Dennis Foo: Voice of experience

By Charlene PoonEvents - 25 May 2009 12:00 AM | Updated 29 November 2010

Dennis Foo: Voice of experience

CEO of St James Power Station, Dennis Foo, has been in the nightlife industry for over 30 years. He is the man behind a string of well-known clubs in Singapore, including the Europa chain - the island's biggest nightlife chain in the 1990s - and Devil's Bar, which made bar-top dancing all the rage a few years ago. The 56 year-old is still going strong today, with his unwavering dedication to the business of creating and having fun.

What's a typical work day like for you?
I get up at 8am and get settled by 9am. I'm usually on the phone with business associates and suppliers until 11am because I want to catch them before their meetings. Then I usually take a walk to the Tanjong Rhu Market where I have my comfort meal of the day - the small fishhead costing only $4.60. At 1.30pm or so, I start my meetings. I'm not a deskbound person - my handphone is my PC and my meeting rooms are like my office.

I'll usually be home for dinner to spend time with my family, and start working again at about 9pm until 2am. I go to the bars, meet the regulars, understand the business and see that everything's properly run. The pace of a career in nightlife is not for everyone, but I'm passionate about what I do so it's not a chore to me.

Tell us about the funniest experience you've encountered in your line of work.
About three years back, Cheryl Fox of Channel News Asia approached me and gave me a challenge to quit smoking for three days for a TV programme. The programme was half an hour long, and they took five days to shoot it. The problem was Miss Fox was out of town so they had to film it in reverse sequence - so I shot my last sequence first, where I go back to smoking from quitting! It struck me as funny that everything was manipulated for the screen, and to this day, when the programme gets repeat broadcast, I have to explain that I didn't really quit smoking permanently - it was all just for TV.

Working in the nightlife industry means being constantly surrounded by beautiful people. Have you ever had an indecent proposal? What does your other half think of that?

Surprisingly, I haven't. I've been in this line for 30 years, and I usually hang out with the regulars in the bar. Perhaps it's because I don't come across as the playful type. Some people go into the nightlife industry to fool around, but that was never my motivation. Nightlife is a business, and I enjoy doing business and creating entertainment that makes people happy.

What's your poison?
I normally take two shots of tequila neat in between my favourite Johnny Walker Black Label throughout the night and end off with champagne. But I've never been really drunk, as I think my body's adjusted to this already (laughs).

Having spent some 30 years in the nightlife industry and helmed a number of establishments, from Europa Changi, to Devils Bar and now St James, what would you say are your best and worst business investments?
The best would be Europa Ridley's in the former ANA Hotel, which brought in investment returns of 300 percent annually, 11 years in a row. We were in the right place at the right time with the right concept. The worst would be this North Indian restaurant franchise from New Delhi called Bhukara, which never recovered its capital in three years.

You're known to be pretty hands-on. Is this a quality you expect of your senior management staff as well? What other qualities do you look for in your senior employees?
Of course. I also expect it of operational level staff, staff who deal with personnel like HR, our entertainment department and even our technical officers. They have to be close to the ground to understand customers. I'd want this of most departments. I also want them to be passionate about what they do, and most importantly, to have integrity.

Did you have to make any changes to the business strategy of St James due to the current economic climate?
We were geared up to expand before the recession came along, and now we're looking at consolidation. This is a time where we can take the opportunity to stay lean, so that when the good times come, we'll be in a good position.

You have been able to survive the many ups and downs of the nightlife industry. What's the key reason for your success?
Never say die. Put simply, that's the only way you'll always survive.

What advice do you have for someone thinking of a career in nightlife?
If it's for fun, don't do it. It's a fun business but delivering is hard work. The bar operator rarely gets to have fun because his business is to give fun - not to have it.

What is the biggest trend in the nightlife scene in Singapore?
R&B has been big for a few years now, and is still drawing the largest crowds today.

What are your future goals for St James?
The IR will see a change in the nightlife landscape, but we want to assess that before we take our next position. We're considered the largest nightlife company locally, so we want to be relevant to most, and always strive to be the best. We want to continue to cater to as many profile groups and market segments as we can.