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How this billionaire's son bought Singapore's Swee Lee at age 23, and carved a niche in the music business

Kuok Meng Ru, the founder of Caldecott Music Group which owns brands like Swee Lee and BandLab, discusses his entrepreneurial journey in the music business.

Kuok Meng Ru, dressed in a black T-shirt, on how he bought Singapore's Swee Lee at age 23.
Kuok Meng Ru, founder and CEO of Caldecott Music Group, shares how he bought Singapore's Swee Lee at age 23, and carved a niche in the music business. (PHOTO: Caldecott Music Group) (Caldecott Music Group)

SINGAPORE — Being born into one of Asia's richest families certainly put one in an advantageous position. But it could also mean a challenging time if you'd like to carve out a career on your own terms.

That was definitely a consideration for Kuok Meng Ru, founder and chief executive officer of Caldecott Music Group. Kuok, 35, is the son of Kuok Khoon Hong, the co-founder and chief executive officer of palm oil and agribusiness giant Wilmar International. In 2012, when he was 23 years old and a fresh university graduate, Kuok bought over local music retailer Swee Lee.

As a student studying mathematics in the UK, Kuok noticed the shift from traditional to online retailing that was already underway in more established markets at the time. He saw that the trend was not yet apparent in Singapore and believed he could do something about it.

Fundamentally, Kuok is a passionate music fan who writes his own songs and sings the blues with his guitar. It was during his student days in the UK that he was first exposed to bands like Radiohead and Muse and taught himself to play the instrument.

Over a decade later, Kuok has expanded Swee Lee into a regional music instruments retailer. He has since acquired various companies in the music industry and even started his own social music creation platform, BandLab. He has acquired notable companies in the music world, ranging from legacy brands such as Heritage Guitars, Harmony and Teisco to renowned music publication NME. In 2021, Kuok consolidated these companies under the umbrella of Caldecott Music Group in a rebranding exercise.

In an interview with Yahoo Finance Singapore at the Forbes Under 30 Summit Asia, Kuok walked us through his entrepreneurial journey in the music business.

What inspired you to venture into the music business?

The most important advice that I got when I came out of university is that if you're not passionate about it, you won't succeed.

The other important advice is you've got to look at your competitive advantages. You can have passion, but you also have to figure out whether you have a competitive advantage. Passion can be one, but there are a lot of things in business – capital access, education, networks – that can be very valuable.

Did your father try to discourage you?

He was very supportive because I think he understood that there were new business models that could be created. My entry point was music retail, distribution and the consumer perspective... it's not a new business of trading. I had a plan and the support to be able to pursue it.

How did you feel being referred as the 'billionaire's son'?

From my perspective, it was never a concern or worry. My goal was always very clear. I wanted to do something that I'm willing to commit to for the rest of my life and be passionate about.

But, for sure, I had to personally reconcile with the idea that if you take the risk, you can't guarantee you will succeed. Everything has pros and cons, and I think that was something that I had to reconcile with before I went in.

The biggest challenge is the unknown. In business, you could work years building a great restaurant, and then because of something happening that's completely out of your control, it all disappears in the space of a few months. But you still have to work hard and be good.Kuok Meng Ru

At the time (for instance), I had to ask myself if I was willing to put my name out there. It's not just my name, especially in Asia – it's also your family name. From that perspective, it was a very early decision that I had to go, 'This is a competitive advantage'. Capital's a competitive advantage too.

Ultimately, you can have advantages, and you can have access to things, but it's what you do with it that counts.

You could have decided to pursue the artist's path, but instead, you went into the business side of things. Why?

It's a very competitive space. I enjoyed playing music a lot, but there was a point where I got more passionate about what you could do to empower people.

Having a better guitar doesn't make you a better player, but the playability does matter, and it does actually make it easier for you when it's hard already. If anything makes it slightly easier to learn, whether it's technology or the instrument, that's actually a big improvement in reducing the barriers and empowering people.

For me, one of the opportunities of Swee Lee was the pricing model, along with online and e-commerce access and making it a better experience. I felt that if we could break down barriers, then more people would make music and there'd be more incredible musicians around.

I think that focusing on the people who didn't have that access, when I was very lucky to have access to the instruments I was able to get when I was starting out, was something I was more passionate about than being a creative myself.

What were some of the things you did to learn the ropes when you first started out in the music business?

The first thing when I took over Swee Lee was when we were doing the due diligence for the deal. We had a six-storey warehouse; up to 40,000 SKUs (stock-keeping units). That was my first time, never done a due diligence process before. My stock check was me going through every box, counting every SKU and that actually helped me learn.

When I took over the business, the first thing I did was: I was on the (sales) floor and sold guitars with everybody at Bras Basah. It was important to me to spend time with the team... and go through what they're doing every day and learn about the customers. If I really wanted to tell people what to do and change things, I had to understand how the system worked.

What were some of the challenges you faced when you first took over Swee Lee?

I was very lucky to go into a situation where everyone was very supportive. The team, including the previous owner who sold it to me and was supporting the transition, was very clear. The reason why he was willing to sell was because something needed to change. Swee Lee was established in 1946, an incredible brand over 70 years old. To go forward for the next 70 years, something needed to change.

I think that focusing on the people who didn't have that access, when I was very lucky to have access to the instruments I was able to get when I was starting out, was something I was more passionate about than being a creative myself.Kuok Meng Ru

One of biggest challenges in business, and I would say continues to be the challenge today, is when I think about it as a mathematician. Business is just a math problem with many variables, many of which you cannot control. There's no right or wrong answer. If the right answer is only valued by how much money you make, then there are many different ways to make money.

The biggest challenge is the unknown. In business, you could work years building a great restaurant, and then because of something happening that's completely out of your control, it all disappears in the space of a few months. But you still have to work hard and be good.

How did you overcome scepticism or resistance from those who may have doubted your commitment or capabilities?

The biggest scepticism as someone going in from outside the industry – especially an industry that is so established – was, 'Are you here for the long run?' And that came from industry people. The ones I value were the ones who were most honest.

There were some that I had to pitch very hard and say, 'Hey, trust us to take on a new brand.' MONO, for example, which we own today, was one of the very first brands that trusted us. They changed the distribution to Swee Lee. That took a while because they needed to be convinced, like, 'This company may have financing, but are they actually serious about growing a brand and growing what they do and representing the brand well?'

What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?

The best advice that I would give, which I received, is when things are going well, don't be too happy, and when things are going badly, don't be too sad. No matter what's going on, things can change very fast or overnight. Aways be grateful for where you are, and also, when things are going badly, don't see them as problems. See them as challenges you can overcome, and everything will be okay.

I was very lucky to be able to take risks; not everyone can. The advice I always give entrepreneurs or people looking to leave a career is to think about what's important to them. If you are someone who likes to go to bed early, then don't open a bar or nightclub. If you like Christmas, and you like celebrating Christmas and all the things that come with it, like family time, then don't open a retail store because that's your most important and craziest time.

You will never be able to turn off (thinking about the business). You've got to figure out what's right for you. And there are ways you can design your life around what you think is right for you.

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