We’re sitting at a long wooden dining table in a creamy hue that is perfect for #foodstagram flat lays. To our right, an army of shiny cooking appliances stands at attention in a sleek, marble-accented kitchen.
It’s like a page out of Architectural Digest magically morphed to life, but the truth is far more intriguing: We’re in the middle of one of Patrina Tan’s memories that she has, quite remarkably, reconstructed for consumers of today.
This is not some mind-altering hoodoo by the boho liberal arts graduate. A few years ago, Tan went on a caravan holiday in New Zealand. “What was most memorable about it was that in the mornings, we would bring all our barang barang, go to this central kitchen, and cook our breakfast together with other travellers,” she recalls. “Then we would have our meal, meet other people, talk to them about food and make new friends. It was the soul of the trip.”
She decided it would be an interesting concept to re-create in Singapore, and Social Kitchen – a shared culinary space at Downtown Gallery – was born. But more about that later.
5 Questions with Patrina Tan
The communal cooking project isn’t the only novel note in Tan’s success story. There are many other surprises, and we should begin with the most unexpected of them all – that the retail whiz who has steered some of Singapore’s most well-known malls through boom times and bad, and became one of the industry’s youngest GMs at the age of 33, doesn’t actually do much shopping at brick-and-mortar stores.
Now OUE’s senior vice-president of retail, marketing and leasing, she confesses: “Because of my busy schedule, I’m an online shopper. I even bought a car online once – the first time I saw it was when the sales guy delivered it to my office carpark!”
Today, the tanned, elfin 49-year-old with the Melissa Etheridge-like voice is wearing a snow-white pair in a sock-boot style, matched with a tutu-like lace skirt and a fitted white tee with “lalala” insouciantly scrawled across it. Her hair is pulled into a neat chignon, making her look more modern ballerina than business executive as she whirls us through Downtown Gallery, OUE’s latest work-live-play project in Shenton Way.
NEW IDEAS FOR NEW GENERATIONS
It would be easy to assume that someone who doesn’t spend much time shopping in stores might have little to put into the bag when it comes to creating retail experiences. But a look at Downtown Gallery and OUE’s other key retail project, Mandarin Gallery, proves otherwise.
In a landscape dotted with cookie-cutter shopping centres hawking many of the same brands, both projects stand out for their atypical tenant mixes, experiential concepts and cutting-edge use of technology – in essence, malls of the future that are distinctly targeting today’s audience, particularly millennials.
Take new kid on the block, Downtown Gallery. When fully occupied by the fourth quarter of this year, it will boast a Beauty Bar, where consumers will be able to try beauty products and buy them at digital shopping terminals. Meanwhile, a dining concept called Re:Store will allow people to order food via a Downtown Gallery mobile app and pick up their meals from heated food lockers.
Then there’s that Social Kitchen, where our interview is taking place. The light, bright culinary space is where people can meet and cook in a common area, a la Tan’s caravan experience. Of course, the tech-savvy executive has brought the concept up to speed for the 21st century. Social Kitchen is bookable via the Downtown Gallery app, as are any ingredients cooks may need.
Stresses Tan, who peppers her speech with millennial terms like “hashtag emo moment”: “New technology is changing the way we live, work and play. The shopper’s journey is completely different compared to 10 years ago. The most successful retailers are the ones who have managed to be in the right online and offline spaces where their target audiences spend their time.”
OPEN APPROACH, CLOSE RELATIONSHIPS
Unlike many in the industry, she doesn’t view e-stores as the enemy, but rather a model to study and draw lessons from. “The ‘digital versus traditional’ tug-of-war isn’t a war of two evils, it’s (about) a fundamental difference in inherent values. Online shopping is certainly gaining popularity, but it won’t replace physical stores – the role of the brick-and-mortar is to be the confluence of the physical and digital worlds,” she says.
“There are experiences and personal touches that (people) still want – like services and entertainment – which e-commerce sites cannot articulate. Online becomes a real issue only if retailers do not repurpose to remain relevant to the lifestyle of the consumers, mainly the millennials.”
“Online becomes a real issue only if retailers do not repurpose to remain relevant to the lifestyle of the consumers, mainly the millennials.”
If Tan seems to have the millennial mindset all worked out, it’s because she is au fait with that bracket: She has four children, aged between 14 and 27. This is a parent who grew up in an era when, as she says, if you had said you wanted to be an influencer, “you would get whacked”.
Yet here she is, proudly announcing that one of her sons is Instagram-famous, before whipping out her mobile to show us her son’s account and its nearly 20,000 followers. “I learn from my children all the time.”
That open-minded approach is what she takes with her tenants too. Tan, who has been with OUE for nine years, believes that retail is about looking at the landscape “at a macro level”. And she’s working at shifting that traditional landlord-tenant relationship away from being merely transactional, to one that is about shared vision. “It’s about building things together as a seamless communal eco-system; finding out what your neighbour is doing so you can best complement it.”
Never one to shy away from a challenge, she feels that what the local retail scene lacks most is “guts and authenticity”. Which is why she has eschewed the tried-and-tested formula of anchoring her malls with dining outlets and prefers to support new entrepreneurs, like The Autobus, the CBD’s first cycling hub, and Boulder Movement, the district’s first climbing gym.
“F&B is only one piece in the total retail experience. It’s also important to have the right balance in terms of our tenant mix, as we are conscious of the fact that customers are looking for more than just dining options,” she says.
Tan was also instrumental in helping local online boutique Beyond The Vines set up its first two physical stores at Mandarin Gallery and Downtown Gallery, a partnership that has gone beyond space rental. Says Daniel Chew, co-founder of Beyond The Vines: “We had a launch party recently at our newly opened store at Downtown Gallery and OUE was the main sponsor for food and beverage. OUE even gave complimentary shopping vouchers to all our guests. I am in awe of its generosity.”
A FRESH PERSPECTIVE
A retail veteran, Tan started in advertising before kicking off her shopping centre career at Scotts Holdings with a role in advertising and promotions. There, a former boss noticed her aptitude for business, and she was handed the leasing portfolio. She later moved to Orchard 290, operator of Paragon Shopping Centre, for seven years as its deputy general manager, where she helped revamp the mall into the luxury offering it is today.
In 2008, OUE came calling. At the time, she remembers, she had “no intention” of leaving and nearly didn’t agree to the meeting. “I don’t believe in wasting people’s time. But something in my heart told me there was no harm to just meet up.”
Her first interview, a casual chat over lunch at a now-defunct Chinese restaurant in Mandarin Orchard, was with OUE chief executive Thio Gim Hock. That was when she realised that the company and its management had a “very different approach” from what she was used to. “(The interview) was about my perspective in life on different things beyond work. I also had a lot of respect for the fact that the staff practise what they preach.”
The lunch led to another synergistic meeting with the group’s chairman, Stephen Riady, at his Shenton Way office. To say it went well would be an understatement; when Tan returned to her desk after the meeting, she received a call from OUE. The job was hers.
Today, she calls her acceptance of the offer “the best decision I’ve made”. “When something is right, you find peace in your heart and you will be able to say yes very readily,” she says. “I work for people, not for companies – whether that’s right or not, I don’t know.”
Like any good story though, Tan’s has had its trials. “Challenges are always to do with dealing with people,” she says. “Some people can make things very difficult for you. But that’s retail for you. Staying positive is key. We often forget our original purpose, and that’s why we scramble when things go haywire. I also see ‘NO’ as ‘Next Opportunity’, instead of a negative.”
To unwind, the almost intimidatingly lithe Tan goes cycling, a sport that she picked up just nine months ago but is so serious about that she’s already acquired (and souped up) a top-of-the-range Specialized Amira road bike, not to mention quite a collection of outfits. “I think I have a bigger cycling wardrobe than people who’ve been cycling for nine years!” she admits with a gleeful giggle.
Date nights with her husband, an engineer-turned- creative professional, now involve cycling around Singapore’s east side, where they moved a few months ago so that her elderly mother could be nearer her siblings. The joy in biking together, she says, is in “keeping each other on track to improve our performance.”
The downtime is especially welcome to Tan, who confesses to being something of an introvert. “On the outside, everybody thinks I’m a party animal and that I’m gregarious and go out all the time,” she says. “But I’m not who I look like. I don’t like to go out. I don’t strike up conversations well with strangers. I can go to a party and come out not knowing anybody, and I’m happy with that. But if I have to do it, I’ll do it, and I’ll do it with sincerity.”
As she nears 50, Tan’s plans for the future are just as endearingly simple. She’s planning a three-day trip to Bali with nine of her former convent schoolmates, all of whom will be celebrating their 50th birthdays next year. And beyond that?
“I want to continue to do what I do for quite a while more. You know the saying, love what you do and you will not have to work a day? I love what I do and I can say that I have not worked a day in my life.”
HOW TO WORK WITH MILLENNIALS
A nifty rulebook for collaborating with this new breed of workers.
01: Listen first, talk later.
02: A little trust goes a long way.
03: The relationship has to be more than transactional.
TEXT AUDREY PHOON PHOTOGRAPHY TAN WEI TE ART DIRECTION FAZLIE HASHIM
STYLING DOLPHIN YEO PHOTOGRAPHY ASSISTANT ANGELA GUO
STYLING ASSISTANT KARIN TAN
HAIR JENNY LEE, MONSOON HAIR SALON, USING KEVIN MURPHY
MAKEUP KEITH BRYANT LEE, USING DIOR