March 23, 2009
the monday interview with Ricky Chew
Plunge pays off
Fish & Co boss Ricky Chew combines workable concepts with superb service for winning chain
By john lui
Ah, the hubris of young entrepreneurs. Back in 2002, Mr Ricky Chew, the managing director of restaurant chain Fish & Co, gave an interview in which he said he hoped that his new fish burger eatery What A Fish, a fast-food version of Fish & Co, would grow from one to 20 stores.
Two years after that interview, What A Fish in Parkway Parade closed, a victim of intense competition among the mall's food outlets. In the same interview, he gave a total revenue target of $50 million by 2007. Current figures show he still has some way to go.
'Blame it on the economy,' he tells Life! with a laugh.
He can afford to take things in his stride. Revenue in the last financial year for the Fish & Co Group, which includes other businesses, is a healthy $42.4 million.
What is more, the company is privately owned by Mr Chew and his business partner Lambert Yeo and does not owe a cent to the banks.
At the bustling Fish & Co outlet in Paragon on a Friday during lunchtime, the unbowed 44-year-old Mr Chew says: 'We have been through good and bad times. We will be okay.'
Dressed in a beige shirt from his favourite designer, Calvin Klein, hair streaked with blond highlights, the father of two smiles easily and speaks in a relaxed, calm manner.
It is this confidence that pushed the former Singapore Airlines steward and Mr Yeo, his ex-colleague from SIA, into opening the first Fish & Co outlet in 1998, a year after the start of the Asian financial crisis. Since then, minus a few road bumps such as the aborted fish burger joint, you could say things have been going swimmingly.
The Fish & Co Group runs 16 Fish & Co restaurants in Singapore which last year dished out more than 400,000 servings of its signature fish and chips and almost 100,000 helpings of its other bestseller, the seafood platter for two.
In Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and the Middle East, other firms have bought franchises in Fish & Co and run a total of 15 outlets, while the parent company itself owns two outlets in Malaysia.
The group includes seafood distributor Oceana, allowing it to cut out the middleman. It also runs Giraffe, a modern European eatery at the Istana Park, and thesimplelife South-east Asian restaurant that was formerly at Wheelock Place. Thesimplelife is closed temporarily while it looks for new premises. In Parkway Parade, the group last year opened Chaozhou Inn, a Teochew restaurant.
The company has even taken a second stab at the fish burger concept, opening Fish & Co Express at Downtown East last year. This time around, things will be different, says Mr Chew.
'What A Fish was a great product but perhaps we should have used the Fish & Co name then. It has better recognition,' he says.
With the earlier attempt, he 'did everything right'.
'We had focus groups, we invited friends to test the food and service,' he says.
'The closure taught us that success is never a sure thing. There will be that one thing you have not thought of.'
Success was certainly not assured when he and Mr Yeo opened the first Fish & Co outlet in 1998 at the then-newly renovated Plaza Singapura, with each man putting in $150,000.
The idea for the restaurant came to Mr Chew when, like many other entrepreneurs before him, he saw concepts overseas that could work in Singapore.
'Back then, I saw stores and restaurants that would do well in Singapore and asked myself why no one thought of bringing them here,' he says.
The man who used to run his own mobile disco as a teen never quite shook off the itch to own his own business. It was family-style seafood places such as the Red Lobster chain in the United States that set him thinking.
He had been preparing to strike out for some time. And after he settled on the idea of a seafood restaurant, he quit his job as lead steward and sold his five- room HDB executive flat in Pasir Ris, moving his wife and two daughters, now 17 and 13, into a four-roomer in the same estate.
Mr Yeo, 58, had left SIA in 1997 to retire to South Africa with his family and friends from his church group. Mr Chew then asked him to be his business partner. Mr Yeo says he accepted because he knew of Mr Chew's 'tenacity', having worked with him in the airline.
'He was the one who saw the potential in the Plaza Singapura location,' Mr Yeo says in an e-mail from South Africa, where he lives. He is still a partner in the business and stays in touch by phone, e-mail and the occasional visit.
When he, as a crew trainer, first met Mr Chew, he was struck by his 'untapped energy... something in him that a lot of people may not see', he adds.
Mr Chew's laid-back demeanour can be quite misleading. As a child and reluctant student, there was no indication that there was in the making a future winner of the Entrepreneur of the Year award, an accolade he clinched in 2003 from the Rotary Club and Association of Small and Medium Enterprises.
He was born the seventh of 10 children to timber merchant Martin Chew and his wife Goh Siew Kee. His early years were spent in a bungalow in Lorong Marican, near Siglap, being looked after by amahs, cooks and drivers.
But as the timber industry declined in the 1970s, so did his family's fortunes. They moved to a smaller home, a semidetached house in Serangoon Gardens, and let go of all their servants. For the young Mr Chew then, it meant doing without a chauffeur and taking public transport instead.
He studied at Serangoon Gardens South Primary and Serangoon Gardens Technical schools.
'I was playful, didn't want to study. I spent a lot of time playing football, hanging out with friends and watching movies,' he recalls.
In his teens, he set up a mobile disco named High Voltage, which gave him a taste of life as a business owner and sparked a desire that would stay with him. But the parties took their toll on his studies. He took his A-level exams at a private school and graduated without a full A-level certificate.
After he completed national service, Ms Belinda Koh, whom he met when they were both in their teens and later married in 1991, had joined SIA as a stewardess and suggested that he apply as well.
It was a job he would grow to love for the exposure it gave him to SIA's service methodology and to how the rest of the world dined and drank. Eight years as a steward taught him the value of service and food standards.
The man who calls himself a 'terrible cook' worked with hired chefs at Fish & Co to come up with the seafood platter and fish and chips that would become the hallmark of the chain.
Not for him the route taken by some neophyte restaurateurs, who might first try a small cafe or food stall. He wanted to do something big. 'It was a moon shot,' he says.
Thanks to the Asian financial crisis, the prime spot at Plaza Singapura's entrance was there for the taking (the restaurant has since moved out of the location).
But Mr Chew had no knowledge of restaurant operations. So he roped in an experienced restaurant manager who happened to be a friend. Another friend was hired to design the company's logo.
Mr Chew came up with the name Fish & Co because the eatery would serve fish and related items. It also signifies the company's team spirit.
From day one, service had to be beyond the expectations of those having a basic fish and chips meal, which then cost $9.90. It now costs $15.90.
Fish can be enjoyed by people of all races, Mr Chew said. The niche for a Western seafood casual dining chain was untapped. And he saw that most Singaporeans were getting used to the idea of paying more for better service.
'I trained my staff to address customers with credit cards by their surnames. We would top up glasses of water without being asked. Drinks had to be placed on the right side of the customer. I was there every day, training.'
The business partners' years of experience in SIA - eight for Mr Chew and 27 for Mr Yeo - gave them a head start in terms of service and food and wine.
From the first day of operations, the restaurant was packed, thanks largely to curiosity about the revamped mall. Word of mouth made sure the place stayed busy.
'When you are pushed into a corner, the instinct to survive takes over. You go all out to make sure you succeed,' Mr Chew says, adding: 'The first day was hell.' People would leave, fed up with waiting 45 minutes or more for their food, and some would walk out without paying. Chaos reigned.
Teething problems abounded. Sometimes, the staff handling the dishwashing machine did not show up for work and everyone had to help with the washing.
Mr Chew's wife covered the marketing aspect and other administrative jobs. Now a housewife, she jokes that no slimming programme she has tried has been as effective as toughing it out in the opening months of the restaurant. She lost 8kg in six months while her husband lost 15kg.
'I would close the restaurant at midnight, have a meeting to go over the problems and then start again at 8am the next day,' says Mr Chew.
Like before, he still runs the restaurant in ways that may puzzle those with more conventional management methods. For example, he will not slash prices on some items and make up for the numbers somewhere else. And, as far as he knows, his is the only restaurant in Singapore to offer a one-month bonus to part-timers who clock up a certain minimum number of hours worked in a year.
The pace today is less intense, though. When he is not relaxing at home, a bungalow in the Changi area, he plays soccer. On Wednesdays, he is at the Singapore Cricket Club playing in midfield for its third soccer team, where the average age is 35.
'I try to keep up for one half of the match at least,' he says, laughing. On Sundays, he plays a more relaxed game with a group of old friends.
But he still works seven days a week and spends up to 10 days a month travelling, exploring new markets and meeting current and potential franchisees.
'We are still a small private company. We would like to grow at our own pace. We feel we are not running a rat race. We will expand when it makes sense.'
Still, he remains ambitious. 'Why can't we have a chain of Fish & Co restaurants circling the globe like a necklace? Why can't we open a Fish & Co in Europe? Why can't the East go West?'
my life so far
'I'm the worst golfer around but my friends are very patient with me'
Mr Ricky Chew on whether he has picked up the sport of businessmen
'The Red Lobster chain in the United States is interesting. It is a huge chain with a US$2-billion (S$3-billion) turnover. That's a lot of business. Some day we may achieve that'
On his admired companies
'During Chinese New Year, the price of prawns goes up, beyond affordability. So we hedge the prices by buying in advance. This year, we had 20 tonnes of squid. We used 15 tonnes and sold five to the local market'
On how Oceana's seafood procurement works
'What got me out of bed was the passion for the business we could call our own. The success of the restaurant was like a rocket booster'
On the long hours worked in the restaurant's early days
'He just didn't have the funds to pay for the surgery. I went to the hospital and paid the bill with credit cards'
On paying for a Myanmarese restaurant supervisor's emergency liver cancer surgery
'It has taught me not to let success overwhelm me or go to my head'
On his family's suddenly reduced fortunes when he was a child