The cacophony and buzzing activity swirling around what is the command centre of Loob Holding is probably endemic to most F&B businesses, especially those which profess to be on the cutting edge of millennials’ taste buds.
There’s a class being conducted in a room to a group of tearistas – a term probably coined by Loob Holding themselves to describe experts who specialise in the art of tea making (think barista but instead of coffee, its tea.)
And then, there’s a flurry of people in the R & D Centre where a mock kitchen is churning out new flavours of bubble tea.
In the executive offices, a meeting is in progress with a twenty-something year old conducting it. More young people walk in and out, all looking determined and purposeful.
And in the epicentre of this whizzing enterprise sits a lanky figure, dressed in all-black. Bryan Loo, the CEO entrepreneur of Loob Holding cuts a trendy figure in this dynamic company.
And apart from his father who is a director, everyone looks like they are in their 20s.
Loo, who is 33 years old himself appears calm and in control of his baby – Tealive, the handcrafted tea brand which has carved a niche for itself in the caffeinated universe once dominated by coffee.
Meeting him you realise he’s 100% business and even though he completely focused on the topic on hand, you get the impression he’s the consummate multi-tasker, with sales projections and overseas expansion in the back of his mind.
“I don’t really have a hobby,” Loo confesses and that’s easy to believe, given his highly driven persona. “My hobby is my work…. I spend my Sundays doing store visits with my family tagging along.”
This dedication of his to his business was ingrained into him by his father, Loo Chuu Lin who was in the air-conditioner business.
“My dad always told me that retail is all about detail and the detail lies in the customer experience.”
To that end, Loo is fastidious to the point of being finicky about what his customers encounter when they step into a Tealive store.
“I pay attention to our customer service. How our customers respond to our drinks and services. Customer feedback is very important to me. I’m happy when people come up to tell me about their experiences they have had in our stores – whether good or bad.”
Being born into a business family is how Loo justifies his entrepreneurial streak and intense interest in business.
“Business is in my DNA. I grew up on the third floor of a shop lot in Perlis and my playground was my mum’s office on the ground floor.”
It’s a long way from Perlis however and right now, we’re on the second floor of a modern office building in PJ which is Loob Holding’s headquarters.
It’s the midst of a busy workday but despite his hectic schedule, Loo, takes the time to tell his story.
He got this first taste of business when he was seven years old, when he would draw a comic book series and rent them out to his classmates. Loo would make at least RM3 to RM4 each recess time which enabled him to buy the fried chicken he so craved. Saving up RM300 from his comic book rentals, he eventually traded up and used the capital to buy and sell erasers, stationery and other collectibles.
“I made my first RM1,000 at the end of standard one,” Loo says proudly.
He eventually left Perlis and came to KL when he was 17 years old and in form five, and later went to Monash University where he graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Biotechnology.
A three-year stint at two biotech companies that specialises in stem cell and medical market research was enough to convince him that starting his own business was the way he wanted his professional life to go. Thinking and researching carefully which area of business he wanted to get involved in was a long and arduous process but by narrowing down his options, everything led to the tea business when Loo noticed a gap in the market for tea drinkers.
“There were plenty of coffeehouse chains but no one specialised in tea.”
After a trip to Taiwan on a fact-finding mission, he opened his first tea outlet under the franchise of Chatime.
“We started in 2010, single-handedly one store at a time,” he recalls. “Our first 150sq ft (13.9 sq m) store was tiny and in a very secluded location in Pavilion Kuala Lumpur. But we added value by looking out of the box and that’s how we differentiated ourselves from the rest.”
And looking out of the box (LOOB), is where the acronym for his company name comes from. Admitting that he didn’t have much money or a strong network in place, the only asset Loo had was the burning desire to start his own business.
“I didn’t set out to get into the bubble tea business. I just wanted to start my own business and decided that the F&B industry was resistant to any vagaries of economic cycles and was sustainable over time.”
So with RM250,000 which he got from his father, Loo took the plunge. “It was fate and luck,” Loo says. “Malaysia was ready for a bubble tea chain and the timing was propitious…right timing only makes sense when you are ready and I believe the harder you work, the luckier you become.”
Loo was on a trajectory of growth and success but in 2017, in a well-publicised spat, Chatime franchisor ended the franchise with Loob Holding.
Not wasting any time, Loo moved quickly and the first cup of Tealive was brewed.
Today, the company employs over 2,000 staff and has over 300 stores and counting. They serve thirst-quenching tea to over five million customers each month. With these substantial numbers, come challenges and the biggest one he faces is managing his employees.
“Leading this manpower and creating a global brand is what keeps me up at night,” he says. With presence in eight countries – Malaysia, UK, Australia, Brunei, Myanmar, Vietnam, China and the Philippines, Loo’s mission is to make Tealive the leading lifestyle tea brand with 1,000 stores by the year 2021 across four continents and 15 countries.
Malaysia is however still the biggest market for Tealive, accounting for 95% of its turnover. And being in the retail business, it isn’t surprising that Loo isn’t averse to indulging in his own version of retail therapy admitting he enjoys fashion and a spot or two of shopping.
“I don’t have a favourite brand as it keeps changing,” he says, adding that his favourites at the moment are Givenchy, Dior Homme and Off-White.
“I tell myself that the best fashion may not be expensive….I’m inspired by people who can dress well without spending a lot of money.”
And what about emerging trends in the fast food and drink business?
“Consumers nowadays are gravitating towards handcrafted made-to-order beverages. Bespoke and customised drinks are gaining popularity because of an improvement in lifestyle,” he deduces. “Whether it is half the ice or less sugar, people today demand better customer experience and a product suited to their liking. They want a barista or tearista to make a drink to their specification right in front of them.”
Loo believes the qualities which make a successful entrepreneur is first and foremost being a visionary.
“You have to know where you want to land, then look back from that destination while taking a step forward.”
But he’ll be the first to tell you these intricate strides are no walk in the park.
“I’m very lucky in the sense that the only reason I can concentrate on my work is because I have a very good and stable family and I married early,” he surmises. “I don’t get distracted from my work because my relationships are never something I have to worry about.”
His primary relationship is with Sally Quah, his wife of 10 years but whom he has known since he was 13 years old. She’s also the financial controller of Loob Holding and mother to his three children, two girls and a baby boy.
“We celebrated our 20th anniversary of knowing each other last year,” he says. Its suddenly become eerily quiet in his office and glancing at his phone, Loo realises it’s 5pm, time for the movies.
“I’m taking my entire staff to the movies tonight and we have booked the whole cinema!” he announces. Rushing out the door, he propounds on something which has obviously been hovering in his consciousness: “Some people say Malaysia can never create a global brand. But for those of us who didn’t come from a wealthy background, by persevering we are seeing our vision each and every day becoming a reality.”