Secret to success at Crystal Jade: Loyal staff

(From left) Mr Ravi Thakran, chairman and managing partner of L Catterton Asia, Mr Ip Yiu Tung, founder of Crystal Jade Culinary Concepts Holdings, and Mr Nainesh Jaisingh, global head of principal finance at Standard Chartered Bank, at Crystal Jade'
(From left) Mr Ravi Thakran, chairman and managing partner of L Catterton Asia, Mr Ip Yiu Tung, founder of Crystal Jade Culinary Concepts Holdings, and Mr Nainesh Jaisingh, global head of principal finance at Standard Chartered Bank, at Crystal Jade's 25th anniversary celebration.ST PHOTO: CAROLINE CHIA
Mr Seah Siang Teck, who looks after the steamed food items at Crystal Jade, has been working at the restaurant chain for 25 years. He said he has never left because he enjoys the work environment there.
Mr Seah Siang Teck, who looks after the steamed food items at Crystal Jade, has been working at the restaurant chain for 25 years. He said he has never left because he enjoys the work environment there.ST PHOTO: CAROLINE CHIA

Restaurant chain's employee turnover rate is less than half the average for F&B industry

Disneyland likes to brand itself as one of the "happiest places on earth" so it's no surprise home- grown restaurant chain Crystal Jade is all smiles at being invited to operate eateries in the famous amusement parks.

Those smiles were evident at its recent 25th anniversary celebration at the Michelin-starred Crystal Jade Golden Palace at Paragon.

Disneyland's worldwide invitation was a big recognition for the chain, said Mr Ravi Thakran, chairman and managing partner of L Catterton Asia - formerly known as L Capital Asia - which bought about 90 per cent of Crystal Jade Culinary Concepts Holdings for an estimated US$100 million in 2014.

Mr Thakran told The Straits Times: "While we're still not very happy with what we've achieved and believe we can do much better there, they've already invited us to the Disneylands in the world."

Crystal Jade has 113 outlets, 106 restaurants and seven kiosks or bakeries across 25 cities. Its first restaurant opened in Cairnhill Hotel in Singapore in 1991.

SENSE OF BELONGING

In this industry, turnover is typically high. So many people have been at Crystal Jade for 10, 15 years and they want to stay here. The sense of belonging and emotional ownership that the staff have, I've not seen elsewhere.

MR NAINESH JAISINGH, global head of principal finance at StanChart.

Standard Chartered Private Equity (SCPE) invested US$52 million in the chain last year.

Mr Thakran and Mr Nainesh Jaisingh, global head of principal finance - the division which houses the SCPE business - at Standard Chartered Bank, noted that the chain's longevity and achievements can be attributed to the key elements of Crystal Jade's business.

Its loyal staff and dedication to ingredients have been the backbone of the firm all these 25 years, they said.

Founder Ip Yiu Tung, 67, who is still advising the group as its brand consultant, told The Straits Times: "We've set a very high standard for the ingredients. Even if they are expensive, we do think it's worth it.

"The staff, like the cooks, are important too. We hire those with great technique, who also cost a lot, and train them to our standard.

"At Crystal Jade, the same type of dishes at almost all restaurants taste similar."

Top chefs were hired from Hong Kong in the past, but, over the years, Crystal Jade has built its own army by training local staff and giving them a strong career path.

Mr Ip said: "It's our company strategy to 'raise' our own staff. We hire them as junior cooks and gradually train them to become seniors. It gives them the opportunity to work longer and fosters loyalty to the company. They also remember the taste (of the dishes) this way. Taste cannot be written down. It has to come to the tongue and they've to remember it."

Mr Thakran added that getting the right talent remains an issue for the whole food and beverage industry. "Crystal Jade's one advantage over the others is that it is now a brand with considerable reputation, which makes it easier to bring local talent in.

"People are looking for employer branding, where I would be happy to tell my friends where I work. Crystal Jade being a national brand and now, global brand, does help us recruit talent, which has been very challenging in the industry."

Loyalty is a major factor in the success of the business, and the chain has the figures to show it scores well on this front.

Before it was acquired, staff turnover was 3 per cent in 2013 and 2014. Last year, those who left in the year dropped to 2 per cent. The average turnover rate for the food and beverage sector is 4.6 per cent.

Mr Jaisingh said: "In this industry, turnover is typically high. So many people have been at Crystal Jade for 10, 15 years and they want to stay here. The sense of belonging and emotional ownership that the staff have, I've not seen elsewhere.

"We have investments in six restaurant chains across Asia and the biggest issue we deal with is staff turnover."

Bloomberg reported in November that StanChart was cutting private equity funds, and, before that, there was talk of it exiting the private equity business.

While Mr Jaisingh said he was unable to comment on the issue, he added it will be business as usual for Crystal Jade.

The chain will open eight outlets in the first six months of next year, including one in Sands Casino, Macau, in the second quarter, while 17 overseas outlets were opened this year. An outlet could also open in Las Vegas in the near future.

The investors said Mr Ip has remained an inspiration for the group, helping it maintain high standards after the acquisition.

At the 25th anniversary celebration, staff flocked to Mr Ip for pictures and referred to him using terms of endearment.

Mr Seah Siang Teck, 52, who looks after the steamed food items at Crystal Jade, has been working for the chain for 25 years and even met his wife there.

He recalled how Mr Ip gave current and former employees bonuses last year after the acquisition, saying: "I enjoyed the work environment all these years and have never left because of it."

In August last year, The Straits Times reported Mr Ip giving current and former employees payouts of up to $40,000.

Mr Seah added: "Besides learning about food, I've also learnt a lot about service, the restaurants' interiors and even how the tables are laid, knowledge which could help if I ever wanted to become an entrepreneur."

Mr Ip has also given Crystal Jade's investors something to think about when looking at leadership and continuity.

Mr Thakran said he has applied the lessons he has learnt about working closely with founders, even after acquisitions.

"There is another Australian business where we are 90 per cent owners. I realised one of the issues that I had was not having the patron or 'laoban' (boss in Mandarin) involved in the system... There are certain things only they can see.

"The value of keeping the mentorship and guidance of these founders, even if their shareholding is small, is phenomenal. We're making sure his legacy is protected."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 19, 2016, with the headline 'Secret to success at Crystal Jade: Loyal staff'. Print Edition | Subscribe