BUILDING BRANDS WITH PURPOSE
F&B visionary Manoj Murjani has his eyes set on taking Singaporean brands to the global stage.
It is a little-known fact that behind some of the biggest names in fashion today is Indian family business, Murjani Group. Started in the 1930s by the late B K Murjani, the group has steadily transformed from its garment manufacturing roots to become a global luxury brand builder, having launched world-renowned designer brands such as Gloria Vanderbilt and Tommy Hilfiger. It is this empire that Manoj Murjani, grandson of B K Murjani, was born into. With close ties to the fashion world, the Murjanis established a position in elite American society and growing up, Manoj remembers singing sessions at home with the likes of celebrity artists such as Andy Warhol and Peter Max.
A young Manoj (left), pictured together with his father Mohan Murjani (centre) and grandfather B K Murjani (right).
Even from childhood, Manoj was keenly aware that he would have to run an empire one day. “At the age of two, my grandfather walked me to our office building in Hong Kong. He put me in his chair and said, this is where you are going to be,” Manoj recalls.
While he eventually left the family fold, Manoj’s aptitude for entrepreneurship, marketing genius and flair for creativity remained. His career journey has taken him from Hong Kong to England, New York and eventually Singapore. It was here that he first founded The Wellness Group, a luxury and lifestyle group. Group MMM’s portfolio includes critically acclaimed restaurant group Violet Oon Singapore and cutting-edge edible art and dessert bar company, Janice Wong. From the fashion industry to wellness and now, F&B, Manoj has undeniably a storied and diverse career. “Sometimes I feel like I am just a parcel. Wherever I am meant to go and whatever I am meant to do in life, it just happens,” he shares.
Groomed To Lead
Manoj was born in Hong Kong, and at the age of 10, was sent to boarding school in England. “My maternal side of the family wanted me to become a global leader,” he says. “They wanted me to study in the same school as influential leaders such as Prince Charles, Jawaharlal Nehru and Winston Churchill.” At the time, Manoj shares, the decision to send him overseas was one he found difficult to comprehend. “I thought I had done something wrong, because I was sent at a very young age with only three months' notice. I was really thrown into the deep end,” he recalls.
His early years at Cheam School, a private school in Surrey, ended up being his most formative. “I was the youngest and only the second Asian there. I was beaten, bullied, you name it. It was very painful. But it was also here where I learned the importance of resilience. It was hard, going through those experiences. But when I look back, I now understand that even suffering has purpose,” remembers Manoj.
He excelled at Cheam, where he served as prefect and broke several records in tennis. His exceptional performance at school even earned him the title as the boy who ‘used his talents in the most outstanding manner’, an award that had not been given out in 130 years. In line with his family’s wishes, Manoj then followed in the footsteps of Churchill and Nehru and studied at Harrow School, an independent boarding school in London.
Making Fashion History
Even through his schooling days, Manoj was often involved in the family business. His family ties gave him a front seat to the birth of iconic American fashion brands. “In the 1980s, my father and grandfather saw the opportunity to launch jeans to fit a woman’s body. At that point, there was only Levi’s and Wrangler, and women had to taper their jeans to fit their curves. There was a gap that needed to be filled, which is why they launched Gloria Vanderbilt Jeans. They ran just one advertisement on television and the jeans sold out in a week,” he shares.
Tommy Hilfiger, on the other hand, was launched to provide men with smart casual clothing options. “At that time, IBM had announced casual Fridays, but men did not have anything to wear,” Manoj explains. To launch the brand, the team worked with the legendary art director, George Lois to conceptualise a marketing campaign. They took just one billboard in Times Square, which read the text ‘The Four Great American Designers’. The billboard listed only the initials R L for Ralph Lauren, P E for Perry Ellis, C K for Calvin Klein and T H for Tommy Hilfiger. With the latter designer being relatively unknown, most people could only fill in the blanks for the first three. “It was an amazing teaser. When Tommy Hilfiger finally launched, everyone was so curious to find out who he was that it drove the crowds out,” Manoj recalls. “Not only did I see these brands being created, I also lived it. It taught me to really dream big, and to think for purpose. When you create something, it always has to be created for purpose.”
Building A Global Brand
Upon graduation from university, Manoj took on the role of Executive Director at Murjani Group. Based in New York, he then dabbled in the media industry before making the decision to move to Singapore in 2001, a move he describes as “a moment in time”. “That was when 9/11 just happened. I had my first son. I lived in UN Plaza and I saw the first plane going into the Twin Towers,” he remembers.
The early 2000s was also the period of the dotcom crash, and with all the calamities happening around the world, Manoj noticed the need for healing. This led him to found The Wellness Group in Singapore, which invested and promoted spas and wellness products from Asia, and eventually parented the immensely successful TWG tea brand. The global expansion of TWG has put Singapore on the world map – quite a big feat for a country that does not grow its own tea.
“Tea is grown in Asia. Yet Asia did not have its own tea brand,” Manoj points out. “It was standard to manufacture it in Asia but brand it in the West. Singapore had the potential to become a leader in tea, being at the heart of East meets West,” he explains.
Having played a part in launching iconic American fashion brands, Manoj now brings his creative flair to local F&B brands.
Made In Singapore
With a flair for delivering the finest, most luxurious brands today, his focus lies on taking two homegrown brands, Violet Oon Singapore and Janice Wong, global. With Manoj as co-creator, Violet Oon Singapore has since rebranded and expanded from one outlet in Bukit Timah to a flagship outlet at Ion Orchard, a restaurant at the historical National Gallery, and a satay bar and grill in Clarke Quay. The partnership with Violet Oon spurned from Manoj’s desire to build an upscale, luxurious setting for Singaporeans to enjoy their local food. The next step in the Violet Oon story is to open an outlet at Jewel Changi Airport, while also perfecting its merchandise offerings which include homemade jams, cookies and pineapple tarts, before taking the brand overseas.
As for Janice Wong, Manoj quips, “I wanted to make her the Pierre Herme of Asia”, referencing the famous French pastry chef and chocolatier. Janice Wong has since expanded to include a sweets shop in Macau, dessert bar in Japan and a concession stand in world-renowned department store, Harrods.
A visionary in conceptualising, creating and launching luxury brands, Manoj’s headspace is constantly brimming with ideas. At present, he is also working on a bean-to-bar chocolate brand he labels as a “world’s first”. The details of this are still under wraps – after all, Manoj is not one to rush into things without perfecting every aspect. “I am very detail-oriented. It is not a matter of whether I need this done by next week or next year. If I build something, I build it to last,” he reveals.
An F&B Ecosystem
Manoj envisions building a whole F&B ecosystem in Asia, where different players from chefs, food critics, manufacturers, producers, magazine editors and consumers come together to curate the finest food offerings. Group MMM now owns the license to run Great Taste Asia, a spin-off of the celebrated UK food awards. “What happens is that food producers from the region like Australia, China, Japan and Thailand can enter their products for judging by all these different players,” Manoj explains. “Products will be given either one, two or three stars depending on their quality.”
As a melting pot of cuisine, Singapore, he believes, is the perfect country to drive the awards. Building Singaporean brands is an expression of Manoj’s pride for a country he has made his permanent home. Manoj, his wife and three children became citizens in 2018. “Everything I have built with Group MMM is now Singaporean,” he shares. “When I first moved here almost two decades ago, people said I was crazy, that Singapore was just a place to make merry and not to live. But I believe that now is the time for Asia, and Singapore can lead the way.”
When conceptualising ideas, Manoj is a firm believer that every brand has to be created for a purpose.
Creating Magical Moments
Manoj seems to have nailed down the recipe for success in the F&B industry, but out of all his triumphs, his proudest moments are creating magical, unforgettable experiences for his guests. “When they dine at my restaurants, I want my guests to leave with a smile and with a memory. I enjoy it when I can make someone happy, when I can touch people.”
Out of these many magical moments, one particular incident comes to mind. “I was at the Violet Oon Ion outlet and this elderly lady kept looking at me. I was concerned, so I asked the staff to check on her to see if she needed anything. Still, she kept on looking in my direction. I decided to approach the family and the son greeted me. He said, ‘I have so much to thank you for. When TWG Tea opened a decade ago, my mother was in a wheelchair. You had your team carry her wheelchair in, cut the queue and give her a table. You created one of the best days of her life. She had no idea you owned Violet Oon Singapore, and you just did the same thing.’ That was an emotional moment for me, but a very special one.”
Violet Oon Singapore’s outlet in the National Gallery, which Manoj aptly named National Kitchen, serves Singaporean food in a luxurious setting.
This article was first printed in MillionaireAsia Issue 51 - Jan 2019