From an arts graduate to a restaurant mogul, Fong Chi Chung has always followed his passion. Along the way, the China-born entrepreneur has built a flat hierarchy and an employee profit-sharing model for his restaurant business, under which 30 per cent of the restaurant's profits after tax are redistributed back to his staff. It is these strategies that Fong credits for Putien's growth from a single establishment to a regional chain with 74 outlets across Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Hangzhou.
Putien first started out in October 2000 as a humble coffeeshop restaurant in Kitchener Road, where it still stands today. Fong, who had moved to Singapore to set up an electronics business with his brothers, missed the taste of his hometown cuisine, and could not find a comparable restaurant in Singapore. He thus founded Putien to fill the void, and placed emphasis on home-cooked authenticity and fresh ingredients. The F&B novice persevered as the restaurant made losses in its first three years, before positive word-of-mouth grew among both customers and suppliers, about this tucked-away eatery with its high standards for fresh seafood, which Fong doggedly sourced himself at Jurong Fishery Port, Singapore’s wholesale seafood market.
2016 was a proud year for Fong when Putien (Kitchener Road) earned a one-MICHELIN-star nod, while Putien (Causeway Bay) in Hong Kong was recognised with a Bib Gourmand distinction. We speak to the veteran restaurateur on the occasion of the brand’s 20th anniversary, for his thoughts on building an F&B brand, his succession plans, and the company's adaptations to a global crisis.
Congratulations on the 20th anniversary of PUTIEN! What are some insights you can share now that you have reached this milestone?
Thank you. I've always believed that regardless of what career one chooses to pursue, the most important thing is to have passion for what you are doing; only so will you be able to sustain it as a career. Always remember what made you start the business in the first place.
You hold both arts and business degrees. How have they helped to shape your approach to running restaurants?
It is important for everyone to appreciate the arts in order to develop one’s sense of worldliness. It is not only integrated into my business but also my life, and allows me to pursue a certain ideal sense of beauty.
My education and learnings in my business allow me to build confidence in myself. When I first introduced the “Putien family” way of managing my staff, many told me it would not work and that I should adopt a stricter or more structured management style. However, through practice, I realised that our approach is correct and Putien needs to be goal-oriented — and even surpass its goals with this style of management.
“Focus. If one is always distracted by juggling among various ideals, they might end up achieving none.”
As you’re not a chef or trained in F&B, how closely are you involved in Putien's dining programme?
It was precisely my lack in expertise that spurred me to delve wholeheartedly into learning and polishing my understanding of it; and to serve every diner like how I would the guests I host at home.
Fujian cuisine, and specifically cuisine from Putian, isn’t regarded as common or popular. When we first started, it was very challenging as Putian food was not widely understood or appreciated. But when I look back now, this actually worked to our advantage, as it has allowed us to bring a brand new experience to our customers.
Putien's Signature Recipe: Fried Heng Hwa Bee Hoon
How closely are you involved in creating the food and the signature dishes at the restaurant?
I try to ensure that we keep to our DNA, which is to serve food that is honest and showcases the original taste of the ingredients. There is no need for fancy or complicated cooking methods when you have good ingredients.
For instance, I led the entire development process of our signature ‘100-second’ Stewed Yellow Croaker dish, as we wanted to introduce this unique dish to mark the brand’s foray into the Hong Kong market. Firstly, we noticed that people in Hong Kong enjoy eating fish – hence we decided on using Fujian’s famous yellow croaker. To best showcase its freshness, we dedicated half a year of research to the dish, which led to the method we use today, that is to cook the 200g fish for 100 seconds precisely. Such a seemingly simple dish is actually a result of elaborate effort.
Is your venture into F&B an accidental success, or something that was planned?
First and foremost, I would not consider Putien as a ‘success’ just yet. Though we have been established for 20 years, we had to make adjustments at various stages, and we are still treading on thin ice every step of the way, especially with more uncertainties in this challenging time. However, we embrace trial and error today and no longer fear setbacks, as they only serve to fuel our fighting spirit and growth. I have always believed that the smooth running of Putien is mostly attributed to team effort; our growth revolves around that of the team.
What does it mean to have a flat hierarchy at Putien?
I view all my staff as a family, and would always be patient with them as I would with my loved ones. To me, we are a tight-knit family working towards a common goal: the betterment of the group. I have complete trust in each one of them. Since they are family, there is no difference in our status. I always respect their valuable opinions and expertise in their field.
What spurred you to devote 30 per cent of Putien's profits as dividends for your employees? Do you practice it across your international chains as well?
The idea of profit sharing with our employees first came in 2007, on Putien’s 7th year of operations, when we had begun to consider chain expansion and wanted to boost the morale of the team. We wanted to share the group’s achievements with the entire team, since it is the result of everyone’s hard work. Since 2008, we implemented our profit-sharing model, and we have always insisted on distributing 30 per cent of our total after-tax profit among all our employees every year, no matter the amount we earned. At the same time, we opened three new outlets that year, and started offering equity-sharing opportunities to our staff. We hope that their position at Putien can be not merely a job for them, but a lifelong career.
We will keep this profit-sharing model for the long-term, and it is not only implemented in Singapore but for all Putien staff around the world. In fact, it will be more thoroughly implemented in time to come.
How can F&B businesses adapt to the current pandemic?
While the F&B sector has definitely taken a hit in this pandemic, I prefer to look at it in a positive light. Those who have made it through this challenging time have clearly grown and are better equipped to respond to similar crisis situations in the future. In fact, I believe that the service industry itself have been and will continue to constantly pose challenges — for instance, during the SARS incident in 2003 — and external factors that are unpredictable and out of our control. Rather, we should put our focus on the betterment of our establishments after learning from these experiences.
With over 70 restaurants across many countries, is the pandemic challenge faced by Putien magnified or lessened?
Putien is able to get through this challenging time all thanks to our dedicated restaurant managers, with each one of them doing an impeccable job managing their outlets in every aspect, from pandemic control to budget control. I have little to worry about for our brand as I have complete trust in our team.
Are there trends or opportunities that you see in the market?
From a micro perspective, we did see improved manpower recruitment as well as increased business district options; while from a macro perspective, the outbreak of the pandemic has forced F&B brands to make changes in order to survive, promoting the development of the F&B industry as a whole. We feel that this global pandemic is likely to become the new normal; hence our strategies and preventive measures should be long-term.
Are your children interested in taking over the business?
Both my sons graduated from the University of California; my elder son majored in Business Management, while my younger son in Mathematics. These choices were purely based on their interests. For instance, when I asked my younger son why he chose to study math, he told me that he wanted to be a math teacher. I will support their choices as long as they follow their passion.
Once the company attains a certain scale, the main criterion for the ones to be assigned to handle the business is whether the individual has the ability to improve the entire team.
What will the next 20 years look like?
Putien currently has over 70 restaurant managers. It is my wish that in the next 20 years, under their guidance, we will be able to witness the making of even more capable restaurant managers and further strengthen our team.
How long more do you intend to continue working? Are you looking forward to retirement?
At this time, I would like there to be more room for the team to try things out; and as for myself, as I still have infinite enthusiasm towards sourcing for the best food ingredients and products, I will continue in my search for quality ingredients, as well as in participating in the development of more stellar products to offer in our restaurants.
All images courtesy of Putien.