Dennis Foo seems happy to sit, drink his favourite Johnnie Walker Black Label Scotch whisky and watch the world go by. But life, as they say, always has other plans.
Now 61, he defines his career according to five phases: survival in the ’70s, innovation in the ’80s, building a company with partners in the ’90s, a reboot in the 2000s and, now, consolidation and handover.
He’s come a long way since he was an arts undergraduate who dropped out of university to help pay off debts incurred by his mother’s goldsmith shop. “I prefer to call it a chequered life, not a colourful life,” he insists over whisky in Clarke Quay.
He sold insurance for a while, “earning good money”, he says. For a time, he was also a director of a factory that built filing cabinets. In 1979, the Europa Restaurant in Changi Village was started by his father, who died from cancer just a year after.
Foo turned the restaurant into a lounge and brought in a live band – a move which quickly grew his business and would eventually build his reputation as Singapore’s nightlife king.
Among this chequered legacy were two themed theatre lounges, Atlantis and Peppermint Park, which he opened in the 1980s but went bust in the 1987 recession and reportedly cost him over $4 million.
He turned his focus to Europa and, by 1999, the Europa group included 10 popular nightspots. Things took a turn again in 2001, when he had to sell Europa Holdings after a high-profile Raffles Town Club lawsuit over ownership and various share deals. Foo was a shareholder of the club.
“When I left my previous companies in 2001, I told my wife that we had nothing now. She said, ‘No, you have me and your son.’ That woke me up and made me start all over again, even when I was close to 50 years old. You can always count on your family.”
Foo refused to go down without a fight.
He started Devil’s Bar and later St James in 2006 with local fashion retailer FJ Benjamin and private investment company EK Holdings.
He has been in the news of late for the proposed $1.56-billion reverse takeover by Perennial Real Estate Holdings of St James Holdings, which will be turned into a real-estate developer. St James’ entertainment business, which includes 13 bars and clubs such as Mono and Shanghai Dolly, will be sold to Citybar Holdings and taken private.
If all goes according to plan, the deal should be completed by the time you read this. His son, Gordon, 32, will take over from him once the deal is completed.
He says: “One of my biggest challenges was to take St James from private to public and the irony is that the bigger challenge is to take it private again.
“Now, I am in the process of delisting through a reverse takeover, which really took from start to finish more than two years to complete. To do this, we have had to deal with almost a dozen entourages of finance and legal professionals; the total number of personnel is more than 50, the cost of which is in the millions.
“There are so many ups and downs, twists and turns and it’s really one of my most challenging journeys. A climax at its tail end.”
Summing up his 34 years in the nightlife industry, he says it can all be explained by jian chi, Chinese for perseverance and determination.
“It depicts how I have gone through all the trials and tribulations. In Malay, it’s called tahan. The substance is more important than the form.”
Once the takeover is done, Foo, who is also credited for bringing the casinos to Singapore after mooting the idea to the Singapore Tourism Board in 2001, says he wants to “do public work”.
“I want to speak with exertion, with no baggage, no motive or interest… We do our part for Singapore. All of my life has been dedicated to leisure and I want to build on it.”