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SOE Biz Interview: Roger Koh, CEO, Chen Fu Ji International F&B Group, 2009 Spirit of Enterprise Honouree

Roger Koh, a chartered accountant by profession, has held senior positions in multinational corporations until 1995 when he left the corporate world to become an entrepreneur in the F&B industry with his investment stake in Chen Fu Ji F&B group, which is widely known for its Imperial Golden Fried Rice.

Mr Koh said he strongly feels that the Chen Fu Ji Imperial Golden Fried Rice is a Singapore legacy and took upon himself to protect, develop and share this legacy. When he took over the restaurant in 1995, Mr Koh further enhanced the presentation and flavour of the dish through a series of experiments and refinements with the help of highly gifted chefs and management team.

At present, Chen Fu Ji F&B now serves more than just fried rice with its six restaurants in Singapore, offering Chinese to Western cuisines. The group has also expanded overseas with its Noodle House outlet in Hong Kong.

Just like his East meets West cuisines, Mr Koh has acquired a deep and broad exposure in both Eastern and Western management philosophies, especially in the realm of human resource management which he said is the most important ingredient in his food business.

Mr Koh shares the rest of his insights with Biz Daily.

What was the deciding factor in 1995 that made you so sure about taking over Chen Fu Ji?

The push factor was the uncertainty about what was in store for me in the American corporate world with whom I was employed as a regional director. The pull factor was the certainty about the endless opportunities that is open to an entrepreneur and the thought of being able to be myself.

As I understand it, staff empowerment and welfare is a crucial part of the work culture in Chen Fu Ji. Could you share more about this work culture?

In the F&B industry (restaurant segment) employee empowerment is the obvious or sometimes the only choice in one’s management style. Unlike in a factory environment or in a production line, many day-to-day operations of a fine dining Chinese restaurant is about having optimum number of happy customers. Since customers’ demands are wide, varied and sometimes unpredictable, a standard set of operational code of practice executed by ‘robots’ would certainly have a lower chance of a perfect delivery than a team of empowered and motivated individuals.

Welfare-wise, it is the engine that gives meaning to the empowerment. However, welfare should not be understood purely in monetary terms. Welfare comes in many forms, for example, showing care is one of them.

Could you share more about the East and West management philosophies in terms of human resource management? Are there any key differences?

This is such a broad subject. A quick answer will be guanxi versus system, people driven versus system driven.

A Chinese employee is willing to go beyond his scope of duty to get things done for the company if he has a good guanxi with his boss, whereas a Singaporean employee is able to adhere to an established system to get things done.

Being branded as a traditional restaurant, what was the driving factor behind the opening of a Chinese-halal restaurant in 2001 (but was eventually closed in October 2007)?

The opening of a Chinese-halal restaurant was an attempt to introduce authentic Chinese food without the use of lard and alcohol. I saw many Chinese halal restaurants run by Malay chefs and Malay managers and I thought I can make it more authentic by having Chinese-Muslim chefs and Chinese-Muslim managers and servers.

Since the 1980s, many improvements and alterations were made to the recipe of the Imperial Golden Fried Rice. Would you say that the traditional taste of it is no longer around or how do you achieve a balance? (in matching up to the new demand in taste yet not lose the old flavour of it)

Improvements were made in the preparation processes, not in the recipe or raw material used. The last thing our customers want would be a change of taste.

What has been the single best decision you’ve made in your business to this point?

It would have to be the two fried rice competitions we organised in 1997 and 2001. The two events strengthened our brand positioning in the market.

What has been the greatest challenge you have faced to date? And what stops you from throwing in the towel and giving up during those frustrating days of running your business?

The greatest challenge has to be working within the legal framework imposed by Ministry of Manpower in the hiring of foreign workers. I believe the same problem is faced by all other F&B players in the local market.

About giving up, we have a level playing field so there is no reason to throw in the towel when I am frustrated with the Ministry.

Do you believe there is some sort of pattern or formula to becoming a successful entrepreneur?

Patterns and formula can be derived from past cases; however, it is only useful if one applies them with greatest caution as the future is never a status quo.

I believe that some of the attributes for short-term success are as follows: ability to seize opportunities; strong negotiating power and good negotiating techniques; a very cool head and a hot heart; and a technically-competent team.

However, for success in the long term, you need everything you can think of.

Other than your Hong Kong outlet, do you also see potential in other countries?

We actually used to have one in Beijing but we could not find our niche and we were unable to generate sufficient cash flow, so we decided to close it in 2007 after two years in operation.

Meanwhile, our Shanghai outlet was burnt down by a fire spreading over from next door. As the ROI was not promising, we decided not to reinvest.

So currently, we have our Hong Kong outlet which is now into its third year and has been well received by locals and international visitors.

We are now looking at opportunities in India and Australia.

Tell us more about your plans going forward.

There are a few major plans on hand for the next two years. Basically taking our brand into the online arena and also launching a very strong marketing campaign. But I am not able to give more information at this point in time.

Is going public included in your plans?

I do not want life to be so complicated.

What is the one piece of advice you would give to aspiring entrepreneurs?

Just Do It! And you can learn more from failing.