Now he sits atop the company that runs the vast network of McDonald’s restaurants in Thailand.
Chew, who is chairman of the executive committee and chief executive of McThai, has been a local pioneer in what is known as the quick-service restaurant (QSR) industry.
Chew says he clocked up a wealth of diverse experiences in his engagement with QSR. Among them are the benefits from networking with people, including friends and other professionals – and that opportunity to pursue lifelong learning.
These experiences have helped him to apply what he has learned in business training. The knowledge he has learned from many developed markets around the world has been put to work, and these insights have helped in the creation of products relevant to the local market.
He can say with confidence that his joining the QSR business became a central part of his life-long learning process.
Chew began his career in the fast-food business in the early 1980s, when in Singapore he joined the company that later became known as KFC.
“I felt inspired to bring a new industry to the market, exciting curiosity among people, as I took up an opportunity for extensive training. I always keep learning and have grown from that initial experience,” he says.
“Initially, I joined the QSR industry back in 1983 and it was then a very new industry. Being young, I was quite curious and liked to work with people. My passion is to work with people in this industry,” says Hester, who joined KFC in the city state as a management trainee.
“At that time, I went for training in the restaurant. I got to learn not just by looking at the products and organising people, but also by planning for the restaurant.
“ My inspiration was the curiosity that I felt as QSR was a new industry there. The role allowed me to work with people. I grew and learnt from that. It also gave me an opportunity for training overseas, including in Australia and Louisville, Kentucky. It gave me exposure to not just KFC in Singapore but to more developed KFC operations, like in Australia and the US.”
Chew progressed from management trainee to restaurant manager and then to area supervisor. He did training for restaurants and took over all the operations at the area level. After that, Chew went on to a senior role in the company’s regional operations.
Chew was getting noticed and, in 1988, the company president asked him to establish KFC’s business in China. But his family felt China was too far away for their liking, so he was presented with an offer to run the business in Bangkok and its joint venture with Charoen Pokphand (CP). He moved to Thailand in October of that year. “It proved a good move for me as in Thailand I started to learn about a new culture and how to do business here, as well as combining people skills and business skills to grow the business here,” says Chew, who worked at KFC for almost 20 years -13 of them in Thailand.
Chew says that when he moved to Thailand KFC already had a local franchisee, Central Restaurants Group (CRG), which stuck a deal with KFC in 1985.
“When I moved here in 1988, CRG already had the franchise for KFC, but the company had stopped growing the brand,” he says. “Central operated five KFC restaurants, including the Silom store, which burned down.”
Chew said the number of KFC restaurants in Thailand had grown to 300 – comprising those branches run by CRG and those owned by the company – when he left KFC in 2002.
“During my first two to three years at KFC, I tried to work hard to reshape the business and work together with CRG. There was a good initial working relationship as I tried to rebuild trust and inter-personnel skills relationships so that we could grow the business,” Chew recalls of that time.
“The way I develop a business, whether at KFC or McDonald’s, is to work on how to adapt the business and enhance and grow the brand within the local context.
“When I first started at KFC, I introduced rice into the KFC restaurant in Samrong. Rolling out rice at KFC in 1989 was my strategy to adapt to the affordability levels and local eating habits of Thai consumers.
“Adapting the business concept is quite important in order for us to see what we are growing with. At McDonald’s today, new products are relevant to families and our consumers.
“Adapting the brand and the business to the local culture is important. What have I gained? I have gained a working knowledge along with experience, and I have got to know many friends in Thailand. At the end of the day, Thailand has proved to be very good place for us to adapt the business and to work.”
Chew, away from his hectic work schedule, goes to the gym at least once or twice a week to keep up his exercise routine. He also enjoys a round of golf once or twice a month.
“I enjoy travelling and the opportunity to meet different people, experience different cultures and tastes and the different foods,” he says.
“I am also very active in the Young Presidents’ Organisation (YPO), which has 27,000 members around the world. You can look at my hobbies and my interests. It helps me to maintain good networking. YPO has a lot of educational programmes. I think at an individual level, whether we are male or female, we always want to keep learning. Lifelong learning is quite important. YPO’s concept is lifelong learning. I think that is good as well.
“Let’s take YPO. When we travel on business, I invite out a group of businesspeople. Like last year in Hawaii, at an evening dinner I got different YPO members from local business industries to join us and they explained about their local industries.
“Getting local knowledge directly from local businesspeople on the ground is one way that we can gain more knowledge.”
Chew cites a recent programme at YPO in Cape Town, where he gained updates on artificial intelligence. A Tibetan monk also talked about mindfulness and how people can work can relax and work under a balanced approach.
“So, I think on-going learning and networking with people are ways that have helped me in business,” Chew says. “Keeping up exercise is also important. This helps me to keep fit and sharp so that I can focus more on my work.”
He says that one of the most important factors for doing well at work is focus.
“So, if you’re not physically fit, it will be difficult for you to focus and concentrate on business. I sleep maybe for four hours a day. Being fit is important,” he says “Everybody says we must sleep at least eight hours a day. For me, sleeping for just four to five hours is good enough. However, on Sunday afternoon, I just relax.
“Going to the sports club is my place to recharge the batteries. It is like a car going for a check-up and battery recharge. People for the same reason need to be recharged. Keeping fit is important so that we can focus on our work. Having networks and ongoing learning are important so that we can keep updating ourselves.”
Technology provides another example of the need for constant updating.
“We need to be updated as the technology is changing so fast,” Chew says. “This morning at 8.30, I attended a business seminar by Facebook to understand what is happening in terms of the disruption we see with technology. Some 150 people were there, so I met many people. I got to know some new people, met some old friends, and also updated myself on what has happening in the technology world as well. It is important to keep bring updated and to be curious and to keep learning as well.
“Technology is disrupting businesses with mobile apps. For example, our app and Web have helped our McDonald’s delivery business to achieve strong double-digit growth. We need to apply technology in the business as well as learn more broadly about it.”
Chew joined McDonald’s in Thailand in 2006. At that time, the company operated 93 restaurants across the country. The number of McDonald’s restaurants has since risen to 248.
“We always look at what we have achieved over the past 13 years. A key thing that we have done is to make our products relevant,” he says. “We are more aggressive on drive-thru. For the past eight to nine years, McDonald’s has been at the forefront in pushing more drive-thru stores in the market. Now, many brands are also opening drive-thru outlets. Drive-thru is one area that we have pushed. McDonald’s is definitely a pioneer in the drive-thru business in Thailand.
If we look at the technology front, today we have more than half of our restaurants with a digital menu board. And we have some 60 restaurants with self-ordering kiosks.
“So at the moment in QSR, we do have different products that we want to make relevant to the customers. We also expanded McCafe into McDonald’s here.”
Chew says his long-term ambition for the company is for it to continue to grow.
“I think it is important for the company to continue to grow our business as well as our team and our people within the company,” he says. “We also want to ensure that our restaurant and CSR programmes, such as Ronald McDonald House Charities, continue to be strong.”
Chew says McDonald’s has three major corporate social responsibility programmes. Under the first one, the company has opened children’s playrooms at 35 hospitals. The second programme concerns Ronald McDonald Houses, which have been opened at the Queen Sirikit National Institute of Child Health, Nopparat Rajathani Hospital, King Chulalongkorn Memorial Hospital, and Siriraj Hospital.
“Working with the four hospitals on a combined basis, every year we can serve up to 58,400 people who have stayed with us,” he says.
The third programme, Ronald McDonald Care Mobile, provides oral health screening and dental care services to underprivileged children in rural areas for free. Each year, the company serves about 8,000 children with this programme.
Chew says that he believes in work-life harmony, rather than work-life balance.
“This is because balance implies an equal measure. When we enjoy our work we won’t have a problem. We don’t see it as work. The importance for us is to enjoy our work,” says Chew, who notes that when people work hard, they play harder and, sometimes, drink the hardest as well.
“I think we have got enjoy what we’re doing. We work hard so that we can provide for our families, which is important. We work hard to provide more opportunity for our staff and employees. I think working is important.
“As a leader, I believe empathy is important. We have an attitude of empathy. We have an attitude of being a servant leader. We work and serve at the same time, so that we can grow our organisation and to grow stronger together.”
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