Andrew Ing Interview with Thomas Wai
September 2, 2015
1. What position do you hold in your organization today?
(YOUR WORK, YOUR CHARITY, YOUR FREE TIME, LIKE WHAT POSITION DO YOU HOLD IN YOUR ORGANIZATION?)
I’m the chief operating officer of the The Lo and Behold Group and, and most people know chief operating officers do a lot of work. I’m responsible basically for everything in the company in terms of bottom line and making sure everything is running.
Generally responsible for running the company and the various restaurants and bars that we have within the company; making sure every venue is doing well and that we are managing our head office costs as well. The big picture and how it’s drilled down a lot to micro levels in terms of how we can improve each venue. More than fifty percent of my time is spent on human capital matters. Because of the way we’re structured, we have actually now ten locations in various parts of Singapore and it’s very hard, so you need to run things remotely to a certain extent.
When I first joined the company three and a half years ago, we were running the individual venues with outlet managers. Now we have general managers, and the ownership of the P&L goes back on these people, so, because of that, I have let go a lot in terms of not micromanaging so much but giving the opportunity for these business units to run on their own. Strategically, we work together but let the individual outlets make their own decisions. So we empower the teams to run their bottom line.
We have a vision, a strategy, long-term goals, and we have certain SOPs that we want to have across the group, then individuals still have their own unique positions that are unique to their brand or to their venue or to their location.
I want to spend more time on human capital because it’s about developing my direct reports so I can help all of the heads of these outlets and become better leaders. And the second part of that human capital is having a clear vision in terms of ensuring we have the best talent working for us. We’re happy to say that in November last year we’re at the point where we had too many people and not enough jobs.
We’ve embraced this manpower issue probably about two or three years ago, and we realized that there is no way in fighting what is inevitable. It’s better to improve productivity, increase the value of your manpower force, and attract and retain the best talent.
So we spent a lot of time, energy and effort on re-defining how we look at human capital. I mean HR is no longer just a department; it is a way of thinking. And we need to embrace that so that, uh, we attract the best talent, and so that’s my main role, is really that human capital thing as opposed to marketing or doing operations.
I still touch on all those things but if I want to empower and to let go, then I should focus more on the human capital and let those people who are marketing heads, the general managers, the chefs, let them be the experts. Let them tell us what they want to do. And I’ll focus on help supporting that.
2. What would you consider your greatest success?
In my career or in this company? I suppose it’s building a name for myself in whatever areas that I have put my focus on in that particular point of my career. When I was marketing manager of ZOUK, I was very well known for my achievements, and, to this day, it still resonates with a lot of people in the industry and I’m thankful for that.
As I got older and I shifted to operations and running the companies, in my previous job before I joined this company I was known for that. And now I’m at this company, I have somehow now shifted towards human capital focus.
And I have actually, over the last year, been involved in a lot more of those initiatives. Obviously I’m not recognized in that area but I see a lot of opportunities to strengthen ourselves as an employer of choice by focusing on that, rather than all the things that everyone else focuses on.
Because we, as a company, are a people-first culture, so if we take care of our people, they’ll take care of the company as well as our guests, our customers.
So I suppose to answer your question, it’s just being able to achieve something in whatever focus I have at that point in my career. So I am thankful for having had those opportunities, and then I really get into it and hopefully with The Lo & Behold and with this human capital focus, we can reach that in a couple years’ time. We’ll be very well known for our employer branding and our human capital philosophies and the way we run companies.
If we can do that, to me it will be the great achievement for this particular period of my career.
3. What is the most important thing you have learned in your business?
The most important thing. You can never stop learning. You can never stop learning. As we get older, a lot of people think that there are two ways you can go: either your mind closes up and you stop, you think you know everything, or you think you have enough experience and you know everything. But I find that the opposite. We need to keep our minds very open to accepting new things and to keep moving forward. Embrace new ideas, embrace change, keep things moving forward, don’t get complacent, never stand still and continual improvement.
All that reflects the same sort of thinking. It’s a constant, moving dynamic. You know, it’s not just about you have reached a certain level and you sort of relax. What we do, you have to keep going. And, to be honest, if you don’t keep learning and you don’t open your mind to new things, you will get bored anyway. So, I’m happy to be always learning and reading books and attending courses, even at my level and my age. There is nothing wrong, just keep learning, so you can never stop learning.
4. What do you wish you had known prior to coming into your role?
I think one, one of the things was in my last company which was a listed company and I was a COO. The way we operate the company and the pressures of being a listed company and everything, you manage the company in a certain way and it was tough for the people below you. One thing happened when I was leaving that company to join this company. I was ready to reflect on leadership as part of your way of thinking, and it’s not to do with your title or anything, but it’s about the traits of being a good leader and how to, you know, walk the talk, practice what you preach, but also how to develop your team members along that same thinking.
I’ve learned a lot in the last three years, and I appreciate the fact that my directors in this company now are very attuned to a type of leadership style that is positive and motivating and fulfilling and a balance between work and non-work and all that sort of stuff.
You know, I think I appreciate that people-first culture that we have here. And I suppose I’ve embraced it so much that I would like to think that I have taken it up to another level. I think probably perhaps it was that environment I was in, but in this environment here where you need to think about everyone being fulfilled and being happy with their lives, with their work, with their family life, with everything.
It needs to be encompassing because if you’re not happy, if you have issues at home or you have issues with other stuff then it’s gonna affect your work, so it’s important that you think of the bigger picture. Learning and really embracing that and being very interested in that sort of thinking, it’s something that I would have liked to have done before I joined the company, but I’m doing it now so hopefully I have time to catch up.
5. What challenges did you feel the least prepared to handle?
I think in my last company it was very much a top-down type of structure. I wouldn’t say it was a collaborative effort, it was my way or the highway type of thinking. Coming to this company, I have been managing a lot of very talented, very smart people. It’s what Google always says is that you should always hire people that are smarter than you.
For me, it was challenging starting to manage people that were more experienced than me in certain parts of this industry, especially since I come from the restaurant background. I was in my life in the bar so coming here and managing people who have years and years of experience with running restaurants or working at a hotels or in a kitchen and so how, how do I manage those people?
It’s really about managing senior leaders. Something that I didn’t really do in my last position. It was the gap between me and my direct reports was pretty big, whereas here, the gap is very, very small and I have a lot of people that I need to manage. I am really putting myself in their shoes and really understanding their passions, their fears, their whatever, and then trying to help them do better at what they do.
But these people are older than me, more experienced than me, so how do I manage that? I’m now managing very talented people. We have a lot of talent in this company, a lot of talented people in this company and it’s not easy because everyone has a point of view, everyone is creative, everyone has experience. Everyone has a different rationale. So how do you manage, how do you balance and squeeze out the best solution, given the fact that it could be a million different types of points of view and you’re trying to filter out the best solution. So that’s always been challenging.
6. What would you want your successor to know if you were mentoring him/her?
Always get to know your people who work with you, who report to you as well as possible. We take that for granted. We say that, but we actually take that for granted. I’ll share a little story. I love using sporting analogies. There’s the Indian premier league cricket team and they have a team that’s managed by former captain of Australia, Ricky Ponteen, and he’s basically managing a team of superstars. Everyone there is a superstar. Earns a lot of money, very good players from around the world, just like a mixed team.
He joined the team and the first few months it didn’t do very well. But then near the end they won the competition? Why? Because he needed the time to get to know his people. And he said that once I got the time to get to know my people, what made them tick, whatever suggestion I would make, they would consider. But until you know your people they will never listen to you. And that was such a powerful thing because in a way when you’re managing a sports team, you are managing superstars.
Everyone is a superstar. Management in these days is definitely more important than tactics. If you can manage your people well, the strategies and the tactics all happen. But if you don’t manage people well…
So it’s always about getting to know your people really, really well. What makes them tick, what motivates them, what upsets them. Know about their family life as much as you can. Be empathetic. I still struggle with that and I try to just keep doing more and more, but it’s a really important thing, um, because once you know how they tick it’s easy for them to respond to your suggestions and that’s what you want, everyone to think the same way. Of course if they’ve got suggestions and you think they’re great ideas, let’s move with that. Say “oh no problem.”
7. What did you want to become as a child?
Actually I never actually had a dream, to be really honest. I didn’t have anything. I mean when I went, when I finished high school I got into marketing school…. (WHAT WERE YOU, LIKE SIX OR EIGHT YEARS OLD?) I didn’t, I didn’t have any dream. I really didn’t have any dream. I love conspiracy theories so maybe I wanted to be an investigative journalist.
At seventeen I started working in entertainment when I was still in high school. I was doing a lot of different things from working in clubs, putting on events, parties, waiting tables in a restaurant around that same period. And I really wanted a job where I get paid to have fun.
But I knew the pitfalls of that. I knew it would be hard work. Actually a lot more hard work than people think it is, and you have to be very disciplined because of the temptations of what you do. There are many of the wrong reasons why people join the industry and I saw the extent of that.
When I was also finishing university, I went out to apply for jobs, other jobs in advertising and everything, I couldn’t get the jobs. No one wanted to hire me, except people running bars and clubs. So my mentors at the time were telling me “hey, stop trying to fight it, this is who you are, this is what you’re good at doing, believe in it, accept it.”
It’s true. I mean I realized that I sort of carved up my own little niche in what I was doing and I strengthened that reputation and strengthened that niche, and it can be scary sometimes because it’s not like it’s a job that’s very common. You create a situation where you want very few people, maybe in Singapore, that can do this job. Versus, you want to do a job where there are a lot of jobs available so you think you’ve got it all.
8. What adjective describes you best?
Arrogant, maybe? (MAYBE WE CHANGE THAT TO CONFIDENT?) Yeah, confident. Shy, in some ways.
9. Is there anyone you would like to meet and why?
I’ve been fortunate enough to have met a lot of people that have really intrigued me. One of my favorite musicians of all time, a guy called David Sylvian, who is a bit of a recluse.
He’s been writing beautiful music since the 70s. He’s just a, he’s a song writer, poet, experimental. He’s not commercial in what he does. He just lives in his art and he evolves his sound. He’s evolved his sound over the last thirty, forty years. I just love his music. I’ve been following his music for many years and it’s just, there are some artists, some musicians that you still, you have followed their careers and you have sort of seen them change over the time, you just want to meet them.
It’s a bit of a fan thing, but have been fortunate, like I said, being in the business, I have actually met a lot of people who I never thought I would ever meet. So I have met them already in what I’ve been doing in my career, especially in hospitality, I have met a lot already. I’m not a guy who expects photographs as fans, but there are a couple of people I really want to have a photograph with.
I suppose the other one I don’t mind meeting would be Sir Alex Ferguson because he’s the old Manchester United manager. I have followed him since 1976, and it was interesting when I met David Beckham in Singapore about a year when he first launched his Whiskey Club at a trade launch at MBS, and he was there and I met him. Of course I can talk football with him and no one else could talk football with him.
There was another musician that was with David Sylvian, the era, a Japanese guy called Urichi Sikamoto who I met at, in ZOUK about twenty years ago. I was following his music since the 80s. So I met him. I’ve been very, very fortunate, you know.
I also had the chance to meet a guy, Malcolm McLaren, who passed away recently, a couple years ago, who was the founder of punk music. Again, I brought him to Singapore to do a show at ZOUK. And so I have been very fortunate to have been able to meet a lot of people that I grew up idolizing, for whatever they created and the opportunity of bringing them to do something and work with them in my professional thing was an amazing feeling to have.
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