At the start of 2017, our previous 'Entreprenuer Par Excellence' award winner saw the core of his business turn on its head when La Kaffa International, the parent company of Chatime decided to end its arrangement with Loob Holdings, Bryan Loo's company.
What followed in the weeks after was a messy and public breakup with plenty of accusations, rebuttals and counter-accusations -- a made-for-TV divorce that attracted an audience day after day.
But in less than 50 days, Bryan Loo and his organisation are bouncing back. Powered by the mantra 'Tea is our Life' Loob Holdings is taking a step into the future today with the announcement of its new brand -- Tealive.
We caught up with Bryan Loo to learn more about the last 6 weeks, and his aims with his new brand.
What was your first reaction when you found out La Kaffa was taking the Chatime franchise back?
We were surprised and puzzled. We were not informed ahead of time. They called us saying they were coming over, and we said ‘ok’ because it was the beginning of the new year and they were supposed to introduce their new management team. That was the original agenda.
But when they arrived, they told us that there was a pivot in the agenda: they had discussed amongst the management and agreed to serve us the notice of termination.
We were not prepared, and immediately after hearing this, we thought it was the end of the world. We were really caught by surprise.
From that point, you wanted to fight them legally – why was that your approach?
When we were handed the termination notice, we wanted to know ‘under what clause?’ and ‘on what grounds?’ Under the Malaysian Franchise Act, you need to pre-empt the franchisee for 6 months if you have the intention to terminate.
So we felt it was unilateral and unlawful. Rightfully, you should be given the chance to correct the mistakes and turn it around if you’ve done something wrong.
For now, we’re leaving the litigation and legal work to our legal team; for us the more important thing is to move forward – and to let go of the past.
The most important thing to me is to build a new home for our people.
Tell me about Tealive.
When we were given the notice, like I said – I felt like the world was going to end. So immediately we sought legal advice, but at that juncture, the first thing that popped into my mind was: What is going to be the new name? What is going to be our new home?
We wanted a new name that not only would appeal to Malaysians, but across the other regions and the whole world. So we felt like we had to find a very good name; and it had to be different from Chatime.
We started with over 300 names and over three days, we shortlisted it down to 30 names and then the last one. In the end, we wanted a name that was simple and easy to digest no matter who you are.
While shortlisting, we felt that we exceptionally liked the names that had different pronunciations. People used to pronounce Chatime in so many different ways and it stirred conversation.
So we wanted the same spirit; and that’s how we landed on the name Tealive (live pronounced similar to ‘a live show’). Some people could pronounce it tea-live (as in live at home) but the important thing is the underlying meaning to it – we want to bring a new life to tea.
Did you consider not going back to bubble tea?
Now that our hands aren’t tied, and we’re not going to be restricted, we are going to unleash some of our creativity and innovation.
We want to be a successful beverages company so we will not limit ourselves to bubble tea anymore.
In fact, in the early days (with Chatime), we never claimed to be a bubble tea company – we always said we are ‘a modern tea company’ because only 9% of our drinks came with bubbles, but they all came with a tea base.
So the vision was always to cultivate a modern tea drinking culture, and even under a new brand, it continues.
How is it going to be different from Chatime?
There are a few ways. Our mission is totally different – we want to be the brand that protects the weak and isn’t afraid of the strong; but also the brand that embraces changes.
On the other side, with our hands untied, I believe that over the next quarters there is going to be a lot of innovation in terms of products, which we couldn’t do before.
When we used to collaborate with local brands, we were served warning letters; so moving forward that’s something we don’t have to worry about, so we can be innovative.
I would also like to establish a regional R&D centre to come up with more creative drinks that will excite the market.
Also, we’re looking to carry on with our aggressive expansion and move into other regions. We were already planning to do that with the previous brand, but now we get to do it with Tealive.
Chatime has been a huge part of your public persona and personal brand – your Instagram handle used to be @bryan_chatime – so right now, there are a lot of uncertainties for that brand going forward. How do you plan to address those uncertainties?
I think it goes back to that first day, when we got terminated -- in my mind, I knew we had to show up. We had to be there to cure the uncertainties in the market.
There were a lot of things to do, like find the answers to all the customers’ questions. So when we showed up, we had to show that we not only care about the brand, but also that we care about our people. We wanted to make sure they knew that their jobs were secure; that their future with the company was still secure.
I wanted to tell the world that even once they strip off the brand name, it is the people who built the company; they are the soul and spirit who brought us to where we are.
So, even though the name is changing, the people remain. From the customer’s perspective, if you bought drinks from Chatime yesterday and you buy drinks from Tealive tomorrow, it’s going to be the same people, the same service, the same halal accreditation, with just a new greeting (laughs).
You’ve spoken about your 1000 employees; do you foresee some closures and consolidation?
We have about 165 outlets, and one of the things we’ve done right over the years is we didn’t follow the franchising model. So we have direct control over about 75% of our outlets.
And with the remaining 25% , a large portion of them are our cousins, relatives, in-laws, childhood friends, and university friends – so they are close-knit.
So, at this juncture, about 95% of them are on board with us. For the remaining 5%, we want to leave the ultimate call to them.
We have been liberal for all these years, and we want to stay that way, so we leave the final choice to them. If they are comfortable they will come with us, and if they don’t, then I wish them all the best.
Finally, Chatime is going to be your competitor now, how do you feel about that?
If you look at our history, we were once head on with over 40 different competitors; today there are less than 3, including Chatime.
So even if they come back, there will only be 4 – it will be fine. It’s an open market, so it will be fine.
The only difference is that we love what we do, and the customers will feel it.
I’ve seen it in the last few weeks – I have been overwhelmed with so much of love and positivity, and I am so grateful for that. Our customers feel an attachment to us, they followed our story, and I am thankful.
One of Bryan's new ventures is define:food, that we've ranked as one of KL's most ambitious restaurants.