by Karen Tee
In Andrew Li’s freshly renovated office at Clarke Quay, there is a mini Smeg refrigerator. It does not, however, contain bottles of ice-cold champagne ready to be popped, as one might expect from an executive director and CEO of Zouk Group.
Known as the nation’s top nightlife hotshot, he cultivates a public persona. Most weekends, he can be seen socialising with high-rolling spenders at Zouk Singapore or clinking glasses with the world-famous DJs such as Tiesto and Zedd at Zouk Las Vegas.
A peek into Li’s private side is offered by the neatly arranged rows of still and sparkling water inside his fridge, along with a tub of low-fat yoghurt for the probiotics it contains. He explains that these items are the basis of his essential sustenance during the “90 per cent of my time when I am not drinking”.
“It can be a very tough industry in terms of the lifestyle as there is a lot of entertaining and late nights. To perform at my peak, I need to keep my body and mind in good shape,” he says.
A visionary in Singapore’s lifestyle industry
Li leads a team of 300 across Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, and Las Vegas for the Zouk brand. His goal is to establish Zouk as a global player not just in nightlife entertainment, but also in F&B, lifestyle, and hospitality.
“A lot of synergy exists between these sectors. For instance, in Miami or Las Vegas, the night does not begin in the club, does it? The night starts with dinner, where there is a lot of energy, and afterwards, you are happy and merry with your friends. This translates easily into going on to a club,” he explains.
The canny head honcho spotted a lucrative business opportunity. “We thought we needed more concepts to create that journey for the consumer, since the more their enjoyment level increases as they move from concept to concept, the greater the revenue.”
The RedTail Bar by Zouk, Here Kitty Kitty speakeasy, and Fuhu Restaurant & Bar were all launched under his watch. Additionally, Li expanded Zouk’s portfolio to include a franchise for the American burger joint Five Guys, and is in talks to launch WAGYUMAFIA, which has redefined the way people experience one of Japan’s most iconic ingredients, in Clarke Quay in 2023.
We thought we needed more concepts to create that journey for the consumer, since the more their enjoyment level increases as they move from concept to concept, the greater the revenue.
Ironically, the pandemic accelerated Zouk Group’s expansion into lifestyle. When nightclubs closed indefinitely during Covid-19, the team quickly realised it was their F&B outlets that kept the company going.
Li says, “We knew that to be Covid-proof, we needed to have other revenue streams that governments would have to open up earlier compared to nightlife. So we decided it would be a viable strategy to have more F&B concepts in case of future lockdowns.”
Expanding Zouk’s nightlife pie
Having said that, clubgoers will be glad to know this nightlife maestro is still flying the Singapore flag proudly. As for expanding, the launch of Zouk Las Vegas in 2021 was particularly pivotal for the group. “Being in Vegas defines your nightlife brand because it is where the biggest and most successful clubs in the world are located. We had an uphill battle to overcome, but the team did an incredible job because Zouk has become very well known across the US, thanks to the Vegas spot,” he says, adding that additional concepts will be incorporated to further “elevate our brands”.
Succeeding in the clubbing capital of the world has also opened more doors, with various offers streaming in from other businesses to launch different concepts and partnerships, says Li.
Plans are underway to launch Zouk Japan in Tokyo’s glitzy Ginza district in the first half of 2023. “For club projects, we want to focus on gateway cities such as Miami, London, New York, or Tokyo. Clubs demand a lot of resources, so we want to make sure the site we choose has a lot of market potential,” he says.
The comeback of ZoukOut Singapore
Closer to home, Li resurrected the flagship music festival ZoukOut Singapore in Sentosa after a four-year hiatus, in partnership with AEG, the producers of Coachella. The goal is to evolve ZoukOut into a more broad-ranging festival with live music acts so that it is not just associated with nightclubbing.
He says there is huge competition in the festival market, and without differentiation, it will be hard to create a sustainable festival. “If we want to bring in bigger acts, we need to become a regional festival because neighbouring countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand have much larger populations than us.”
For the December event, which the team pulled off in just six months, AEG pitched in with production and technical support. “It was not as unique and different as I wanted it to be,” he says honestly. “However, live acts require a long booking time when they are on tour.”
There are plans for the events production company to become more involved in programming at future ZoukOuts, with the goal of becoming the Coachella of Singapore. Ideas include having a second stage on another beach, or even activating the whole island to participate in the festival.
“There is a lot of potential for the future. A festival that also attracts tourists would be quite an achievement,” he says.
Identifying the x-factor
With so many things going on, it’s no wonder Li, who has previously competed in Ironman races, pays such great attention to staying in top condition. On most days, he follows a “regimented” schedule. He is typically asleep by about 930pm and wakes up at 6am to meditate and exercise before heading to the office.
The avid proponent of intermittent fasting generally eats only dinner as his sole meal of the day. “I have found that I think more clearly on just one meal a day. All of this creates a balance to the rest of my lifestyle where my work involves me entertaining, drinking and eating.”
It is not surprising that he is equally meticulous about identifying chefs for Zouk’s more intimate F&B concepts, which he considers passion projects. Li says chefs must not only be excellent cooks, but they must also possess a certain X-factor that aligns with the company’s brand identity.
The night starts with dinner, where there is a lot of energy, and afterwards, you are happy and merry with your friends. This translates easily into going on to a club.
Recent launches in Singapore include Japanese omakase Sushi Ichizuke and the “chef’s table” concept Maison Shuko, an eight-seater which focuses on “Asiatique cuisine” made with locally sourced ingredients.
Li became personally involved in selecting a suitable chef for Sushi Ichizuke when the original chef left. “Of course, I was worried, since you cannot open a Japanese restaurant without a chef, especially if it is a sushi place, so I was browsing Instagram, LinkedIn and sliding into people’s direct messages,” he recalls.
Eventually, he met Daisuke Suzuki, who has worked at Michelin-starred restaurants in Japan, and knew he had found the right guy for the job. “We needed a chef who understood this would not be a traditional Japanese restaurant. He was extremely open to that.”
With Maison Shuko, it was chefs Justin Foo and Jeremy Chiam’s passion for local produce that sealed the deal. They had also conceptualised an immersive dining experience featuring cinematic short films about the farms and producers behind key ingredients featured on their menu, which Li believed was aligned with Zouk’s values.
“We like edutainment, where you are entertained and educated about food. Being Singaporeans, they wanted to showcase local ingredients, which for us was something unique.”
Moving forward as a lifestyle and hospitality company
Li, who turns 40 this year, laughs when he says he launched these two restaurants as a “networking thing” as well. “Where else can I invite an investor, co-sponsor or potential partner to dinner and let them see that Zouk is more than a nightclub? We are a lifestyle and hospitality company with a global reach and this is important as we tell that story moving forward.”
Even though he is fully confident in his ability to make decisions of any size, both big and small, he admits that he was not always so sure. At 32, after a spell as COO of Hong Kong’s Prive Group, he stepped into the role of CEO and confesses to feelings of imposter syndrome in his early days.
Working with an executive coach helped him find this stride. “Seeking help has a stigma” he says candidly. “But I realised it is important to not be afraid no matter what position or level you are in because the faster you accept it, the faster you can help yourself.”
Li’s introspection not only taught him something about himself, but also helped him to embrace his role as the captain of Zouk’s various enterprises.
He reflects, “He helped me realise I was instinctively making the right decisions, but I just needed to believe in myself more. And as I have gotten older, instead of responding to emotions, I have learnt to be a lot more patient in how I react.”