Venues Of Value: Paul Evans And Freek Teusink Of Solutions Leisure Group
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When you see the co-founders of Solutions Leisure Group together, it's hard to miss the camaraderie and comfort that the duo, Managing Director Paul Evans and Creative Director Freek Teusink, have with each other. There's a certain ease, if you will, between the two, and over the course of my hour-long conversation with the F&B operators, it was interesting to note how they seemed to be completing each other's sentences, or rather, thoughts- one of them would start talking on a particular topic, and the other would add on to it -and even complete it- without missing a beat.
Now, I suppose this shouldn't come as a surprise, given that Evans and Teusink have known each other for more than 20 years now- but I was taken aback on learning that the duo barely knew each other when they started out on their journey as business partners, back in 2000, in Egypt. Evans was on holiday there at the time, and while he was in the country, he found himself in one of the nightlife venues Teusink was operating then- and that was where the two made the fateful decision to become business partners.
"At around four o'clock in the morning, at some point after a good evening, I agreed to lend Freek some money to build a new venue," Evans remembers. "I woke up the next morning, feeling very worse for wear around 11 o'clock... I had no recollection of the incident, but I received an SMS [from Teusink] asking when can he pick that money up... 20 years on, not a single argument, not a single [heated] discussion, and [we've got] 32 venues under our belt." Evans pauses for a moment, before adding: "It was clearly one of the best decisions I've ever made at four o'clock in the morning!"
Call it karma, fate, or simply good fortune, this fortuitous agreement between Evans and Teusink in the dawn led to the establishment of the Solutions Leisure Group, which, since its launch in Egypt, has today moved on to the UAE as its home base, with a portfolio that includes some of the most popular (and yes, most profitable) F&B concepts in the country, and indeed, the wider Middle East region as well. For the uninitiated, Solutions Leisure Group's brands include Dubai hotspots like Q43, Lock, Stock & Barrel, Asia Asia, STK, and others, and no, this list of brands doesn't include the business that the company had in Egypt- before they moved to the UAE in 2011, Evans and Teusink effectively controlled 75% of the bar and restaurant business in the city of Hurghada, their center at the time.
Did they have a goal, then, that their business would be where it is today, which is essentially a hundred-million-dollar F&B business? Both Evans and Teusink reply no. "I think that, back in the day, the aim was to have a good time, if I'm honest," Evans says. "The aim was not to build a global F&B business, not even a regional [one], not even a town F&B business. We saw an opportunity to invest in a couple of projects together, put our toe in the water, and see how that sort of partnership would be. I had a bit of a business acumen, and a background in sales and marketing and financing, and Freek had a very large background in producing good F&B. So, there was no real masterplan, other than to build one great venue. And then build another great venue. Then, slowly over the next sort of 18 months of being together, we started to realize that we had quite a good partnership, where all of the requirements to run a good F&B business were kind of covered. And then a plan started to get formulated: we then realized that there was a good business opportunity here; we could become the leading nightlife providers in Egypt. We had some good brands under our belt, we had great customer loyalty, and we had a good team of people that could execute it properly."
While Evans and Teusnik may have started out without any grand plan for their enterprise, the experience they had in Egypt proved to be critical in their long-term success game plan for the Solutions Leisure Group. "The interesting thing about Egypt is you can most certainly cut your teeth there," Evans says. "We had a transient customer base. They would come in, we'd get probably 12 hours to capture them, advertise the market to them, represent [to] them in the airport, get in front of them, and then, we had seven days where they could visit our venue. If you treat them fantastically, they left us in seven days. If you made lots of mistakes, and didn't treat them as you intended to treat them, they left in seven days. And in came a new set of customers, and you could learn again, and you could go again, and you could grow again. And it gave us a great footing to come into a city like Dubai, where you don't get a second chance. We didn't realize it then, but Egypt was a great place to make the mistakes that you're going to make in this industry, and you can learn quite quickly in a town like that. Because every week, you get the chance to do it again with a new customer base. In Dubai, you don't have that. You can't open with mistakes."
But while Evans and Teusink agree that they were, during their time in Egypt, considering a move to Dubai, it needs to be noted here that their eventual migration to the UAE was essentially due to circumstances beyond their control- the country was in the throes of a political revolution then, and the resulting turmoil was too much for their enterprise to bear. "We had a lot of circumstances already, where Egypt was never a stable business," Teusink remembers. "It was always ups and downs- we had the bombings, we had 9/11, we had a lot of things happening that really affected the business. If we would have stayed, we could have stayed, and we would have done maybe okay. But we thought then that now, it's really time to do it somewhere else, and do it bigger and better."
But given that Evans and Teusink had been working in Egypt for more than a decade, how did they ever get past losing what was essentially their entire business in the country? "I recovered with a shower," Evans replies. "It was done." It may seem like a rather simplistic response to a tortuous time, but Evans and Teusink explain that much before the issues that befell them, Dubai had already been on their agenda for quite a while- and so, the events leading to their move out of Egypt allowed them to have no regrets about their departure.
"If we'd had, still, the size of scale of business that we had in Egypt [without any of the troubles], would I have actually got on an airplane and come to Dubai? We probably would have," Evans says. "So, when it was taken away from us, we actually lost nothing, because it was gone. And then it gave us the [impetus], you know: if we leave now, we've left nothing behind. If we rebuild it again, will we build it again to the scale where we can't leave it behind? So, it was just a mindset change- we always wanted to go there [to Dubai] anyway. We've got nothing to lose anymore. We're not walking away from a 600-person business; we're walking away from a business that is depleting by the hour, costing us money by the minute. And we're not sure if we're actually in a safe environment any longer- so it was time for us to go."
Teusink adds, "Don't forget, during [and] after the revolution, we lost 85% of the business in a week... When your business drops by 85%, it's time to move on." When Evans and Teusink thus arrived in Dubai, they had a good track record of establishing successful F&B concepts in Egypt behind them, but that didn't exactly pan out into an overwhelming welcome for them in Dubai. The entrepreneurs remember having to knock on a lot of doors just to get hotel managers in Dubai to hear their pitch, but their experience did help ease up the process- Evans and Teusink point out by the time they got to the Emirate, they were confident about their skillsets and offering, plus they had already identified a gap in terms of the F&B sector at the time. "Ever since I've been here, everyone's told me the F&B market is oversaturated," Evans says.
"We built a hundred-million-dollar business in a massively oversaturated market, because we've gone after an area that is not oversaturated- we've gone after the middle market. We've gone after proving that the four-starplus [market] is actually the most important sector there is. And [in terms of] brand loyalty and customer loyalty, [we go about] treating our customers like, [for] every single dirham that they spend with us, we say thank you for that dirham. I think that was a huge sector that was missing, and still, it is not, on any level, overly saturated. So, the biggest challenge [we faced when starting up in Dubai] was getting somebody to say, okay guys, come and tell us who you are, and what you can do. We didn't have any money. We had to raise capital; we had an investor that came with us from Egypt, and then, we had to find some investors that believed in our ability to execute in Dubai. And 18 months into banging on every door and anyone that would listen, we finally found that gentleman, and off we went. Q43 was born, Karma Kafé was acquired, Asia Asia was designed and built, and the momentum began. It's very different today- people try to knock on our door these days, so it's been an amazing four and a half years. It really has."
Q43, located on the top floors of the Media One Tower in Dubai Media City, proved to be quite a hit when it launched in 2013, and both Evans and Teusink point toward their eagerness to cater to the middle market as being key to the outlet's success. "I think it offered extreme value for money, in a very, very nice setting, without charging you the earth to be there," Evans says. "What we tried to do was create an environment where everybody felt welcome, and nobody was so busy with what type of shoes you had on, what watch you wore, or what car you valet-ed. And we've always said that, whether you drive a Lamborghini, or whether you get out of bed every morning and work hard for a small amount of money, you're all as important as the rest. The only thing that should decide the difference between the service level you receive is the product that you buy. That's the only way that you should show anybody that you've got any more money than anybody else."
Teusink adds that before they started out in Dubai, the two entrepreneurs made it a point to visit other nightlife venues in the city, and they soon found a common issue in almost all of them. "People were not smiling [while in the venues]," Teusink remembers. "They didn't have fun. And so, we then knew already, yeah, we should be here." In fact, this insistence on keeping their customers happy -and making sure they are having a good time while at their establishment- is what Evans and Teusink account for Q43's success, or indeed, any of their other brands that followed after.
From Asia Asia's welcoming atmosphere as a fusion dining destination, to the boisterous party mood offered by Lock, Stock & Barrel, Evans and Teusink say that people who walk into an establishment run by Solutions Leisure Group are guaranteed to both have a fun time, and be treated with the best service possible. "If you were to ask what our venues have in common, that would be what it has in common: we really look what our guest wants, and we really treat you like a superstar," Teusink says. "We're not building any single venue on a profit and loss (P&L) statement," Evans adds. "We are building every single venue to say what can this bring to the market, what can we bring to our customers, and how can we make them feel."
This strategy essentially explains how Evans and Teusink have gone about building up the Solutions Leisure Group portfolio- and this was something they had decided on when they first arrived in Dubai, much before Q43 was even built. "Our target was to come here, and become the premium F&B provider in the UAE," Evans says. "And my terminology is not [about being] the biggest- I never want to be the biggest; I'm not interested in being that. We're interested in being the guys who make a mark, the guys who did it differently, the guys who got more customers visiting their venues than anybody else. That shows that we've landed right in the sweet spot of the customer demographic we want, and [that] we are the venue of choice. That's the most important thing for us."
In order to do this, the company has gone in for a portfolio that includes both homegrown concepts (Lock, Stock & Barrel), and a select few franchises as well. "Primarily, we develop our own stuff," Evans explains. "We believe that we've got the experience today, and the skillset within the group and within the team to design, develop, and execute homegrown stuff... But there are occasions when certain landlords require a certain concept or probably a certain brand, which would then put us out into the marketplace fishing. And then, there are times when a great brand is available that you believe you should go and get, because it adds to your portfolio, it brings a certain skillset, or concept that you don't have, and helps you to market it."
"It's like a theater," he says, noting that Lock, Stock & Barrel aims to actively discourage visitors from leaving the establishment. It's a strategy that has definitely worked- besides being one of the most popular nightlife venues in Dubai at the moment, Lock, Stock & Barrel has also racked up a slew of industry awards in its relatively short lifespan. Given these two factors, it shouldn't come as a surprise that Evans and Teusink are eager to further grow the brand. "I think we're going to go with probably a Lock, Stock & Barrel down in Business Bay- we're already working on that deal," Evans reveals. "The top priority for [us in] 2018 would be to take Lock, Stock & Barrel international. So, in the middle of this year, we began talking to key partners in London, New York, Miami, and Las Vegas... We now have some bandwidth to get on some airplanes and go and reignite those conversations, and give those guys the attention that they deserve. So, as soon as we get Christmas and New Year's out of the way, January will [see us] on airplanes, and we'll be getting two to three leases signed for Lock, Stock & Barrel- probably two in America, and one in the Far East, will be the plan for 2018."
As should be clear by now, Solutions Leisure Group has had a pretty busy year already, but if Evans and Teusink's future plans are any indication, then the new year won't be looking any different. "2017 has been an astronomical year," Evans admits. "We have doubled the group in a six-month period. That has left a few marks on a few of us- a few sleepless weeks, months, and quarters. I said [to my team] at the beginning of the year, that some of us will not make this year, some of us will fall by the wayside. [But] the team hasn't- they've stood on, and they've done it with an incredible calmness, and I'm super proud of what we've achieved in 2017. I promised them we'd do nothing in 2018... but they also know me! So, they also knew that was a fake promise just to get them to do 2017. 2018, we go again."
Both Evans and Teusink are fiercely passionate about the people they have on board, and say their employees are the ones that are responsible for driving Solutions Leisure Group forward. "I believe today that the team that we have working for us is, by a long way, the number one group of individuals ever put together to work in this spectacular industry," Evans says. "I'm able to go out and be the crazy sales guy that I am, because I've got a team that will back you up. Freek is able to design some of the funkiest stuff and cuttingedge F&B, because we have a team that will fill it. We have a team of operators that will execute it absolutely to the letter."
This is also a good indication of the dynamic Evans and Teusink use to work with each other- and why their partnership has been the success it is today. "We complete each other," Evans says, alluding to their different skillsets and why they work so well together. Teusink nods, and adds, "We respect each other, very, very much. We respect what the other wants and does... And we want the best for each other as well. So, I want Paul to shine, [and] he wants me to shine." But given the story of how Evans and Teusink got to work with each other in the first place, one can't help but want to believe in the idea of fate's role in determining one's success. "We're just very, very lucky," Evans agrees. "We just got it right. We've been there through the tough days. We've been through the mediocre days. We were together in the glory days, and if tough times come again, we'll be standing next to each other just dealing with it. We'll come through it, and we'll bounce back again."
So, what's next for Solutions Leisure Group? Evans and Teusink explain that when it comes to the business, they tend to plan in three-year intervals- and so, that's the timeline that they share with me now. "We set out to become the premium F&B business in Dubai- I believe that we have achieved that," Evans says. "But I [also] believe that we're only really getting started. I believe that, still, the momentum is growing by the hour. I mean, it is so fast paced at the moment; the opportunities that are coming our way, the contacts that are growing, the people are wanting to talk to us today- the opportunities are unlimited... Where I want [us] to be in three years: we want to be the premium F&B business operating out of Dubai, internationally. That's where we want to be next. So, that's the next sector- we want to make sure that Lock, Stock & Barrel gets the worldwide brand recognition that that project deserves, with three to five venues opening in the next 18 to 24 months. We'd love to see Asia Asia go [international as well]. We'd like to solidify our position with a few further key establishments, and possibly, another successful brand development in the UAE."
As for Evans and Teusink themselves, they are still enjoying what they do, and that is essentially what is driving them ahead as entrepreneurs building up Solutions Leisure Group as an enterprise. "This is very important: one of the other factors that is binding all of our outlets together is the fun we have building them," Teusink explains. "We go to work- we work a lot, obviously. But I wake up every morning, and think, yes, I can go again. For sure, Paul feels the same." Evans nods, and explains why: "Because we are doing cool and funky stuff! We've got the best job in the world- we make 120,000 people smile from six o'clock [in the evening] till three o'clock in the morning. How cool is that? We're just (a bit) older versions of Justin Bieber!"