Wanting to be own boss, brothers take plunge into F&B business

WANTING to be their own boss, three brothers have given up corporate careers and dived full-time into an F&B (food and beverage) business.

Today, Tan Wee Han, Tan Wee Lee and Tan Wee Tuck, run the Easy & Light Group together. The group owns a string of F&B businesses, including Brewerkz Restaurants and Microbreweries, and wine distributor Crystal Wines. Wee Han, 52, and Wee Tuck, 50, oversee Brewerkz as chief executive and executive director respectively.

Wee Han was an executive director at Singapore-listed Secura Group before he started the Easy & Light Group in 2017. Before that, he had started Crystal Wines in 1998 and ran the business on the side. 

Youngest brother Wee Lee, 45, decided to forgo work in the banking industry and joined Crystal Wines full time in 2000. 

Wee Tuck only joined his brothers in the business last year, after helming Singapore real estate company Rowsley, which later became Thomson Medical Group. After years of cutting deals and working for someone else, he felt it was the right time to work on his own aspirations.

"It's a bit of 'been there, done that'," he said. 

No doubt, the moves came with some sacrifices. For Wee Tuck, it was giving up the status of his former role. And in contrast to the strategic work of a corporate honcho, he's now involved in day-to-day issues of a small to mid-sized enterprise (SME). 

On the upside, however, they can speak their minds more freely now, said Wee Tuck. "If you're an employee, you have to worry about how it might affect your career."

Wee Han and Wee Tuck share their experiences as SME bosses, and how they turned Brewerkz, which they acquired five years ago, from a single-restaurant business to one with four restaurants, two franchised locations in Indonesia and an 8,000 square foot standalone brewery.

 

What are some of the skills that you have had to develop and that you think are most crucial to your role?
Wee Han: We have skills that complement each other and benefit the business.

I have F&B industry knowledge and a network. My background as an engineer as well, in managing our brewery operations which is, in a nutshell, a complex piece of machine. 

Wee Tuck: Our aspiration is to grow this business and take it beyond its current scale. This is where my background in mergers and acquisitions, branding and corporate finance, as well as my experience working in many industries and countries, come in. 

How much was invested into Brewerkz at the start, versus today's turnover?
Both: The first investment a long time ago ranged from S$1 million to S$2 million. Today, our turnover is many times that amount.

What do you think was your worst bet for the company?
Both: This would be opening in new locations that we were convinced would work, and finding out the hard way that they weren't going to. The last two locations that did not work for us were Brewerkz Dempsey and Brewerkz Sentosa Boardwalk.

A host of macro and micro factors can affect the success of an outlet. There is a saying: fail fast and fail cheaply. When it comes to restaurants, it is expensive to fail. We learn from each failure and try to do better in the next venture.

And your best?
Both: In the past two years, we have made several major bets. We consolidated our brewery operations into a standalone premise and expanded our production capacity. Our investment included a state-of-the-art canning line and a complete revamp of our flagship restaurant at Riverside Point.  

We've put in a few million dollars into these investments, however, we see it as investing in Brewerkz’s future. The early signs are encouraging, but we believe that the best is yet to come.

What has been the most rewarding moment of your career so far, and why?
Both: The times when we turn an idea into reality.

For example, last year, we decided that we wanted to celebrate Singapore’s Bicentennial and give back to society. We produced 80 cases of the Brewerkz Bicentennial Ale, a commemorative canned beer and donated 100 per cent of the proceeds to Touch Community Services. In total, we raised close to S$15,000, and the project was well received by everyone. 

We are especially happy with the project as we took only 30 days to turn the idea into reality. The project involved beer production, product design, building a digital marketing strategy and engaging with Touch – all in all, it was done in record time. 

We proved to ourselves that we can make things happen when we apply ourselves fully to them. 

Could you talk about a challenging moment in your career, and how you managed to overcome it?
Wee Han: For me, it was having to invest time and money to get out of a tough situation.

In business, you need a lot of hope and courage to keep you going. Sometimes, it is difficult to focus and stay on course. My Christian beliefs really help me pulled through these moments.

Wee Tuck: For me, it was the decision to step back from a successful corporate career and to roll up my sleeves in an SME. 

I've always wanted to do this - the time was right, and it's also our own business. Once I got into it, the challenge was tackling all the universal issues that confront all SMEs - fewer resources, smaller scale and more.

I deal with these by being very clear about why I am here, where the company needs to go and being laser-focused on what we need to do.  

When you are not working hard in the office, where are you to be found?
Wee Han: I would be with my family, in church, around friends or dining out. My wife and I enjoy catching up with our friends a lot. We also love exploring the dining scene in Singapore.

Wee Tuck: My choice is also family, church and connecting with friends. Last year, together with some friends and like-minded individuals, I ran a series of career mentoring sessions for NUS (National University of Singapore) undergraduates. That was rewarding and fun.