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Leading in Asia : Chasing Big Dreams While Putting People First
posted by admin on 25/08/06

First satisfy employees’ own basic needs, after that you can expect them to satisfy the customers.

Douglas Foo, the 37-year-old founder and chief executive of Singapore-based food and beverage company Apex-Pal International Ltd., always dreamed big. From the day he opened his first Sakae Sushi outlet in Singapore, a conveyor-belt sushi chain, he wanted it to be as big as McDonald's one day. Nine years on, the company, traded since 2003 on the Stock Exchange of Singapore's Sesdaq market for smaller companies, has five other brands to its name -- Hibiki, an up-market Japanese restaurant; Crepes & Cream, a restaurant specializing in crepes; catering company Nouvelle Events; Japanese noodle restaurant Uma Uma Men; and Dining @ Sakae, an upscale version of Sakae Sushi.

Today the company's flagship Sakae Sushi brand has 31 restaurants in Singapore and a total of 12 more in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and China. Sakae Sushi's innovative approach to food preparation does away with the need for sushi chefs; the dishes are made by machine at central kitchens and delivered to the restaurants.

For 2005, the most recently reported period, Apex-Pal reported that net profit surged 77% to S$3.7 million (US$2.35 million) from the previous year on a 15% gain in revenue to S$51.9 million.

Over lunch at Hibiki restaurant in Singapore, Mr. Foo talked to Glenys Sim about being a boss.

WSJ: You started the business in September 1997, in the middle of the Asian financial crisis. Was there a time you wanted to give up?

Mr. Foo: It was scary, it was really scary. It was like dark clouds everywhere, and here we are trying to celebrate the opening of our shop. We were so tight in resources that we didn't even have money to take photographs of food to make the menu. There were some considerations whether we should postpone the opening, but when is a good time? In business you never know how to time the market. It's a calculated risk that we have taken, and whatever challenges that come we have to try to manage.

WSJ: How important is technology in your work?

Mr. Foo: Very important. In the food business, when you change the chef, the taste changes, the business changes. So this important connection between the business and the chef becomes a threat. So we use technology to help us. We started off asking how we can be consistent. Being in the sushi business, we first looked at the rice. You wash rice, you add water to it, but different people will measure things differently and we can't afford that. So we invested in machines, like washing machines, which will wash the rice and put in the exact amount of water every time.

WSJ: So machines are the most important part of your business?

Mr. Foo: People are the most important. Instead of telling people in the company, "Hey, please look after the customer," we need to see how we can help to satisfy their own basic needs because when they feel happy, they will look after the customer, who in turn will come back to the company. So it becomes a natural cycle.

WSJ: How do you ensure your people are happy?

Mr. Foo: The first thing we want a person to have when they join the company is to have a career. The food and beverage industry has always been very transient, very transactional. I pay you this amount so you better come and work this number of hours and that's it. There was no proper career path. People are there because they can't find better things to do. But Apex-Pal is about developing relations. So if you join the service crew and say I want to be a manager in two years time, sure, why not? But the person may not be trained in management. So we identify the holes, the career objectives, the strength of the person and those gaps they have, and we put them into in-house courses. If there are certain things we cannot train, we work with external training providers. What we're looking for is growing together to realize our dreams, to bring the Sakae brand to every part of the world.

WSJ: What is the most important piece of technology you personally use

Mr. Foo: I'm a very gadget guy. I love gadgets. The most important, I have to say, is my car. I've got a phone that's built into the car. I can check messages, go to places, get directions using GPS, communicate -- without being caught by the traffic police . I can have conference calls -- I can talk on the phone to six people at one go. And if the car seats five, plus the six other people, I can talk to 10 people.

WSJ: What was your first job and what did you learn from it?

Mr. Foo: After I left college [Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia, with a bachelor's degree in business administration], I was working at a power plant, climbing the turbines to take readings and going back to the control room to compare with the engineers. If I took the readings wrongly, it will burn down the turbines and the power plant won't be able to supply power to Singapore. I learned that when you look at that in the bigger sense, you'll be able to understand and appreciate that no matter what role you play, it's very important because you are part of a team.

WSJ: What is the one thing every employee should know?

Mr. Foo: If it's something you do not want to eat yourself, don't serve it. That's a basic respect for others.

WSJ: I hear you've never taken a business loan. Would you be further ahead in your goal to become a global brand if you did?

Mr. Foo: We've got about 50 to 60 outlets around the region today and we have grown all this without borrowing. Yes, if we had leveraged, we would have grown much bigger. But there are always two sides to a coin. There's always a 50-50 chance of going up or going down. People don't work for fun. People work because it's their livelihood. There are about 900 people in the company today. These 900 people work because they need to send their kids to school. They need to put food on the table for their family. If we were to take huge risks and it doesn't work out, it's going to affect them. And it will affect 900 people at least multiplied by three. The question is do you want to do that. I get sleepless nights if I have a loan. I'll dream of the bank chasing after me every night.

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