Business Informative & Scope Opinions & People WYN

Focusing On: Keith Tan

by Su Aziz

Keith Tan, CEO and founder of Crown Digital in Singapore talks about leadership traits that are fundamental to thrive in a world heavily disrupted by technological innovations. He is also a speaker at WYN thinkTALK discussing future of leadership on 28 March 2023.

What if we were to say you can avoid conversation before your morning caffeine hit, and get your first coffee of the day in two blinks of an eye, would you believe us? Yes, we got your attention, there.

Meet Ella, Singapore’s first robotic barista created by Crown Digital and it can serve 200 cups of coffee per hour. That’s impressive. The company that created it is a smart IoT startup that comes up with solutions to problems faced by the F&B industry. Keith Tan founded it in 2018. The former wealth manager and coffee enthusiast conceptualised and created Ella to be a modern retail solution utilising AI, machine learning, data analytics and robotic automation.

Ella has served delegates as well as participants at MICE and lifestyle events worldwide. It has been featured in the NRF2020 in America and GITEX 2020 in the Middle East. Towards the end of 2020, Crown Digital secured a major strategic cross-border investment with East Japan Railway Company.

The 42-year-old Singaporean completely repaved his career path from finance and went down the F&B route instead. In 2015, he opened Crown Coffee in Singapore that offered Buscaglione coffee and panini sandwiches. Challenges such as high overheads including rental and shortage of manpower hampered the company’s growth. That was what made him realise automation is the answer. Even though Keith’s innovation is tremendously beneficial, more importantly, he filled a gap in the market.

Leadership Qualities Relevant to Today and Beyond
In my opinion, there are many leadership qualities that are relevant to today and the next decade,’ Keith states. ‘But I believe these three are the most significant.’

Firstly, resilience is crucial as leaders need to be able to withstand setbacks and failures and come back stronger than ever. ‘Back to the early days of my career in the F&B industry, I struggled to scale up Crown Coffee due to a shortage of skilled labour, high rental costs and a challenge in maintaining consistent quality. This led me to think out of the box, seeking ways to infuse science and technology into the art of coffee making. Hence, Ella, the robotic barista was born, an unmanned retail solutions that tackle manpower challenges and optimise F&B operations,’ Keith explains.

Secondly, Keith continues, ‘Visionary thinking is important, as leaders need to be able to anticipate future trends and opportunities and develop strategies to capitalise on them. Recognising the demand for morning coffee runs during the rush hour for corporate workers – my vision for Ella was to create the next generation coffee retail model that would make consistent, quality artisanal coffee experiences accessible and affordable to customers all day, every day.’

Lastly, Keith reminds how technology continues to play an increasingly important role in business and society. ‘Leaders must have a strong understanding of emerging technologies and the potential impact on their organisations. At Crown Digital, we value the intelligent use of technology, which is why we are always searching for ways to enhance Ella.’

Tech’s Influence in Today’s Leadership Abilities
‘Technology is transforming the way we live and work, and it is having a significant impact on leadership abilities and shaping future leaders,’ says Keith and lists ways technology influences leadership today and in the future:

First, technology has made communication more efficient and accessible than ever before, allowing leaders to connect with their teams and stakeholders seamlessly through tools like video conferencing, messaging apps and social media. This is especially relevant for companies like Crown Digital, where employees can work in a hybrid mode, creating an ideal work environment for them.

Second, technology enables us to collect and analyse vast amounts of data. Leaders must be able to use data analytics tools to make informed decisions and develop strategies based on data insights. ‘As an example, we incorporated real-time monitoring on Ella, which enabled it to conduct predictive analysis and assist with supply requirements. As a result, it can anticipate when restocking is necessary at the kiosk and promptly alert the team to guarantee that inventory levels are always adequate for fulfilling orders,’ Keith says.

Lastly, technology is driving rapid innovation across all industries. Leaders must be able to identify emerging technologies as well as opportunities and encourage a culture of innovation within their organisations. Moreover, as AI and machine learning continue to advance, leaders must be able to understand the potential impact of these technologies on their organisations and develop strategies to leverage them effectively.

‘For instance, in my role as a leader of Crown Digital, I lead my team of tech engineers and coffee geeks to keep developing and improving Ella, our robot barista that amalgamates robotics, AI, IoT and data analytics, engaging consumers through creating immersive and innovative digital touchpoints,’ adds Keith. ‘Basically, technology is playing an increasingly important role in leadership. Future leaders will need to be comfortable with emerging technologies and be able to leverage them effectively to achieve their goals.’

Leadership Style of Keith Tan
‘I lead by challenging and empowering my team. It is my responsibility as a leader to keep the organisation moving forward and encourage the team to strive for greater heights to continue scaling the business,’ explains Keith. He empowers his team to achieve their goals by providing them with the tools and resources necessary to succeed. ‘By leading my team to accomplish seemingly impossible milestones, they become motivated and gain confidence in their ability to execute tasks effectively.’

Keith’s advice to future business leaders would be, ‘First of all, to successfully promote your product or service, it’s essential to ensure that it addresses a common need in the market. Take every chance to showcase your offering across various platforms. Be it through pitching or demonstrating your product or service, make the most of each opportunity to spread the word.’

Also, Keith adds, ‘Never underestimate the power of networking and storytelling. Continuously share your vision and the problems your product or service solves to inspire your stakeholders. Help them visualise the positive impact your product or service can have and keep the conversation going. By doing so, you’ll build strong relationships and increase your chances of success.’

Remember, with change being the only constant and disruptions occurring everywhere, Keith reminds that, ‘It’s crucial for business leaders to stay up-to-date and anticipate these changes in order to avoid being disrupted. We must stay alert and challenge ourselves to remain adaptable. By keeping our organisations and teams nimble, we can quickly navigate changes and pivot when necessary.’

Read the summary of the thinkTALK session on future of leadership which happened on 28 March 2023.

Read about leadership from the other two speakers of the thinkTALK session: Ganesh Kumar Bangah of Commerce.Asia and Pat Dwyer of The Purpose Business.


16 Mar 2023
Last modified: 4 Apr 2023
share this article