More social enterprises hiring top talent

Corporate professionals being engaged to help these ventures grow their businesses

(From left) Western food chain Eighteen Chefs co-founders Roger Wong, 58, and Benny Se Teo, 55, with newly appointed group CEO Davy Wee, 58, who formerly headed POSB and The Manhattan Fish Market restaurant chain.
(From left) Western food chain Eighteen Chefs co-founders Roger Wong, 58, and Benny Se Teo, 55, with newly appointed group CEO Davy Wee, 58, who formerly headed POSB and The Manhattan Fish Market restaurant chain. ST PHOTO: ALICIA CHAN

Social enterprises here typically offer jobs to disadvantaged groups as part of their social mission.

But more are starting to hire corporate professionals at the management level too, to help grow their businesses.

One of them is Western food chain Eighteen Chefs, which employs at-risk youth and former offenders. Its new group chief executive once headed a bank, and it is believed to be one of the first such enterprises here to attract a former head honcho of another company.

Industry experts say it is important for mature social enterprises - whose needs differ from start-ups - to have skilled leadership to help take the business to greater heights and make a larger social impact.

Eighteen Chefs' group CEO is Mr Davy Wee, former POSB chief and ex-CEO of The Manhattan Fish Market (MFM) restaurant chain.

He left MFM in October, intending to take a career break, but was offered a job by Eighteen Chefs. He joined on Dec 9 and is responsible for improving current structures and processes, and will oversee its plans to expand overseas and roll out new brands.

Co-founder Benny Se Teo, 55, told The Sunday Times: "We hire the best people in the market... Davy is good with numbers and his international experience attracted me."

Mr Wee, 58, a former McDonald's executive with more than 20 years of retail experience, is known for overseeing the transformation of POSB in the mid-2000s.

Hired in 2004 to lead the bank, he played a key role in the $35 million makeover of its branches in 2007.

In his five years at the helm, he also introduced the popular POSB Everyday credit card and brought back old favourites, such as the Smiley Squirrel mascot, to extend its children's outreach programme.

He also helped to grow the MFM brand in his five years there - from about 20 branches in two countries to nearly 70 in 13 countries.

With the steady expansion of Eighteen Chefs here - it was set up in 2007 and will open its 10th outlet soon - Mr Se Teo and his team felt the next step was to expand overseas.

He said: "After growing in Singapore, we asked ourselves 'What's next?' The next step was to find someone with the international experience to bring us to the next level. I must admit that I don't have that capability... I believe in getting the right people to do the right job. I know my limits."

Mr Wee said he felt it was a "calling" to help grow a Singaporean brand, having worked for American and Malaysian F&B companies.

He had also hired former offenders at the MFM, and Eighteen Chefs' social mission gave him more reason to join it. He said: "I came from a poor family. I know what it's like to be disadvantaged, and I like to help the underdogs."

Eighteen Chefs will also employ at-risk youth at its overseas branches, he added.

Meanwhile, other social enterprises have also hired corporate professionals at the management level.

Restaurant group Bliss, which employs people with special needs, hired former oil refinery owner James Lim as its executive director in March.

Last month, tech start-up T.Ware, which has developed a vest that simulates hugs to calm children with special needs, roped in Mr Dios Demetriades, 33, a former director at a private investment company to be its chief financial officer (CFO).

Said the Cyprus-born permanent resident: "After spending months evaluating the company, I could see that it was on a path to becoming a huge success on a global scale and one where my contribution could be very meaningful."

Explaining the move to create the new CFO position, founder James Teh said he and his team were more skilled in technology innovation, and felt they needed someone who was more "business-focused" and could help in their discussions with potential investors.

Experts in the social enterprise sector said it was important for social entrepreneurs to recognise their need for leadership talent.

Mr Alfie Othman, executive director of the Singapore Centre for Social Enterprise, said: "This new trend of corporate professionals joining social enterprises also shows that there are such enterprises which are good enough to attract people."

And growing the business eventually helps to grow the social mission too, said industry players.

Mr Se Teo said: "If we are able to generate more income and have more branches, we create more jobs and can help more people."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 20, 2015, with the headline More social enterprises hiring top talent. Subscribe