The Biggest Catch of Them All!
The Manhattan FISH MARKET recently won both the Franchisor of the Year 2009 and International Franchisor of the Year 2009 awards at the FLA Award 2009 – something no other franchise in Singapore has managed in the five-year history of the Franchising & Licensing Association Awards. The FLA Award 2009 is a prestigious and high profile franchising event in Singapore that accords recognition to outstanding local and international franchisors and franchisees that operates in Singapore. Walking away with one award is no mean feat. Notching two at a go takes gargantuan efforts. The Manhattan FISH MARKET however, did just that by ousting stiff competition – from some highly established franchise names in the industry – to come out tops.
How was a relatively young company able to pull it off? Who could be a better person to answer this question than the CEO of Revenue Valley Sdn Bhd himself, George Ang, 37.
When we arrived at the Tony Roma’s restaurant (sister restaurant under the Revenue Valley Sdn Bhd’s belt, which The Manhattan FISH MARKET (MFM) is also part of) at Mid Valley, we were ushered to our seats through a maze of lunch time crowd by a friendly manager. After a few minutes George walked out from the restaurant kitchen and greeted us with a smile, proving a point that he is one of the hands-on types who prefers to be in the thick of action rather than behind a desk. Donning a simple black short sleeve shirt and jeans, he looked modest for someone helming such a high post.
Tell us a bit on how The Manhattan FISH MARKET got started
I think we were rather fortunate from the beginning. When we looked around before we started, there were not many quick-service restaurants that served fish-based dishes. The only fast-food restaurant that operated then was Long-John Silver, which has since closed down. My friends (now partners), Dickson Low, Dr Jeffrey Goh and I came up with the idea of opening a casual dining restaurant to cater this niche market. Operating a restaurant business was completely new to us. We thought why not and had a go! We were young and foolhardy then perhaps! We managed to secure a loan and invested around RM60,000 as an initial fee to open our first outlet at Mid Valley back in 2002. It was not easy gaining trust back then as we were literally unknown and considered newbies in the Food & Beverage (F&B) field. I even had to comb my hair a certain way and wear old glasses to look mature for my age when I had meetings with bankers. I can only say we went knocking on many doors when we started.
Within seven years, MFM has positive sales and publicity from the start. Is franchising as a model for expansion one of the reasons?
Unbelievable as it sounds, we did not start-off our business with the intention to franchise. In fact, in the very beginning when we opened our first outlet in Mid Valley, we did all the work and running around ourselves; delivery, slicing the fish, cutting, cooking, mopping the floor, experimenting with the menus, touching up the décor and so forth. It was not as easy as it looks now. As we gradually learned from our mistakes, exchanged notes, and gained some experience, we realised most of our daily duties were done rather haphazardly and through trials and errors – fixing problems as they appear. This is when we implemented the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) into our business by observing other successful companies.
The franchise consideration came much later when we became aware that it is impossible to be running to all our outlets every time a problem crops up. That is why I strongly emphasise on the SOPs. Even when we (my partners and I) are not physically available at any of our restaurants, I am confident my managers and supervisors will be able to handle the operation smoothly.
Give us some examples of how you apply the Standard Operating Procedures in your business
When we started our first restaurant, we were quite inexperienced, we used to slice fish delivered by our suppliers and mix sauces ourselves when we were operating only one store. Not only was it time consuming but it added extra burden on us. To avoid the additional workload, nowadays we actually pay a higher fee to have our fish delivered according to specifications and our sauces are ready-made. It’s a form of OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturing) method where we outsource some of the major kitchen preparation work to get consistency and better quality.
This enables us to bring down the cost of production through economies of scale, and also concentrate on our core business functions. For instance, we cook all our food at the store only upon order to maintain freshness unlike many other F&B outlets where the food are often prepared in a centralised kitchen, delivered to various outlets and reheated in microwave ovens. It certainly requires a stringent SOPs and quality control due to our insistence on food freshness. Our SOPs are now quite extensive and our managers are even trained to cook. Our food recipes are standardised. You are assured of the same good taste from any of our outlets. Nothing is left to chance. That’s the role of a strong SOPs; there is a checklist and a system for everything done at MFM. We do not allow room for errors. This is how all our 40 restaurants are managed. MFM has been synonymous with the freshest of produce, a warm and relaxing ambience as well as staff who top off the experience with memorable tableside service – all due to our SOPs.
How do you evaluate a suitable franchisee and what do you expect from your franchisees?
First and foremost, ensure you take the time to educate the franchisee on the rudiments of franchising. Sad to say, especially in Malaysia, I have met many prospective franchisees who seriously lack the basic knowledge of franchising. Some cannot even tell the difference between business format franchising and product distribution franchising. You must be upfront from the very beginning on the limitations of a franchise business and the importance of adhering to the franchise agreements. Only when your franchisee fully understands his/her franchising responsibilities, can you start building a close relationship with your franchisee. I cannot emphasise this enough. The level of success your franchise partners garner is dependent upon how well you can work with your franchisee. It should be a win-win relationship – like a husband-wife relationship – if you want your business to be long lasting. Apart from that, a motivated franchisee should also possess leadership qualities, good listening skills and be quick to adapt to different market situations.
Did you have any franchisee that you regret appointing?
Well, everyone learns through mistakes. There was a franchisee of ours, after the initial stage of success with his/her first MFM outlet, started to do things their own way without our consent, like changing the decor, introducing own set of menu and the like. They also opened up another unit without our approval on the site. We did our best to advise them but it didn’t work. After much deliberation, we had to terminate their contract and buy back the outlet. We did not want our image to be tarnished in any way.
What is the one golden tip you like to share with first-time franchisor and franchisee?
My one advice would be, before you become a franchisee, please talk to other franchisees and find out everything about the franchise business. Nothing comes close to knowing a business better than from the perspective and experience of other franchisees. A genuine franchisor who values his or her business would allow this. If he or she doesn’t, then you must be wary of the business you are getting into. Also, get into franchising with a long-term vision even when you have other aspects covered, like capital, location, manpower etc. Franchising is a long term business. Never get into it for a quick profit. Go with this in mind – the marketplace is competitive and unforgiving and it is only your personal endeavours that will ensure your survival and success.
How has the growth been locally and in other countries?
Although we are already present in a few countries, we are not in a hurry to expand immediately to more countries though we had numerous enquiries from countries like India and China. We are keen to establish a strong base in Malaysia and Singapore first. Since we have learned the business quite a fair bit, we are very selective on our expansion strategies. At this point we are more interested to appoint an ambitious franchisee who is willing to own a multi-unit franchise rather than a single-unit franchise for time and cost effectiveness. Through experience, we find a multi-unit franchise easier to manage.
The reception we received in Jeddah (Saudi Arabia) was tremendous. In fact many Middle East countries have shown keen interest to have MFM restaurants…but we will take it slowly.
What is your strategy to expand internationally?
We usually engage a master franchisee from the host country. We prefer local partners to oversee the operations in other countries like Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines, as they understand the local cultures and consumers better than us. However, we often have a Malaysian or Singaporean to train the locals for at least one year or so during the initial set-up stage. If necessary, we also make some changes to our menu by adding local flavours to suit local taste buds.
Moving into Saudi Arabia was a new strategy for us as we appointed a Master Franchisee there with already strong existing operations in F&B. Nonetheless, we invested time and resources together with our partner to study and understand the Saudi market. It takes time to study and research a market though. But as I said, we are taking one step at a time for now. MFM has never failed in any country and we want to stay that way. We do not want our efforts go to waste.
As a homegrown Malaysian brand, you certainly would have sought assistance from franchise associations and government agencies from Malaysia and Singapore when you started off. How helpful were they in MFM’s success?
The franchise associations and government agencies helped us in many ways. The Malaysian Franchise Association (MFA) and MATRADE assisted us in promoting our brands overseas. Meanwhile, International Enterprise of Singapore and FLA helped us with market research and studies and exposed us to international players.
We understand you also worked with a Singapore franchise consultant to assist MFM to develop a dynamic programme to enhance your presence in the region. How important is a consultant to a franchisor?
Personally I feel entrepreneurs tend to think they know everything when they are successful. It’s easy to become egoistic after a while. A consultant comes in handy to point out our mistakes and to help us see things from a different perspective. We worked closely with our consultant, Astreem Corporation, which functioned as a franchise business solutions partner offering franchise system development, marketing and franchisee recruitment services. Astreem was also our third-eye, so to speak, which helped us spot opportunities that we were oblivious to. In fact, our consultant is the one that inspired us to dream big and move beyond our own sphere.
What is the one secret behind MFM’s success that other franchisors can learn from?
The F&B market is an extremely competitive one. Some may even find it glamorous but it is all hard work. Some have even said that running a restaurant business is simple. Yes, I agree. It’s simple. But it’s doing 1,000 simple things – you get what I mean? You must have a keen eye for details. The only way to stay alive in this business is by constantly upgrading oneself to stay relevant and ensure business continuity.
At MFM, we conduct Research & Development (R&D) four times a year on our products. This is to regularly create novelty and find ways to be innovative so that our products could meet the changing demands of our customers. We think long-term in everything we do. This goes to our franchisees as well as to our staff who we address as our partners.
To MFM, our staff are our backbone. For instance, even though I am the CEO of the company, I don’t have a room of my own. I practice an open office concept, to demonstrate to others that I am always approachable. Moreover, we don’t just think in terms of profit. We strongly believe that when our franchisees are able to earn a profit, we eventually will too. This is where a strong marketing support comes in. We are always there to guide our franchisees. In fact we have a dedicated franchise team led by a Relationship Manager to takes care of all our franchising related matters.
How was MFM able to sweep both the Franchisor of the Year 2009 and International Franchisor of the Year 2009 awards? The shortlisted finalists were among the most established names in the franchise industry. How could MFM, being a relatively young player on the block was able to do so?
It took us by surprise too. Actually we went through two rounds of judging processes – one, for the Singapore category and the other, by foreign judges, for the international category. I think what set us apart from others was our unrelenting pursuit for top quality in our endeavours…yes, that was our edge. We breathe and live quality in all that we do, and we aim to keep it that way. MFM prides itself in offering diners an extensive menu, casual dining at affordable prices, as well as impeccable service – which would not have materialised without our strong emphasis on top quality.
What winning these awards mean to MFM?
We were honoured to be among some of the leading names in the franchising industry. The awards gave us a renewed confidence in ourselves and the high quality that we have always professed. However, we also know that we cannot rest on our laurels after winning these awards. By winning the awards, we have not only set an industry standard but also a point of reference to outshine ourselves.
MFM is also known to be a company that encourages employee involvement under its ‘Makin’ A Difference’ Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Programme. What does Corporate Social Responsibility mean to MFM?
It means a lot to us. Besides just visiting and feeding the poor and the destitute, we have also employed staff who are mute and hearing-impaired at our outlets, especially in the kitchen units. This is our way of giving back to the society. I am a strong believer of the adage, “the more you give, the more you receive.” We want MFM to be seen as a place that really cares through our actions and conducts. Interestingly, our human resources department is known as the people care department. We want to be a people-orientated company.
As our short interview session came to an end, we quickly sipped our drinks, knowing well that George would be eager to get back to work. As we got up and bid farewell to the friendly manager and the waitress who stood graciously near us all the time, we took a glance again at George…he did a quick wave and got back into the kitchen.