Ironically, it was a bout of poor service that drove ex-commodities trader Michael Ma to establish his first restaurant in Singapore.
Ma and his friends were out celebrating a birthday at a Holland Village restaurant and had asked the waiter to lower the temperature of some champagne. The manager did not accede to the request and an argument ensued, prompting the party of 13 to leave for another venue across the street where they were again greeted with indifferent service.
This was the turning point that made Ma embark on a food and beverage (F&B) venture of his own. That week, he registered his business with 10 friends as silent partners. “I wanted to go into the industry and outrun the players who offer lousy service,” he says.
The first IndoChine restaurant opened its doors in Club Street in 1999. The early days were rough as he had no experience in managing people in an F&B environment. There were also numerous permits that he had to arrange for both the business and his new employees, he says. Most of the learning was done on the job.
Today, the IndoChine group runs some 11 venues in Singapore and has also established a presence in Germany and Thailand. The latest jewel on its crown is located 58 metres above the ground, atop an artificial tree at the new Gardens by The Bay in Singapore.
Ma’s background as a commodities trader has served him well in assessing the marketplace and seizing new opportunities for business. When Singapore was hit by the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome epidemic in 2003, F&B businesses took a hit and many cut back on their employees. Instead of following suit, Ma took the opportunity to build his business even further.
“Every time there is a crisis, there’s an opportunity. Top staff were being let go. We were recruiting everyone,” Ma says. Rentals were cheap and it was a good time to take the plunge and invest in new outlets, he adds.
Surviving the service desert
At IndoChine’s outlet in Hamburg, Germany, a single waiter oversees 26 seats. He doesn’t need to write down any orders and remembers all of them by heart, says Ma. “In Germany, you could be a runner for three years before you get to serve guests. They demand precision and perfection,” says Ma.
Service standards in Singapore have yet to reach this level, says Ma. Most of the service staff who join IndoChine come with minimal experience and lack knowledge in skills like how to serve wine, set tables and clear plates. An in-house trainer gets them up to speed. “We try to push it up to a five-star level of service,” he says.
The lack of good service stems from the nature of society here, says Ma. A lot of Singaporeans are dependent on domestic workers for their daily chores and this does not promote a service culture. It is common for Europeans to work part-time in a bar or restaurant while in high school or university.
However, employers in the F&B industry here cannot afford to be choosy, especially when there is a dearth of talent. “We want to hire bad staff as this is better than no staff. Give me any one,” he says, and he will train them up.
Quotas on the hiring of foreign workers further compounds the situation, says Ma. “It is the most stupid rule. You can increase efficiency, but this is still a labour-intensive industry.” Local F&B employees also have a lot of jobs to choose from and are not afraid to jump ship when work gets tough, Ma adds.
Helping employees grow
In a highly volatile industry, understanding your employees’ true passions can go a long way in engaging and retaining them, says Ma. On one occasion, he was surprised to find a waitress soldering speakers. He found out that she had been studying sound engineering but could not get a job in that field. Ma urged her to become a sound engineer handling all the sound and entertainment requirements at his outlets. She stayed on with the company for eight years.
Amrish, another long-serving employee, started off as a waiter and has been with IndoChine for the past 12 years, shares Ma. He rose through the ranks and was given accounting and management roles upon graduating with a Masters in Finance. IndoChine sponsored a part of his education. At age 31, Amrish is now a General Manager at the group’s hospitality venture in Phuket, Thailand. He handles the mammoth task of managing over 300 employees, says Ma proudly.
When quizzed about his management style, Ma describes himself as a hands-on boss who is always ready to jump in and do the hard work, should it be cleaning tables or clearing out the trash. However, he has one request, “Tell me all the negatives so that we can minimise mistakes.”
Entering new territories
In 2007, the IndoChine Group embarked on its first hospitality venture in Thailand, with the opening of a hotel and serviced residence in Phuket.
The Thai hospitality industry was a completely new playing field for the company, says Ma. He hired an American management team to run the business but ended up firing them. “They did not learn how to integrate with local culture. They were too regimented. We had a lot of people doing very little.”
The project in Phuket was multi-faceted with different teams involved in construction, maintenance, gardening, F&B, and entertainment, says Ma. After firing the US management team, Ma proceeded to build a leaner organisation in March this year, with fewer staff who could better synergise and support each other.
As Ma always shares with his employees, the end game in this business is keeping customers happy. “When the customer is happy, they will tip you more and come back.”
Michael Ma was born in 1969 to Teochew parents in Laos, a Mekong country from which he draws inspiration for IndoChine’s unique cuisine. Ma left Laos with his family after their home was all but destroyed during the war. The family migrated to Sydney and prospered through a food import business.
Ma graduated from the University of Wollongong with a double major in economics and marketing, two disciplines that served him well in launching and growing the IndoChine Group. A stint as a commodities trader followed. But the life of an entrepreneur beckoned. In 1999 Michael opened his first IndoChine restaurant, IndoChine Club Street in Singapore, a combination of Asian lifestyle with colonial influences inspired by his Asian upbringing.
Growth, driven by Michael’s energy and innovation, was rapid. By 2010 IndoChine group had restaurants in Singapore  Hamburg, Germany and Phuket, Thailand.
Michael also serves on a number of advisory boards to share his experience. He has served as president of the Spirit of Enterprise, which promotes and advances entrepreneurial spirit in Singapore; on the Singapore F1 Grand Prix working committee to help establish Formula One’s first night race in Asia; he is a council member of the STB Tourism Consultative Council [TCC] the Singapore government’s Action Community for Entrepreneurship [ACE]; and a member of GEMS [Go the Extra Mile], a campaign to push service standards in Singapore to an international level.
• I love: Animals, The International Union for Conservation of Nature and John Lennon..
• I dislike: People who try to take the easy way out. I think that there is no quick and easy thing. Some people miss the plot. They think everything is so fast and easy. If it’s that simple, then why didn’t everybody else do it as well?
• My inspiration is: My father. Our family moved to Australia in 1976, but growing up in Sydney was not easy. We had no money, food, friends, or even language skills. Still, my father who was then 52 years old, stuck it out and developed a successful food import business in Sydney.
• In five years’ time: I hope to expand on my hospitality business. Since starting our resort in Phuket, I’m looking for other potential locations.
• My favourite quote: I always tell my staff, “It’s about motivation, leadership, and sharing your knowledge.”
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