Rolling Stone deal made over rich son's love of guitars

By Yoolim Lee

Kuok Meng Ru, co-founder of Bandlab, at a Swee Lee Holdings Pte music store in Singapore in July 2016. Photo / Bloomberg
Kuok Meng Ru, co-founder of Bandlab, at a Swee Lee Holdings Pte music store in Singapore in July 2016. Photo / Bloomberg

The sale of a big chunk of Rolling Stone magazine began with a casual meeting between a scion of one of Asia's richest families and the son of magazine impresario Jann Wenner, during a sweltering New York summer.

A mutual friend had suggested Kuok Meng Ru, blues aficionado and son of palm oil tycoon Kuok Khoon Hong, meet Gus Wenner, the 26-year-old heir apparent to a business built around his father's iconic pop magazine. They hit it off. Close in age, they discovered a shared love of the guitar and Bob Dylan. Each had played in bands as teenagers. And both were trying to launch digital businesses of their own, independent of their well-known fathers.

Inevitably, they began to talk shop. The 28-year-old founder of BandLab Technologies was several years into acquiring the pieces of a business he envisioned would someday provide all things music, from a social network for aspiring artists to the amps and instruments used on stage. His American counterpart was trying to craft a digital strategy for Wenner Media LLC, the company behind Us Weekly and Men's Journal now fighting to stay relevant and keep advertisers in an online age.

It took 15 months of trans-Pacific flights and phone calls before Kuok clinched his prize: a 49 percent stake in the celebrated magazine, becoming the first outside investor in Rolling Stone's 49-year history. Kuok will head Rolling Stone International, a company to be established in Singapore that the partners hope can use the brand to delve into concerts, merchandising and hospitality. The Wenners think Kuok can help them plumb from Asia the growth that's eluding them back home.

"It became much bigger than what we began with,'' Kuok told Bloomberg News. "It was really more of a meeting of minds and visions and long-term partnership that made it possible.''

The tie-up is likely to propel Rolling Stone's brand in Asia, home to half of the world's population - but where its name doesn't quite go as far. It'll be hoping to avoid the mis-steps of the past, such as a short-lived Hard Rock Cafe-style restaurant on Los Angeles' Hollywood Boulevard.

"When Meng expressed interest in partnership, we began to really spend time together and talk about our visions and our interests, and just kind of hit it off,'' Gus Wenner said in a phone interview. "It became clear that this was really the partner we could do all those things with."

Much depends on whether Kuok can help the magazine resonate with an audience weaned on Korean, Chinese and other local music scenes. The magazine marks by far the highest-profile score for Kuok, who's been acquiring businesses at a steady clip. The flagship BandLab is the online community that allows artists to create and share music. In 2012, Kuok acquired Swee Lee, a sleepy 70-year-old distributor of guitars in Singapore that now sells merchandise online and offers music lessons, and has become Southeast Asia's biggest distributor of instruments and audio equipment.

Other recent acquisitions include Composr, a European iOS and web music-making service, and MONO Creators Inc., the San Francisco-based design studio that creates high-end instrument cases, straps and accessories.

"We are focused on the consumer and the supply chain of music and innovative business models around music that exist today,'' Kuok said. "We can't comment on how exactly the business will integrate, but we can say we see a lot of synergies. At the end of the day, the end consumer is the same. BandLab's goal is to be a global music business.''

Wenner's new partner credits his billionaire father for igniting a life-long passion with music, even though they didn't spend that much time together when he was growing up. The third child of an agribusiness tycoon went off to a British boarding school at 10, graduating later from Cambridge University with a mathematics degree. His father was busy building Wilmar International Ltd. into the world's largest palm-oil business, starting from scratch in 1991.

But it was the elder Kuok who introduced his son to Eric Clapton. That led to an obsession with B.B. King and a love affair with the blues guitar.

Kuok remains part of a bigger dynasty that goes beyond palm oil. His father is nephew to Robert Kuok, one of the world's richest men according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. Worth $13.5 billion, the family patriarch controls businesses from sugar and fertilizers to hotels and logistics companies.

Family money and a clutch of investors including JamHub Corp. helped get BandLab off the ground. But the younger Kuok now has to prove his mettle - and Rolling Stone is just the start. His mother constantly reminded him: "Much has been given, much will be expected."

Wenner says he has faith his new partner can set the magazine business on a new path. The tie-up will also test Wenner's own leadership ability, though he wouldn't comment on a recent report that he'll take the business's helm from his father, 70, next year.

"There is a whole layer of excitement for me in that to have a partner in Meng - we are kind of the same age - and to have a kindred spirit, who's driven, and the focus and has a shared vision, it's more than exciting," he said. "It means a lot."

- Bloomberg

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