached by overseas parties for the rejuvenation of districts, including some in the Middle East and the US, Kishin reveals. “But what I’d like to do is to see if there are other opportunities within Singapore. Being Singaporean, giving back to society here through projects where I can assist in the revitalisation of neighbourhoods is exciting. That would be my next immediate focus.” 

Home ground advantage does count for a lot in his business, after all. “Real estate is a very local business. As the saying goes, the value of property can be very different on one side of the street versus the other, and we need to know which side of the street to be on,” Kishin reckons. “That doesn’t mean we aren’t going to do something overseas, but Singapore is a natural place to look for the next opportunity. I can tell when there’s untapped potential in a certain area when I spend time here, and simply by being local. In a foreign city, that sense of perspective would be harder to achieve.” 

His choices to date express a certain sense of imagination, balanced by savvy pragmatism. Early projects include the transformation of 17 dilapidated shophouses collectively known as Cuppage Terrace into a bustling F&B enclave. Part of the Emerald Hill conservation district, “the restaurants and bars there are open till late, so when the Orchard Road malls close, that becomes the place to be”.

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He also speaks fondly of buying the former Shell station on the ground floor of Coronation Plaza in Bukit Timah, whose site now boasts a Starbucks that is reliably filled with students from the surrounding schools as well as a HSBC branch. In Kuala Lumpur, he acquired and repositioned what is now the HSBC Bank Building. Opposite Singapore’s Parliament House on North Bridge Road, he turned two nondescript office buildings into the modern EFG Bank building. His first hotel project was the Holiday Inn Express in Clarke Quay, which was followed by Farrer Park Medical Suites and Park Hotel Farrer Park in Little India. 

Much like Quayside, these developments quickly acquire the aura of having always been where they are, because they clearly meet a distinct need within their location —for after-hours dining, for after-school hangouts, for a central space to work, for a convenient place to stay. In other words, they are relevant. As for the next neighbourhoods in Singapore he has his eye on, Kishin will only say this: “I think there are some areas that need a bit of a Botox treatment. There may be an opportunity for an acquisition of a sleepy neighbourhood, or one due for a transformation.”

EMOTIONAL CONNECTION

There are two sectors that particularly pique his interest—retail and resorts. “Within the real estate space over the next five years, I see opportunities in the retail sector. In Asia and globally, retail is going through a transformation with e-commerce and the way people shop. Mall owners are going through a bit of an identity crisis, and malls currently are not curated to be relevant to this new environment that we live in today,” he says. “The value of retail real estate has become a lot more realistic today and there’ll be more interesting opportunities in this space for groups like us to acquire, and reinvent this traditional sector.”

And what would a relevant retail experience look like? For Kishin, there definitely needs to be a convergence of entertainment and technology. “It’s not just about someone coming to a store to buy a product. How do I create an experience for my customer? How do I embrace technology while I do that? That’s the future of retail.” He is well aware that retail players have been experimenting with different forms of innovation, but rightly points out: “There hasn’t been a formula for success. I see that gap in terms of a retail experience that makes consumers feel excitement and an emotional connection.” 

As for resorts, he is looking specifically at the ultra-luxury segment. “There are very few brands today that are able to excite travellers looking for that ultra-luxury experience. That’s another opportunity,” he believes. “Because of the recent consolidation of hospitality management companies, we don’t have many brands with that ultra‑luxury soul today that can offer something unique. Most hotel brands in that segment are part of large corporate chains, and they feel that way.

"When people travel now, they want an experience. They’re not looking for standardised luxury, they’re looking for that journey that’ll get them out of their daily lives and comfort zones. Few brands are able to understand how to curate that experience, that sense of escape. I think on a global basis, there’s a gap in that space.” 

Kishin gives the impression of someone who chooses his words with great deliberation, and there are more recurring magic words within these assessments—curate, experience, crisis, gap and, above all, opportunity. These words, too, resonate across the world today, serving as touchstones  for those who know they are living the transition between old ways and emerging ones, and betting they can create brave new worlds attuned to these interesting times.


Photography: Darren Gabriel Leow  
Fashion Direction: Desmond Lim
Grooming: Cheryl Ow/Indigo Artisans, using Marc Jacobs Beauty
Photographer's assistant: Eric Tan
Stylist’s assistant: Joey Tan

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