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Interview: Eldwin Chua CEO, Paradise Group

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Paradise Group is a Singapore-based restaurant group incorporated in 2008. Since its first Seafood Paradise outlet in 2002, the group has built a food and beverage empire of eight renowned dining brands in Singapore including Taste Paradise, Paradise Pavilion, Seafood Paradise, Paradise Dynasty, Paradise Inn, Canton Paradise, Kungfu Paradise and One Paradise.

“We are an international diners’ paradise for Oriental cuisine which marries tradition with innovation, always innovating and creating new dishes to delight our customers,” said its founder and CEO, Eldwin Chua.

From his words, Paradise Group is set to deliver more in the next few years as it explores growth opportunities in Singapore, and in countries like Thailand, Malaysia, China, and the region.

In this interview with Biz Daily, Chua shares about the group’s success factors and its direction for the future.

You’re the youngest CEO I’ve ever met. How did you achieve it at such a young age?

To summarise it, it’s more of a Cinderella story. I started in 2002 with S$10,000 on hand that I used to put up my own hawker store. Six years later, I put up my second store, third…after that I became ambitious, I started to strategise, expand and restructure the whole thing.

I believe it’s destiny: hard work, risk taking, combined with luck.

You mentioned risk taking. What would be your single best decision and did it involve major risk taking?

It would be when I bid for a space in ION Orchard to put up Taste Paradise. It was a big turnaround – it created further presence and reputation to the whole group.

I wanted to have that presence in Orchard Road which all Singaporeans go to at least once week. It was critical because it will represent us in the future and it would help us in our branding.

But it was a huge gamble since I invested my whole money to come up with the S$4.0 million investment. We exhausted the whole resources of the company to get a loan from the bank. It was a do-or-die move for me because I didn’t have either plan B or C should the whole thing fail.

Fortunately enough, when ION Orchard was still under construction, the owner preferred new players over established ones as tenants for the mall. And he believed in what we can offer because he used to be one of our loyal diners when we were still in Mosque street.

For that ION Orchard slot, we competed with both local and foreign players, and we won the bid as the only Chinese restaurant in that mall. I would say it was our leap into the big boys’ game.

As it turned out, despite the big risk, it was rather an enterprising decision. Failure was not an option for me at that time.

What has been the greatest challenge you have faced to date?

The greatest challenge has been to convince everybody that Paradise group is competent and that it can deliver on the qualities and values that we have set for ourselves as a major F&B group. Coming from a nobody, it was hard for us to prove to everyone that we can compete with bigger players and that we can create our own name in the highly competitive Chinese food industry.

As you said, F&B is a highly competitive industry here in Singapore. And you serve Chinese cuisine, which makes it more intense. So how do you stay ahead of the game?

We are always on the lookout for competition, and from there, we develop our own competitive edge. For us, it’s all about the overall dining experience. Aside from the high quality of the food that we serve, we also take note of ambience….of those little details such as porcelain wares, the cutleries, etc. We are meticulous in giving attention to details.

We are very mindful of the pricing and value perception. The all around dining experience should always be worthy of the money they pay.

You have eight brands and 18 outlets so far. How unique and distinct is each brand from another? Does each brand carry a particular signature dish?

Each brand that we carry caters to different market – from the mass market to the very high-end. And yes, each of them offers a signature dish. In Paradise Pavilion, the signature dish is the Peking Duck – Beijing style Peking duck. Taste Paradise has shark’s fin soup in the stone pot – and we are the very first to create and serve that.

Each one has a distinct look, feel and taste. And we make sure each brand does not cannibalise the other.

How do you adapt to changing consumer preferences, especially in food, in which people are just spoilt for choices?

Luckily for us, Chinese food is a mother-tongue staple food. For local Chinese, they will definitely go for it no matter how many options they have out there.

Will you stay with Chinese food and not try something else?

Our focus will always be Chinese food because that’s where our strength is. Singapore F&B is competitive and somehow Paradise Group has created a brand and an impact. We did a bit of fusion in some of the dishes that we serve, but our roots will always be traditional and classic Chinese food.

One of the thorniest issues in local F&B industry is labour. Have you experienced this? What would you suggest is the best solution to this?

It’s always a constant challenge for us here in Singapore – and it’s not something money can solve. You offer big salary to local talents but it’s not a guarantee they will stay in their job.

So we came up with policies to attract local talents. For the elderly, in particular, we created short-hours work and easier task for them.

And to retain most of our staff, we’ve been giving out incentives and rewards for them to remain loyal to us.

We are also exploring profit sharing for our staff.

In all of these, the company culture is very important. More than the bigger pay and advancements that they can look forward to, we have inculcated among them a sense of ownership for the whole business.

We have right now over 1,000 staff; 50 per cent locals and 50 per cent foreigners.

I would say you’ve been very aggressive in expanding Paradise Group. Last year, you opened nine new outlets in Singapore; you ventured in Indonesia and Malaysia as well. So tells us more about your expansion plans for this year. And how do you plan to support this?

We are opening in China, Thailand and Japan. We have bigger plans in China, a bit more aggressive I should say that we are actually setting up our own office there.

All these expansions will be funded by internally-generated resources and loans from the bank. At present, we have a S$20-million standby loan from two local banks.

How soon do you expect these new outlets to contribute to your revenues?

At the rate we are going, we have been launching one outlet a month. Once operational, they will already contribute to our revenues.

The target ROI in each of this outlet is maximum two years.

Are you on track on the revenue growth target? I understand you have a target of 50-per cent growth rate year-on-year?

We have a 50 per cent to even 100 per cent year-on-year growth target in 2012. Last year, we posted an 80-per cent year-on-year growth in revenues.

For this year, we expect to earn S$80 million in revenues.

One of your plans is to publicly list in three years time. Tell us more about it.

At the moment we are trying to build a bigger story in time for our IPO in the future.

We have started feasibility studies. Our existing corporate structure has been designed towards the future IPO, like our accounting systems, and others. Three years from now, when we are earning a bigger topline and with wider footprint, that’s when we will seriously decide to go public.

The IPO is actually for our expansion in China.  No concrete plans yet, but we have several options; it could be IPO in Taiwan, Hong Kong or Singapore.

What’s your advice to aspiring entrepreneurs out there?

For those out there, you must do your calculations right.  Make sure you have a certain competitive edge and you deliver as promised.