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Suite Talk: Minor Food Singapore’s CEO on building an entrepreneurial mindset

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Act fast, take calculated risks, and believe in your people – these are the three qualities that are key to forming an entrepreneurial mindset. Dellen Soh, Chairman & CEO, Minor Food Singapore, shares the best thing companies can do to encourage this mindset.

Q After stepping down from the chief executive position back in 2013, you returned to the business last year. What drove you to return?

Since stepping down in 2013, the restaurant sector – especially in casual dining – has been faced with tremendous competition and a huge decline in domestic consumption. While we continued to be Singapore’s largest casual dining restaurant chain, even our highest performing brands like ThaiExpress, Poulet, and Xin Wang Hong Kong Café were not immune to these unfavourable economic conditions.

Having played a major part in the founding of many of Minor Food Singapore’s (MFS) brands, I really felt a sense of duty to navigate the company through this difficult time. As a firm believer that food should be uncomplicated, we’ve since kept our offerings simple by bringing in timeless, affordable classics like Thailand’s Go-Ang Chicken Rice as well as collaborated with celebrity chefs to perfect our existing menus and win back the hearts of our customers.

Q To turn the business around, you had to trim headcount and close eight stores. Would you consider this one of the toughest decisions that you have had to make? What did you learn from it?

Surprisingly, the closure of eight stores was not the toughest decision to make. What was most challenging was having to decrease our headcount because of this. From decades of working in F&B and navigating through countless setbacks, I’ve learned that in difficult times what gets you through is the quality of people. This is what enables a brand to prevail. I’m very proud to say that we’ve come a long way, and having the right people policies to attract and retain talent has been a crucial factor in turning around our business.

Q In the F&B industry, talent attraction and retention are major challenges. One way to ensure employees stay for the long run is through empowering them. How is this done at Minor Food Singapore?

Regardless of their job titles – be it in management, kitchen or service roles – we strongly believe in fostering a greater sense of belonging by empowering our people to play a bigger part in making business decisions. They will be assessed by their direct superiors who’ll monitor their progress and assign new or greater responsibilities to those who are capable enough to take on the task. As they rise to these challenges with consistently outstanding performance, we go as far as to give our people full control of the kitchen operation, menu planning and pricing of one or more of our F&B brands. To further sweeten the deal for high performers, we also have a profit share scheme to cultivate an even stronger sense of ownership of the business, and motivation to see the business succeed.

Q Through empowering your staff, apart from retention, have you seen successes in other areas such as behavioural changes, productivity, customer satisfaction, and percentage growth?

Definitely. The purpose of empowering our people is to ensure that they become more engaged and vocal with their views to how MFS’s business is run. After all, our people are our greatest resource. For example, some of our brand operations meetings have extended from the usual two hours to up to four hours, as team members become more vocal and everyone feels a sense of responsibility to provide feedback, ideas and plans. This empowerment comes from a place of genuine interest to help the business do better, which is crucial to helping the management team fully understand the situation on the ground.

And although long meetings may not sound productive, through these we have managed to solve both long-running and teething operational issues, which is crucial to long-term success.

Q Today, there is a lot of focus on having an entrepreneurial mindset. Having co-founded ThaiExpress in 2002, how would you describe such a mindset?

Being an F&B entrepreneur today means having the tenacity to compete in a highly saturated market where consumer preferences are constantly changing. In order to stay ahead of these shifts, there are three qualities that are key to forming an entrepreneurial mindset:

  • The ability to act fast – Being able to make decisions quickly means that you’ll be able to deliver results sooner. Regardless if the outcome is good or bad, the business will also then be able to respond more definitively in terms of next steps.
  • Take calculated risks – There is never a ‘winning formula’ to doing business, which is why entrepreneurs often find themselves in positions in which they’ll have to take risks. If not, the opportunity costs may be even bigger. For instance, when selecting a potential site for one of our restaurants we have to take a calculated risk, even though we may not have full clarity on visitor numbers. If we’re too cautious about jumping on these opportunities, the site can easily end up in the hands of a competitor brand instead.
  • Believing in your people – No entrepreneur is a one-man show, every business must operate as a team. Without trusting that you have the right people and an effective team, your business will not be poised to succeed.

Q Can such an entrepreneurial mindset be inculcated? If so, how can HR inculcate this mindset in employees?

I believe that an entrepreneurial mindset is something that needs to be cultivated in time by learning from your own past successes and failures, as well as those of the people around you. This mindset did not come naturally to me as a young chef until I started to refine my business acumen through trial and error and on-the-job practice much later in my professional career. The best thing a company can do to encourage this entrepreneurial mindset is provide them with good role models they can learn business skills from. Also, give them ample opportunities to come forward with ideas and suggestions, as well as a safe space to take risks and make mistakes.

Q There has been much talk about companies embracing technology and change to drive employee performance. What is your view on this?

While there are merits to what technology can do, I’m a firm believer in keeping our operations simple to improve employee productivity instead. By adopting technology only where necessary – such as self-ordering menus – we ensure our brands stay true to their roots. In an F&B environment where food fads come and go, our focus on classic concepts that have stood the test of time have been a testament to how our customers expect good food and good service, but are less concerned with the theatrics that come with technology.

Q What is your view of human resources as a business function? How closely do you work with your HR head and on what kind of issues?

MFS can only be as strong as the people behind our brands, especially since we operate in a highly manpower intensive industry. With over 13 concepts under our F&B portfolio, having the right talent who genuinely believe in what we do to delight our customers has been crucial to our business success. That is why I work very closely with, Chan Peiling, our HR director on all people policies ranging from recruitment, benefits, career progression, retention and more. Alongside my HR team, I also personally play an active role in talent acquisition with candidates across all business, kitchen and service functions to ensure that they are a good cultural fit.

Q If your HR head had to take over your position tomorrow, do you think she will be successful? Why?

While realistically there may still be some gaps in knowledge for our HR director to assume the role of CEO, I am confident that Peiling would be prepared to step up to the occasion. Given the strategic nature of her job, she works closely with various departments and brands across the organisation. It is with this working relationship that she has been exposed broadly to the inner workings of the business, whether it is from a manpower, operational or revenue point of view.

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