Turnaround for Bugis Cube

angela.teo@bizedge.com

On a recent Friday at Bugis Cube, F&B outlets such as Jadeite Vegetarian Restaurant and Bistro, My Favourite Café Yong Tau Foo, The Ark Music Café and Xin Hao Ramen were bustling at lunchtime. In the evenings, HaveFun Family KTV Lounge on the sixth floor, and pubs such as Tipsy, De Luxy and the newly opened One Infinity on the fifth floor, come alive.

Also within the six-storey mall are a bakery, sports therapy practice and two dance studios, Live 24 and Studio Wu. Incidentally, Studio Wu has turned one of its studios into a co-working space during the day. About 50% of the tenants at the mall are “wellness centres” such as beauty, hair and nail salons as well as massage centres and spas.

Bugis Cube’s occupancy rate is over 90% today, says Victor Ng, vice-chairman and secretary of the Management Corporation Strata Title (MCST) committee. It is a far cry from four years ago when Ng and his fellow strata unit owners first took possession of their units. “The escalators were not working, and the lifts were still the original old ones,” recounts Ng, a private investor and founder of private equity firm SAASH Capital, who owns several units at Bugis Cube.

Like Ng, many of the strata unit owners could not find tenants in the first year. Many of the owners on the upper floors initially had asking rents of around $20 psf, but had to drop them to $5 to $7 psf per month in order to attract tenants. Even then, many of the units remained vacant for at least a year. The occupancy rate in the first two years was hovering at around 10%, says Ng.

Today, the rental rates on the lower floors are around $15 to $20 psf per month, while those on the upper floors are in the $10 to $15 psf range. “While rents have improved from four years ago, they are still very affordable,” says Ng.

 

 

Pedestrians walking past the restaurants on the ground floor of Bugis Cube.

Restaurants on the first level of Bugis Cube. F&B currently makes up only 15% of the tenant mix. (Credit: Samuel Isaac Chua/The Edge Singapore)

 

Taking action

It has taken four years of hard work by the management committee to turn the mall around. Leading the charge have been Ng and chairman of the management committee, Henry “Happy” Mok.

“Despite Bugis Cube being a strata-titled mall, the owners are very united,” says Ng. “We decided that filling the mall and increasing foot traffic was more important than rents in the initial years. This strategy worked for us and we are now one of the better, if not the best, performing strata-titled malls.”

In 2013 and 2014, Ng and the committee members organised pop-up shoe fairs on weekends. He also invited his friends who were yoga enthusiasts to conduct free yoga classes on weekends. Ng himself became a deejay and played music all day in order to draw people to the mall. But they knew an anchor tenant was needed to draw people in, says Ng.

When the investors first bought units at Bugis Cube, they were given the impression that the mall would be anchored by an education centre on the sixth floor. In the neighbourhood are schools such as Boston Business School, City College Singapore, SAT Preparatory School and University of Nevada, Las Vegas Singapore, which cater to international students. Also in the vicinity are Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, LaSalle College of the Arts, School of the Arts and Lee Kong Chian School of Business — Singapore Management University.

For much of 2013 and 2014, however, the sixth floor remained vacant. The owner of the entire unit on the sixth floor was Griffin Real Estate, which had purchased the North Bridge Commercial Complex for $46 million in 2009. It had then refurbished the building, renamed it Bugis Cube and subsequently, sub-divided the units for sale to about 90 individual investors including Ng.

Griffin Real Estate was in turn managed by Gryphon Capital Management, whose shareholder is ERC Holdings. The founder and chief executive of ERC Holdings is Andy Ong, who was being sued along with two associates by Sakae Holdings. In April this year, Sakae won a major legal victory against the three when a judge found Ong to be “in breach of his fiduciary duties to Sakae”, and Griffin Real Estate was ordered to be liquidated.

 

Medium shot of Victor Ng, vice-chairman and secretary of the Management Corporation Strata Title (MCST) committee

Ng: Despite Bugis Cube being a strata-titled mall, the owners are very united (Credit: Samuel Isaac Chua/The Edge Singapore)

 

Anchor tenant, increasing footfalls

The sixth level of Bugis Cube has been put into receivership. However, in early 2015, Flint Lu, a 37-year-old mainland Chinese businessman and Singapore citizen, signed a three-year lease after viewing the unit. He spent four to five months fitting out the space of about 20,000 sq ft and installing the latest light and sound systems, at a total cost of $2 million.

His HaveFun Family KTV is the anchor tenant at Bugis Cube. According to Lu, he recovered his investment within 1½ years. Even though he runs “a full house”, with three rounds per room, on weekends, he feels the weekday usage can be improved. This is because on weekdays, the crowd comes in only after 10pm, he says.

The owner of Twinstar Logistics company in Singapore, Lu brought the Voice of China show to Singapore in 2015. Incidentally, he was also a contestant. Lu likes the location of Bugis Cube as the Bugis neighbourhood is popular with international students and new Chinese citizens to Singapore. “About 40% to 45% of our business is from new Chinese citizens and foreign students,” he says. Lu is now looking at renewing his lease and is hoping to get “a better rental rate”, he adds.

The management committee is hoping that HaveFun Family KTV will renew its lease and remain the anchor tenant.

 

Medium shot of Flint Lu, owner of HaveFun Family KTV, the anchor tenant at Bugis Cube

Lu: About 40% to 45% of our business is from new Chinese citizens and foreign students (Credit: Samuel Isaac Chua/The Edge Singapore)

 

Interior shot of one of the two VVIP rooms at HaveFun Family KTV

The bigger of two VVIP rooms at HaveFun Family KTV, the anchor tenant at Bugis Cube (Credit: Samuel Isaac Chua/The Edge Singapore)

 

Collective sale as an exit strategy

Ng feels that more F&B tenants are needed to increase footfall to Bugis Cube. “F&B currently makes up about 15% of the tenant mix, and I think we should have more,” he says.

Having spruced up the main entrance and installed new lifts, the management committee is now in talks with Keppel DHCS (part of Keppel Infrastructure) to replace the entire air-conditioning system in the building. Bugis Cube has a gross floor area of 66,608 sq ft, with another 11,614 sq ft designated as the car park. At the prevailing rental rates, Ng reckons the property has a gross rental yield of about 3% to 5%.

At an extraordinary general meeting on April 26, owners representing 70% of the total share value agreed to a collective sale. Ng was designated as chairman of the collective sale committee. Cushman & Wakefield was appointed to help the committee in the collective sale process. At this stage, no reserve price has been set yet.

The most recent transaction of a strata unit at Bugis Cube was for a 355 sq ft unit on the fourth floor that changed hands for $1 million ($2,815 psf), according to a caveat in October. The previous owner had paid $1.34 million ($3,759 psf) for the unit in July 2012 when units were first launched for sale.

Prior to that, the last transaction was two years ago, when a 301 sq ft unit on the second level was sold for $1.03 million ($3,417 psf), according to a caveat lodged in August 2015. The unit last changed hands for $1.39 million ($4,598 psf) in September 2012.

“These transactions were not distressed sales,” Ng emphasises. “The owners were reallocating their portfolios.” Bugis Cube’s location in the heart of the Bugis precinct is still a main selling point as it is within walking distance of two MRT interchange stations, namely Bugis and City Hall with access to three MRT lines, namely East-West, Downtown and North-South. “Well-located, 999-year leasehold commercial assets are hard to come by,” Ng adds.

While he hopes to ride the collective sale wave, “The majority of collective sales this year are residential,” Ng notes. If Bugis Cube is put on the market, he reckons it could attract property players in the hospitality, entertainment and lifestyle services business. “The property is ideal as a niche hotel with new food and entertainment concepts.”

 

Dinner crowd at one of Bugis Cube's F&B outlets

The F&B outlets on the first level of Bugis Cube enjoy a good dinner crowd (Credit: Samuel Isaac Chua/The Edge Singapore)

 

Bustling crowds at The Ark Music Cafe and My Favourite Café Yong Tau Fu in Bugis Cube

The Ark Music Cafe and My Favourite Café Yong Tau Fu on the second level of Bugis Cube (Credit: Samuel Isaac Chua/The Edge Singapore)

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