Douglas Foo, founder and executive chairman of Sakae Holdings; and co-chairperson of TAFEP, uncovers the HR learning in growing from a start-up to an established brand, in conversation with Jerene Ang

From a start-up to Singapore’s leading kaiten (conveyer belt) sushi chain, how has your journey with Sakae been?

Besides working towards building 30,000 stores in five continents, we want to be a brand synonymous with Sushi, and offer healthy, fresh and quality Japanese food at value-for-money prices.

What sets us apart from the competition is our innovative culture, which propels us to the next level. We have always been the first in the market to deliver new dining experiences for our customers, and this continuous pursuit of excellence allows our team to reinvent, innovate and be creative.

[Read the shorter version of the interview here.]

How would you define your leadership style?

I believe that leaders need to continually upgrade themselves, and pursue innovations, so as to improve our business model, strategies and even the community that we live in.

The mottos of my alma maters have also become anchors in the formation of my character, and aided my decision-making as I made my foray into the F&B industry.

For example, the motto in my primary school is Gong Kuan Xin Min (恭宽信敏). Gong means you respect, Kuan means magnanimous, Xin means loyalty, Min means diligent.

In Dunman High, Cheng Xin Yong Zhong (诚信勇忠). Chen means, again, loyalty. Xin means the belief, Yong means courage and reflects your attitude towards issues. Zhong means loyalty and affects how you are part of the value system within organizations.

These mottos are values that I hold close to my heart as we continue to build Sakae to be a brand that is synonymous with healthy dining, food safety, quality, sustainable growth, and an organisation that gives back to society.

How do you engage and motivate staff when they are struggling with work?

I enjoy interacting with members of our Sakae team, and through regular interaction, bonds are fostered.

So when anyone in our team finds that things are challenging, I spend time to understand why, and I then try to help them. I also appeal to them to take challenges with a positive attitude, because life is a continuous learning journey.

Life is exciting because every day there are new challenges, new things that I want to do. There are so many things that I can’t wait to be part of. When a person lives a very meaningful life, I think they will be very happy.

What has been your most memorable moment with the organisation?

Thinking big and global, and taking steps towards making a common dream come true, Sakae hopes to bring joy across the globe – one frog print at a time.

This dream won’t happen overnight, and I think there have been many special moments and instances. If I lived to be 100 years old, I would have lived for 36,500 days, and I am sure I will continue to have many more special moments.

One such moment was when I had the honour to represent Singapore at an international event. Although we are a small country with a population of only five million people, I realise that how this country has been led and what Singapore stands for has earned us a certain stature.

Sitting at the round table, when I spoke, I was given respect and due recognition, and when I put across my points, people tend to sit up and take notice.

This is all due to our good education system, easy accessibility to knowledge and abundance of opportunities that has given me the skills to contribute.

Truly, I am grateful that Singapore has enabled us to become who we are.

In the last 18 years with Sakae, I have had many memorable moments, met many memorable people, and learnt many invaluable lessons from everyone that I have met in my journey.

What is the biggest people challenges you faced while scaling up operations?

As Sakae continues to grow, it is important that we continue to be innovative. Innovation isn’t just about technology. We need to build 30, 000 units all around the world. If we need 10 people in each shop, we will need to recruit a total of about 300, 000 employees. Where are we going to get these employees?

Investing in human capital is among Sakae’s core strategies as it offers skills training, staff benefits and career opportunities.

Sakae currently has more than 2,000 employees across age groups under its payroll, and also works closely with a number of schools to tap future talent. Training programmes and scholarships are offered to students who aspire to join the Sakae family.

Being in the food business is not just about providing quality food, it’s about understanding people’s needs. We want Sakae to be a company with a soul, and a heart.

Any people-related advice for start-ups to achieve success like yours?

They need to be prudent and realistic. All successful businesses started with a simple dream or idea that was well executed, and realistically grown.

Start-ups have to understand that as Singapore’s talent pool becomes more diverse, fair and progressive employment practices, such as robust appraisal systems and age management, are no longer merely good-to-have, they are essential for any organisation’s long term competitiveness.

Only by hiring and rewarding employees based on their abilities and skills will they respect your leadership and give their best at work.

I also always remind aspiring entrepreneurs that failure is part of success. Abraham Lincoln said: “Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any one thing.” It is with this resolution that Sakae has gotten to where it is today, and continues to expand and evolve.

As the co-chairperson of the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP), what is your view of HR?

HR is an incredibly important business function beyond just recruitment and processing payroll. HR is the crucial link between management and the company’s workforce, and they are often the champions of continual professional development.

Besides, the HR function serves as a valuable feedback channel for management through which they can glean insights into staff morale and react accordingly.

Fair and progressive HR policies ensure firms attract and retain the best talent, something crucial for SMEs as they strive to remain competitive – apart from gaining access to a wider talent pool, enhancing productivity and staff retention, increasing customer satisfaction and bolstering corporate reputation.

How can HR contribute better to organisational goals, in your opinion?

I would like to challenge HR practitioners to go beyond transactional processes, and take on a greater role in their organisations’ business strategies.

I strongly believe businesses, especially start-ups, could benefit if greater consideration is given to how business strategy affects the workforce.

HR needs to be given a voice in the board room, and a hand to help shape the organisation’s future.

In particular, HR must ensure employment policies support the organisation’s values. There must be clear alignment between what leaders commit to and what the line managers and HR do in their day-to-day.

More importantly, management and HR must have open minds about adopting new employment practices or reviewing current ones.

Do you see HR leaders making it to a CEO level?

I believe anyone with the right skill sets, core values and attitude could become a CEO.

When I first started Sakae Sushi, I knew nothing about running a restaurant, and I credit our success to many factors, including values that have being instilled in me since childhood which have guided my career.

Aside from that, studies have shown that over the past 15 years, there has been a dramatic change in the roles HR people play. Today, CHROs often report directly to the CEO, serve as their key adviser, and make frequent presentations to the board. These studies have also uncovered that many CHROs behave, think, function, and deal with pressure and risk-taking similar to CEOs.

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