Conveyor of healthy dining to the masses

Mr Douglas Foo's vision for Sakae Sushi is a bold one - 30,000 outlets across five continents.
Mr Douglas Foo's vision for Sakae Sushi is a bold one - 30,000 outlets across five continents. PHOTO: SAKAE HOLDINGS

The name Douglas Foo is virtually synonymous with conveyor-belt sushi.

But before the founder of the Sakae Sushi chain of restaurants in Singapore began dating his then girlfriend, now his wife of nearly two decades, he did not consume Japanese food often.

Mr Foo met Ms Koh Yen Khoon in 1988 while working as a baker at a Delifrance cafe, and began eating sushi regularly during their courtship. But he winced every time he had to foot the bill after each date.

"As she enjoyed eating sushi so often, it was quite painful whenever the bill came. At that time, Japanese cuisine was healthy but very expensive," he recalled, flashing his trademark broad grin.

"It got me thinking, 'Why is this delicious and healthy fare not available to the masses?' "

It spurred the 46-year-old entrepreneur, now chairman of Sakae Holdings, to consider ways of taking this premium cuisine to the mass market by building a global brand.

Sakae, which owns more than 200 restaurants in Singapore and nine other countries, opened its first outlet in Singapore's central business district in September 1997, right smack in the middle of the Asian financial crisis.

LONGEVITY AND PROSPERITY

Mr Foo wanted to build a brand that was easy and simple to remember - drink sake, eat sushi, so "Sakae Sushi" was born. The word "sakae" also means growth and development in Japanese.

In Mandarin, the brand is rong shou si, which symbolises longevity and prosperity.

To give the brand a soul and clear symbolism, Mr Foo chose a frog. "The frog is a creature that likes clean environments, and we want to epitomise hygiene and cleanliness." The amphibian's colour signifies healthy dining, and personifies Sakae's green efforts - recycling, the use of renewable energy, and sustainable initiatives.

Mr Foo's golden rule is: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And he said the brand must reflect that.

In recognition of his efforts, Mr Foo was named Entrepreneur of the Year earlier this month at the 2015 Asia Corporate Excellence & Sustainability Awards (Aces).

Aces is a two-year-old awards programme organised by the MORS Group, which champions revolutionary leadership and sustainability in companies operating in Asia.

BLOOD TIES

Mr Foo learnt the values of being responsible and helping others at an early age. Mr Foo, who has two younger sisters, grew up in a typical Hainanese family where discipline and prudence ruled.

"My dad is a purpose-driven person who believes in having a sense of direction. He always told us, 'You must be someone useful, and bring meaning into this world'."

Family ties remain strong. His 73-year-old father, an engineering adviser to Sakae's in-house team, designed the conveyor-belt delivery system. He is also responsible for robotics and automation in the company.

One sister works as an administrative staff. The other, Ms Lilian Foo, who holds a master's degree in business administration, and trained in computer science and marketing, helped construct an interactive menu for its restaurants in the early years when no IT company had the relevant know-how.

She subsequently joined the company on a full-time basis, and rotated through various roles before being voted in as chief executive officer in 2014 to succeed her brother.

SCHOOL OF HARD KNOCKS

The company, which ventured beyond its home market in 2000, has faced its share of challenges. Its experience in the US offered invaluable lessons. Sakae set up shop in New York City in 2008 by securing a strategic location on the ground floor of the Chrysler Building.

Shortly after, the global financial crisis struck. "When the crisis hit, the revenue slide was fast and furious," Mr Foo recalled. "We closed the outlet in 2009. That episode was painful, but not without its purpose. "

Mr Foo is equally passionate and meticulous in his parenting efforts. He swims and cycles with his family, including his four sons, Donovan, Dominic, Donahue and Donaghan, aged seven to 15.

"My role as a parent is to bring them up to have a system of good values. This is crucial in this day and age," he said.

This is why his sons' names begin with "Do", hopefully reflecting their "can-do" attitude towards life.

This principle of investing for the future underpins the company's policies on staff welfare. Apart from training and education, Sakae also believes in taking care of its staff and their families. It started offering pregnant employees baby bonuses before these became a national initiative.

"The rationale is that we need people to build Sakae into a global brand. Innovation can only do so much - the rest depends on our staff, and for that to happen, we need the support of their families."

His vision for Sakae is a bold one - 30,000 outlets across five continents. "It's a journey, and it will take quite a while, but we are not in any hurry, and we need to do things right," he said.

Sakae has averaged annual revenues of more than $80 million in the last decade, and has been profitable in eight of the 10 years, averaging earnings of about $3.5 million per year.

FOUR PIVOTS

The company's blueprint revolves around four pillars of growth. It will use mergers and acquisitions to step up its pace of expansion where appropriate.

Sakae's first pillar centres on human capital. It has set up in-house training programmes to allow staff to upgrade themselves, and scholarships with various educational institutions and statutory boards to harness talent, Mr Foo said.

The second involves managing its global resources and choosing strategic partners to ensure quality and reliable supply of ingredients, including fish.

The third pivot is real estate investment and management.

"Property costs in Singapore and other markets are constantly rising, and this will eat into our margins. So we need to have a hedge - we buy and invest in those properties, and where relevant, rent them out," Mr Foo said.

The final prong is Sakae Corporate Advisory, which was established in January to help local businesses grow, brand and add value.

Mr Foo was inspired by General Electric's business model, which has a capital-raising arm that generates cash flow for other units in the organisation and enables them to achieve their goals.

"When our dream of 30,000 outlets materialises, it would mean that for every piece of sushi eaten in the world, equity would flow back to the Singapore economy," Mr Foo said. "That allows me to do my small part for Singapore, which has given me the resources to be who I am today."


• This interview is from the Singapore Exchange's "kopi-C: the Company brew" column that features C-level executives of firms listed on the SGX. The exchange is holding an Investor Education Series - "Understanding Valuation of the F&B Cluster" on Nov 26.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 16, 2015, with the headline 'Conveyor of healthy dining to the masses'. Print Edition | Subscribe