Interview with Devin Kimble, General Manager of The American Club

Things at The American Club (TAC) have been changing in a big way. In 2015 a consultant was hired to begin the planning of what would be a huge S$65 million renovation project to transform the building right down to the foundations. Two years into the redevelopment the Club experienced another change, this time from within. In December 2018, General Manager (GM), Martin Rudden, stepped down after six years in the role and 18 years of loyal service to the Club, giving opportunity for a new GM to take the reins.

Enter Devin Kimble. No stranger to hospitality, Devin has seen through many a project, including the founding of Singapore’s Brewerkz and the revamping of Hong Kong Beer Company. Could this be his greatest challenge yet?

What did you do before you joined The American Club?

Immediately before joining The American Club as GM I was the director at Hong Kong Beer Company so I spent the last five years traveling between Singapore and Hong Kong, as my house, my family and the dog were here in Singapore. Hong Kong Beer Company is one of the oldest craft brewers in Asia. It started in 1995 and I purchased it with a partner in 2013. We changed the location, found a new brew master and picked up a bunch of awards along the way. It was fun to take a brewery that had history and revive it. This venture was with Daniel Flores with whom I founded Brewerkz in 1997. Brewerkz was a lot of fun and it's nice to see it's still going.

I understand you’ve been a member of the Club for a long while, what inspired you to apply for the GM role?

By the time the GM role came around I already knew the place pretty well as we joined the Club as members when we came to Singapore. It was a perfect opportunity as we had decided the commute between Singapore and Hong Kong was too much and the Club was going through a complete refurbishment, which was exciting. There’s also a wonderful group of managers who have worked here a long time and are excellent at what they do. So, there was the existing human infrastructure and a new building so it really was an interesting prospect for someone with a background in hospitality.

Even at Brewerkz we were fundamentally a restaurant and, while it was an interesting time, beer is really business to business; you're selling to a distributor who is selling to people, but I really like that contact with people. Being in hospitality is almost like live theater; improvising where you don't know what's going to happen every day and that makes it fun. The challenges are that you're always thinking, you're always looking for ways to improve.

What is it like seeing the Club from the ‘other side’ now?

I think I'm in quite a unique position. I sat on the boards of the American Chamber of Commerce in Singapore and Singapore American School, so I'm pretty well embedded in the American community. I imagine that, given enough time I probably would have got on to the board of The American Club. With the traveling, though, my wife only allowed me to be on one board at a time!

I think being involved with that community and knowing the people, and that they know me, there’s a lot of trust and we care about each other. You see these people at dinner parties and you see their kids growing up, I just happen to work in hospitality and it’s very visible. It doesn't mean it's not difficult sometimes, but the other side of that is that you put yourself in a position where you can fix things and continue to improve. I like having a customer or member who is passionate enough to say, "I think you can do this better". On the other hand, we always get people who say, "You're doing a great job!" and that's always what you're trying to achieve.

It's also great when your friends and acquaintances see you do well because it's so public. You have to be a certain type of character, but I really enjoy that. I really like being able to walk around the Club and shake hands with people I know.

How did you feel about taking over the role during such a transformational period in the history of the Club?

There are a couple of analogies; it's like taking a drink from a firehose, there's a lot to take in all at once and you’re catching up with people who have been on the project for some years and supporting them at the same time. The challenge is to understand the context of how things were before. That was tough, but I feel I've mastered that now.

The other thing is that, because we elected to keep the Club running, it's like trying to change a flat tire on a bus while it's still running. You're operating on one hand and trying to keep people happy, feed them, let them work out, have fun at the pool, but then you're also trying to make sure that the paneling is going up at the Union Bar, we've got enough beer taps, negotiating with Asia Pacific for more beer. It's a real challenge, but it's great. It's engaged and stretched me, but it also presents its rewards through working with people who genuinely want to see the Club improve.

What are you most looking forward to in taking on this role at TAC?

Getting [the Club] to where it's open and where the outlets are working well. Infrastructure is nice, but it can't just look beautiful. It's like 'view' restaurants - you can have a stunning view, but if the food and service is bad, no one wants to go there. There are some rundown restaurants in Singapore with plastic chairs selling Bee Hoon and they're absolutely fantastic. The guy's got his rubber boots on, he's watching his wok, doing one order at a time, but you love the experience. And that's the most important thing to me. It's making sure the service staff are well trained and working well together and that you're giving good value to your customers, which is difficult when you’re having to get past the dirt that's on the floor and the dust that's in the air. It will be nice to get back to running something well.

For myself, though, I want to continually improve. There are a lot of clubs we’re competing with that are modern and with wonderful people working for them. The nature of the expat is changing, too, so we're going to have to be smart, good at what we do and to appeal to a group of people who aren’t the same as the expats here 20 years ago. We're catering for people whose income or family structure may be different, people who are entrepreneurs rather than CEOs, maybe people are older, so the dynamic has changed enormously.

Singapore is a fundamentally different place now, so we’re also competing with Marina Bay Sands, the casinos and restaurants with Michelin stars. That's what excites me, though; it's how we're going to respond to those changes and how we're going to remain flexible enough to be able to adapt in the future.

Are your family excited about your new role?

They like having me around! They like the club and they're still active members. I tease people once in a while when they say, "Devin, I've got to tell you about this..." and I say, "I have breakfast with my wife at 6:30 every morning, I've probably already heard it". It's nice though, I chat with people in the lobby, they tell me what needs to be done. It's nice being part of that family.

Photo courtesy of Keng Photography

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