Success Story: Hospitality and Retail Consultant Carl Kjellqvist

Focus Hospitality Inc in Singapore not only represents a Swede’s successful career in Asia but also that of a hospitality company, which has carved a niche in concept development and project management, and of its clients – the many successfully established restaurants, hotels etc. so far. Among their most recent clients is Marina Bay Sands. And The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf is another Asian triumph that Carl Kjellqvist’s company can take credit for.

Becoming a GM
The career of the Managing Partner, educated at the International Hotel Management Institute in Lucerne, Switzerland, is one that took on a different path than the norm shortly after his arrival to Asia as a graduate. Becoming a general manager would have been the anticipated career. It was the hotel industry that brought him over to China, though, but soon after, he jumped on an offer which meant he would see and work with that sector from the outside – which is where he has been performing ever since.

Working for Shangri-La, Carl came to Asia in 1994, as management trainee in Shanghai. Fellow students had made him curious on Asia so he jumped on a chance to go to China at the age of 21, something he does not regret even though the salary was not attractive at all for someone aspiring to work as a hotel manager.

Then he was offered a job position in Singapore, where he has settled down.

”Becoming a GM is what was on my mind all the time, but when I got this offer in Singapore working for a consulting firm within the hotel and restaurant sectors, I thought of it as something to do for no more than a few years. But today I am at the same work and now running it myself,” says Carl.

Making dreams come true
“All of sudden one is not working 24 hours 6 days a week, but instead office hours, and helping private entrepreneurs and companies in conjuring up interesting concepts and starting businesses and seeing things in a completely different way.”

“This was set up by two hoteliers in order to assist private individuals at a time they called ‘The Golden Years.’ There were many wanting to enter into hotel and restaurant ventures but lacked experience how to set up things.”

During that time there were no consultants to help such clients to enter the industry at all. Since then Focus Hospitality Inc is very much in the business of making dreams come true and hundreds of projects later they have a track record that speak volumes. With their vast experience they are hard to match, having pioneered with their services on the market.

“There aren’t that many players and we have a very impressive client base that we work hard for. Each project also means that we learn something and get more and more experience from start-ups in so many places all over Asia.”

“Most of those coming to us have a dream to run a restaurant, coffee shop brand or boutique hotel etc. Then we try to assist them in coming up with a concept that can stand the test of time with a feasibility study and setting up the business plan.”

“What our clients are buying from us is a better chance of succeeding based on our experience. We simply cannot give guarantees, but we can give them a larger chance to succeed,” adds the Swede.

Figures show that 80% of hospitality businesses set up by inexperienced individuals fail in the first five years, which is also why the hoteliers started Focus Hospitality Inc in order to assist such investors in treading a straight path instead of learning by doing.

Concept guardians
They ensure that the creative decision-making process is synergized with the operational needs, putting together a whole team and guide them all the way up until the opening and beyond.

Carl’s team of four does not claim to be designers but are ‘concept guardians’.

“Our role is making sure that everyone follows the same vision, and do not deviate from the path. Everything’s cohesive and eventually reaches the goal. We have good ideas of what we think works and not, so we source an interior designer that we believe will match.”

Focus Hospitality Inc puts together a brief, including mood presentations, which is used as the parameters for the project by all parties involved: designers, brand consultants, operations etc.

Aside assisting those individual investors with concept development and project management, the many hotel brands are also their clients (among them Hilton, Mandarin Oriental and Shangri-La). Many are in such an intense expansion mode that they do not have the internal capacity to handle all projects on all frontiers. They might also want assistance to get a new perspective: for instance when entering a new market.

Often the geographical area is huge and the hotel brand has only one or a few persons responsible for say the restaurants, which is impossible to decide upon without travelling to all markets and making studies, describes Carl.

“We help them on specific markets where they don’t have enough time in-house or on special hotel concepts with more prestige than other smaller hotels, where they want us analyze the market and present a forecast.”

A coffee success from California
One regional success story is The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf which was brought to Asia from Hollywood. Famous for its Ice Blended drink consumed by many movie stars, this became an immediate success when rolled out in Singapore.

“You could not find it anywhere else and when you have one you’ll want another one. And it suited the market,” says Carl about this magic coffee drink.

The brand had neither franchising concept, nor any standards so Focus Hospitality put together all that.

“We built an entirely new concept around this drink and added food to the menu, which is very important over here.”

“The success was enormous, and we continued to roll out in Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, now having around 1000 outlets.”

Eventually the client bought the whole brand and that was when one of Carl’s business partners moved to the USA to run the operations there and Carl took over Focus Hospitality in 1999.

Singapore is really the perfect test market for new brands, thinks Carl.

“It’s small but well-visited and it’s a Western economy in Asia. You have people from all over Asia living here or visiting frequently and since Singapore is so small it’s easy to generate exposure. Many come here to set up pilots. We have done that with many concepts. Once you get it right on this high-cost market it’s easier to roll it out all over Asia.”

Keys to their own success Carl says are their creative flair and that they travel a lot and are exposed to many continents; where they see a lot of old and new ideas and can pick up things and trends from the market. This also makes them understand local needs and how these relate to the markets they operate in.

“I love it, it’s fantastic; imagine every day developing concepts all over the world: from small to large clients such as casinos.”

Going back to the hotel industry is not really an option for Carl, “unless working within the hotel industry on the development side and doing exactly what I am doing now”.

About Joakim Persson

Freelance business and lifestyle photojournalist

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