SME Spotlight

All fired up and they're cooking up a storm

Food catering is fiercely competitive in Singapore, but the third-generation leaders at Elsie's Kitchen have made a commitment to scale up. In the third of a four-part series on multi-generational F&B firms, Marissa Lee speaks to the 29-year-old managing director of Elsie's Kitchen, Mr Reuben Ang, and his father, chairman and chief executive Daniel Ang, 61.

Father-and-son team Daniel and Reuben Ang of Elsie's Kitchen. The younger Mr Ang says the good thing about having family is that "we have a common purpose".
Father-and-son team Daniel and Reuben Ang of Elsie's Kitchen. The younger Mr Ang says the good thing about having family is that "we have a common purpose".ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG

Q When did you start succession planning?

Reuben: We honestly didn't plan for this. (My generation) grew up running around in a shophouse and racing trolleys in the foodcourts and canteens. We started helping out in the business only in our upper-primary years, packing food and doing waiting jobs. Of course, we didn't like it.

Daniel: I thought you all liked it!

Reuben: No, we enjoyed it because the family was there, the aunties were there, it was warm. Over the years, we got used to it, it wasn't that hard any more and we appreciated it for what it was. Our exposure to food, that was way earlier. We all were critics at the table. You'd say, what's this funny taste? And my father would say it's because of too much sodium bicarbonate in the tenderising of the meat. To us it's very normal. That was growing up, right?

Q How do your two generations work together?

Reuben: A lot of new initiatives and the current direction come from our generation. But we always have to bounce them off his generation, and they'll kind of give us that counter voice.

Daniel: In the last two years, it was a deliberate attempt to let go, guide and coach.

Q What are your new initiatives?

Reuben: One major one would be rebranding. To do that, we had to address a lot of underlying things. You can't just change clothes and leave everything else as they are, right?

So over the last two, three years, we've had to refurbish the organisational structure, culture, processes so we could deliver that brand.

Elsie's Kitchen is part of a group now, and we have a portfolio of brands. I was marketing-trained, from NUS Business School.

Q When did you start working at Elsie's Kitchen?

Reuben: I came in as a director of marketing and sales in August 2012, but the deeper I got into understanding how this company operated, I realised that I couldn't just focus on that. I knew the amount of work to be done and... I couldn't do it alone. Two, three months after I came in, I told my sister Rachel I couldn't do this any more, and she came in. A few months later, we pulled her husband, Jeremy, in. And my cousin Job graduated last year.

Q So what had to be done?

Reuben: There were no proper controls. My bookkeeper really kept books and, in terms of management, my aunties could be doing the purchasing, finance, taking care of the kitchen, operations, every part of the business.

There wasn't a proper separation of duties, everyone was doing everything, and I felt that made it difficult to scale. So we got area managers, hygiene managers and a new creative department with four event stylists.

Q What was the biggest challenge?

Daniel: Gaining the trust of all my siblings, because he (Reuben) spent money. In the last two or three years, we spent $20 million to $30 million.

Q But you backed Reuben up?

Daniel: We had board meetings. Basically, make your intentions known and put them across very clearly. Pre-empt all the questions.

Reuben: In my first six months, I was realistic. I didn't want to just make changes. Neither would they want to just implement changes.

So they knew I wasn't some kid coming in to turn everything upside down or spending money for the sake of it, or chasing trends.

Daniel: But he really spent a lot of money when he came in. A lot of restructuring, everything.

Reuben: First thing I bought was a photocopying machine, because they didn't even have that.

Daniel: Today we have six machines.

Q Did you fear that if your plans failed, they would...

Reuben: Blame me? No, we go in together. The good thing about having family, we have a common purpose. There are bound to be problems. We don't start blaming people, we deal with it together as a family.

Q What's Elsie's niche?

Daniel: We can produce thousands of meals in a short period of time, so we can cater to national emergencies.

Reuben: Like the Sars outbreak, when hospitals didn't operate their kitchens.

Daniel: We were preparing food out of four units of shophouses, it was very challenging. But now with this bigger space, our automation helps a lot.

Reuben: We moved here (Second Chin Bee Road) in August 2013, when we acquired Continental Delight, which was our competitor.

Q What's next?

Reuben: We're diversifying our business, we're operating a lot more foodcourts now. We came from canteens, then we consolidated in the early 1990s to go into events catering purely. Now we are back. The foodcourt business is a lot more stable.

Q Ever considered an IPO?

Daniel: My normal answer is we never say never. We have many suitors, and we told them we will tell them when we are ready.

Reuben: All our growth plans have been very much self-funded.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 31, 2016, with the headline 'All fired up and they're cooking up a storm'. Subscribe