Behind the glitz and glamour, away from the world-renowned DJs and the party crowds, there is a lot going on in and around famed Singapore nightclub Zouk. The 28-year-old institution is part of Zouk Group, a lifestyle destination group which currently operates nightclubs, bars as well as food and beverage (F&B) establishments in Singapore and Malaysia, and onboard cruise ships sailing Asian waters. As Finance Director of Zouk Group, Alex Phua, 35, is keeping tabs on the financial health of these nightlife and dining concepts, and also eyeing business expansion through mergers and acquisitions (M&As). “Most of my office hours are spent developing growth strategies and opportunities, which involve liaising with potential partners and acquisition targets; exploring ways to maximise revenue and optimise the different business unit’s EBITDA margins, and managing new revenue streams for our clubs, bars, restaurants, music festivals, events and merchandise,” says Mr Phua. “Partying” is serious business, and Mr Phua visits the Zouk club once or twice a week to “walk the floor”, so as to keep an eye on operations and entertain guests, which is indicative of his hands-on management style.
IN M&A MODE
Recently marking the first decade in his career, Mr Phua has followed up his audit career at KPMG by taking on finance leadership roles – first at F&B Asia Ventures (a pan-Asian F&B business platform controlled by private equity firm Everstone Capital), and since last October, at Zouk Group.
Mr Phua joined Zouk at an exciting time, as the Group is in the midst of organisational change. In 2015, Zouk was acquired by Genting Hong Kong, a leading global leisure, entertainment and hospitality provider listed in Hong Kong, which is also part of the Genting Group that currently has four other listed companies across Singapore and Malaysia. Since then, Genting Hong Kong has been directing efforts to expand the Zouk brand internationally and move beyond the nightlife market by leveraging the parent company’s cruises and Genting Group’s global infrastructure and integrated resorts.
To date, new Zouk clubs have been launched in Malaysia’s Resorts World Genting and onboard two cruise liners owned by Genting Hong Kong – Genting Dream (homeported in Singapore) and World Dream (homeported in Hong Kong). A Zouk Las Vegas beach club and night club are slated to open at the upcoming Resorts World Las Vegas in 2021, while a new mega cruise ship (to homeport in China) and which will feature a third Zouk At Sea, is under construction.
Zouk Group has also entered the F&B space with an innovative F&B concept called “vibe dining”, which will soon debut in Genting Highlands. It also owns a social gaming bar concept, Redtail, located in Singapore and Genting Highlands. The Group is sourcing prospective acquisition opportunities to bring international F&B franchises to Singapore – as signalled by its latest acquisition of Five Guys, an American specialty burger chain and one of the world’s biggest burger franchises.
As part of the deal, announced recently on June 12, the Group plans to open the first-ever Five Guys outlet in Singapore by the end of this year. The acquisition, which is expected to double the Group’s revenue, was spearheaded by Mr Phua, who looks forward to helping Zouk diversify further into the F&B and other lifestyle industries and become an all-encompassing lifestyle group. “Business synergies are important in that the companies we acquire need to align with the Group’s growth strategy,” says Mr Phua, of Zouk’s M&A strategy for growth. “All the stars have to be aligned for a successful acquisition, whether in terms of company values, long-term vision or chemistry with the existing management; also, every acquisition comes with a different set of challenges. The franchises or brands we acquire must be the best in their respective industries and have positive consumer perception, in a manner consistent with Zouk’s long history of success.”
RINGING IN THE CHANGES
One major distinction between Mr Phua’s current and previous employers is the nature of the business. “Compared to KPMG’s audit services and Everstone as a private equity firm, Zouk is competing much more actively in the commercial marketplace,” says Mr Phua. He adds that the composition of internal stakeholders is also different at Zouk. “Zouk comprises people from very diverse backgrounds, so I have to vary my approaches in managing them. I have to explain decisions in a way that everyone can understand.”
Some of these decisions stem from the ongoing change management process as the Group works to align its policies with those of its present owner, Genting Hong Kong. “Transforming Zouk from a family-owned business to a professionally managed corporate environment involves changes to our processes and controls, as well as how the various departments are run. Because Genting Hong Kong is listed on the Stock Exchange of Hong Kong, our financial reporting requirements are also different from before,” notes the Finance Director.
His leadership role at Zouk in fact transcends the Finance function and carries over into other areas of the company. This broader job scope is something Mr Phua appreciates. “Working at Zouk has given me the opportunity to manage different functions such as Finance, Procurement, Cost Control, IT, Operations, Marketing and HR,” he says. “About 10% of my workload involves managing people issues and trying to interconnect people across different departments.”
From an HR angle, improving the welfare of staff is crucial for employee retention. It was with this in mind that Mr Phua – formerly President of KPMG’s Recreation Club, which runs a variety of social and sports activities for its staff – decided to set up the same initiative for Zouk Singapore’s 300-strong staff shortly after joining the company. Already, the club committee has organised weekly exercise classes, movie screenings, bartender contests and a variety of sports, all of which have proven popular with the Zouk staff.
Mr Phua also serves as the digital transformation lead for Zouk Group, by driving the adoption of new technologies to boost business productivity and improve the clubbing experience. For example, when deciding which DJs to book for repeat gigs, data analytics helps the Finance team identify which DJs have brought in more money for the club.
“Since I joined Zouk, we have scaled up our IT network infrastructure; automated our inventory management to reduce manpower costs, and rolled out an e-menu equipped with artificial intelligence in one of our restaurants, to enable the prediction of repeat customers’ menu choices,” says Mr Phua. Other technologies soon to be piloted at the Zouk Singapore club include an automated ticketing system to shorten waiting times in queues; a self-ordering system to solve the problem of long lines at the bar, and facial recognition software for enhanced customer relationship management, particularly for VIP customers.
STAY IN THE KNOW
“The accounting function is always evolving, not just in terms of the Financial Reporting Standards but also through the introduction of new technologies and the digitisation of our function,” highlights Mr Phua. Speaking from experience, he elaborates, “I believe Finance Directors and CFOs will be among the biggest users and enablers of technology. Our role has evolved from managing the accounts and preparing financial reports to being business leaders. We are now expected to use technology and data analytics to connect the dots across different functions and provide informed business decisions.” Finance professionals must therefore embrace and keep up with these changing job demands to stay relevant in the workplace. This is where an ISCA membership provides great value. “ISCA has provided me with a strong foundation and a good network of people to help me in my role. ISCA’s training programmes and the support from different ISCA committees have given me the technical know-how and tools to perform my job better,” says Mr Phua, who sits on ISCA’s CFO Committee.
There are also other benefits to joining ISCA, one being the camaraderie among members. Every year, Mr Phua teams up with former KPMG colleagues for the Inter-Professional Games and ISCA Games’ basketball event, savouring the chance to catch up with old friends. Another advantage is the built-in level of trust that comes with being a qualified Chartered Accountant. “It provides a sense of credibility or assurance to the industry that we have high standards when carrying out our work, and proper regard for the ethos of our profession,” he adds.
Mr Phua’s parting advice for aspiring and existing professional accountants? “Commit a portion of your day to develop yourself, and be resilient in the face of change. Delve into the business holistically, look beyond your scope, get some experience in non-finance functions and understand how they operate. You will be the one whom CEOs rely on to make business decisions, so know what impacts your industry and leverage your financial know-how to drive business transformation.”