Crystal Jade chief on 'marrying off' company

Crystal Jade Culinary Concepts chief executive Ip Yiu Tung with L Capital Asia managing director Christina Teo. The 65-year-old Mr Ip, who has one daughter, says it is very difficult to find a successor. L Capital Asia will be acquiring over 90 per c
Crystal Jade Culinary Concepts chief executive Ip Yiu Tung with L Capital Asia managing director Christina Teo. The 65-year-old Mr Ip, who has one daughter, says it is very difficult to find a successor. L Capital Asia will be acquiring over 90 per cent of the restaurant group.ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

He cried when telling staff about the sale to LVMH's private equity arm

Crystal Jade Culinary Concepts' head honcho Ip Yiu Tung treats the well-known Chinese restaurant group he built like one of his children.

And just talking about its impending sale next week to L Capital Asia, French luxury goods conglomerate LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton's private equity arm, makes him emotional.

"I am handing over the company to another father," he said with a quiver in his voice when asked about the sale, in an exclusive interview with The Straits Times at Crystal Jade Golden Palace at Paragon Shopping Centre yesterday.

L Capital Asia will be acquiring over 90 per cent of the restaurant group, which has an annual revenue of close of $250 million. The deal took about three years to materialise.

"I feel sad," he added. "I actually cried when I announced it to my people on Tuesday."

The chief executive, 65, who is also the group chairman and managing director, had to stop to compose himself after the first sentence in an announcement of the sale to 100 key staff members. The usually collected, reserved and matter-of-fact chief then cried, but left the private room at Crystal Jade Golden Palace before he could see their reactions.

On the decision to "marry off" the company, he said: "It is very difficult to find a successor. At the age of 65, even if I keep the business, I can keep it only for another three to five years, that's all. After the age of 70, will I still have the strength? Already, it is quite tough."

The Hong Konger, who is now a Singapore permanent resident, usually spends his weekends in Hong Kong, where he lives with his wife and only daughter, then begins travelling on Mondays to the group's restaurants and offices in other parts of Asia.

The group comprises 120 restaurants, from high-end, fine-dining concepts to ones offering casual Chinese cuisine, in 10 countries from China to India, and 21 cities. It has 47 restaurants here.

Globally, it employs about 4,500 full-time staff.

Crystal Jade has seven shareholders. Some will retain a stake in the business while others will cash out.

Mr Ip has sold all his shares, he said.

The company started out as a single restaurant in the now-demolished Cairnhill Hotel in 1991. Mr Ip invested HK$10 million (about S$2 million at the time) the following year to keep the ailing restaurant afloat, then took on the role of overseeing the strategic direction for the company.

On why he thinks L Capital Asia is a good fit, he said: "Our strength is in providing good quality food and service, but we lack brand building, and good relationships with landlords around the world."

The fund's parent company, he said, is more in tune with the landscape of international business than Crystal Jade, and can "add value" to the group in terms of branding.

L Capital Asia's managing director Christina Teo, 40, said: "Crystal Jade is a household brand with a very strong DNA."

The fund has already identified a chief operating officer or chief executive for Crystal Jade, Mr Ip said. He will stay on as its interim chief executive for a year, then remain as an adviser and brand ambassador to the company.

The sale did not come about because the group is in debt, he said, adding that it is not leveraged or over-committed. It generates enough money to expand organically and has "a lot of cash, just sitting there".

He plans to divide his newfound time into three parts: one part for Crystal Jade, another for his family and the last part for helping the under-privileged in China.

He said: "I am not greedy. I don't need more money to make me happy. I was already happy. I need a meaningful life, not just money."

rltan@sph.com.sg

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