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BreadTalk founder blends old values with fresh ideas

Mr George Quek at the BreadTalk IHQ in Tai Seng Street. He says BreadTalk's recipe for success is its ability to change with the times. Every year, the company launches three or four new products.
Mr George Quek at the BreadTalk IHQ in Tai Seng Street. He says BreadTalk's recipe for success is its ability to change with the times. Every year, the company launches three or four new products.ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

Whether it's Teochew culture or bread, he wants to engage the younger generation

Most people in Singapore know Mr George Quek as the man behind the BreadTalk Group.

Less well known, perhaps, is his role as president of the Teochew Poit Ip Huay Kuan, a position he has held since 2013.

Last month, the umbrella body for Teochew clans in Singapore organised the second Teochew Festival, which drew a record 150,000 people, up from 100,000 in 2014. Under Mr Quek, the 5,000-strong group has also seen its young members double to about 400.

But after four years at the helm - the maximum allowed - Mr Quek, 61, will be stepping down by the first quarter of this year.

Speaking to The Straits Times in Mandarin over a cup of teh-c at the BreadTalk IHQ in Tai Seng Street last Friday, Mr Quek said he is glad to see greater camaraderie in the Teochew community, with help from leaders of the eight individual Teochew clans.

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Teochew is a very refined language; it's a gentle culture. If you look at Teochew stage shows, they teach people good values. To be righteous, filial and magnanimous.

MR QUEK, on why he hopes more people will appreciate the Teochew heritage.

"From our efforts over the past four years, I think we have succeeded in getting more Teochews to work closely together, to become better friends," he said.

There are an estimated 500,000 Teochews in Singapore, the second-largest Chinese sub-group, after Hokkiens. Teochews were originally from eight counties in China's southern Chaoshan region.

Said Mr Quek, who grew up speaking Teochew and enjoys dishes like braised goose: "When you have Teochew nang, kaki nang ("Teochew person, one of us") conversations, it feels warm and familiar."

Last year's Teochew Festival rolled out initiatives such as an app game to attract young people.

This enterprising spirit infuses nearly everything Mr Quek does .

Indeed, BreadTalk's recipe for success, he said, boils down to its ability to change with the times. He said: "Even though I like our original products, every year we launch three or four new ones, reflecting our increased focus on health and saving the environment."

BreadTalk Group also has a new business unit that encourages young management associates to work on new projects and experiment with new ideas.

Last year, the brands under the group began offering customers a wider range of payment methods, including Apple Pay, Android Pay and Samsung Pay .

In 2015, it rolled out a system at three outlets that notifies customers via mobile alerts whenever freshly baked breads were ready.

"Some brands become dated after just 10 years. We can't sit back and relax, but must continue learning and experimenting," he said.

Mr Quek is married to BreadTalk Group's deputy chairman Katherine Lee Lih Leng, who is in her 50s. They have three children. Weirou, 23, a Lasalle graduate, is a management trainee at BreadTalk. Jonathan, 21, is studying at London's Caas Business School, while Matthew, 20, is serving national service.

Mr Quek's children understand Teochew but do not speak it fluently. So he makes an effort to get them in touch with their roots.

At the end of the 10-day-long Teochew Festival, which his daughter helped out with, he took his family to the Yueh Hai Ching Temple - Singapore's oldest Teochew temple - to give thanks. This was followed by a meal at the Chao Shan Cuisine Teochew restaurant next door.

Mr Quek hopes more people will appreciate the Teochew heritage. "Teochew is a very refined language; it's a gentle culture. If you look at Teochew stage shows, they teach people good values. To be righteous, filial and magnanimous," he said.

Given the importance he places on values, it is unsurprising then that when asked how he chooses employees, he said: "I don't look at the school they went to. I choose people who can take hardship."

Mr Quek, whose BreadTalk Group has 7,000 employees, added: "Character is something that is formed over many years and would be hard to change. So I say let's first choose people based on attitude and character.The philosophies of running a business and conducting yourself as a person are entwined. If you are good to customers and offer a service from the heart, they will be good to you."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 02, 2017, with the headline 'BreadTalk founder blends old values with fresh ideas'. Print Edition | Subscribe