The reel deal

Priya de Langen 12 Dec 2012

In 1939, The Cathay Cinema, housed in the Cathay Building, was the first air-conditioned theatre and, at close to 80 metres, Singapore’s first skyscraper. Rumour has it that up to 1955, pilots flying into the Kallang Airport often used the building as a landmark for their final approach.

This cinema was operated by Associated Theatres (founded in 1936), the predecessor to the iconic leisure and entertainment company, Cathay Organisation Holdings. Fast-forward 77 years, and Cathay Organisation has expanded its reach beyond Singapore and Malaysia to the Middle East.

The iconic brand is now headed by Suhaimi Rafdi, CEO of Cathay Organisation Holdings. A veteran of 17 years with the company, Suhaimi started off as an assistant general manager of Cathay Cineplexes, to work his way up to the top job in January 2008.

“I am very much a people person because I am operations CEO and I make a point to know my employees and their spouses and families,” he says. Apart from his work, Suhaimi is known to cook for his employees for Hari Raya, when he invites up to 150 people to enjoy a good home-cooked meal. “This is the other side of me that lower ranking employees don’t know about and there is no reason why they should be overly worried around me.”

Reeling in the talent

With a 77-year history, Suhaimi says the organisation is a “household name” in Singapore. “I have to admit that getting people to work with us is not too difficult as we need people to start work with us as casual labour,” he says.

Cathay Organisation Holdings has a two-pronged approach to getting talent into the company. It seeks out people who are recommended by friends and also works with head hunters. At the operational level, the company gets casual labour and some enjoy the work so much that they stay to take up full-time employment, says Suhaimi.

He points out that Cathay Organisation is not just about movies. “We have revamped to say that we are more than just movies – we are a multi-faceted organisation that has mall management, cinemas, film distribution, and even hotels to our name.” This, he says, makes the company more attractive to talent as there are more areas for a person to specialise in. Workers are needed for simple tasks such as ushering to more complicated roles such as buying a film to suit local markets.

Suhaimi adds that the organisation never stops recruiting. “If someone writes in about their capabilities we tend to make positions for them, as it is not easy to get good people these days and if one comes along the way, we will create a position,” he says. One of the roles that Cathay has increased is that of operations management.

However, he says that the organisation has difficulty recruiting front-line staff, such as for selling tickets and ushering guests. “These positions are usually filled by part-timers and they tend come to work for us seasonally because of school commitments. We have difficulty filling these positions throughout the year.”

Giving room to grow

Cathay has a track record of retaining veterans in the organisation, and Suhaimi says that the average tenure of employees is at least five years. In fact, the organisation has an employee affectionately known as the “Storeman” who has worked with Cathay for over 47 years. “He is over 62 years of age and he is still working with us,” Suhaimi says. Moreover, the company also has other veterans who have worked in the organisation for 20 to 30 years.

Employees in Cathay are given room to grow within the organisation and their concerns are addressed as much as possible. Suhaimi says that when the company hires a person, based on their abilities, they will have a career development plan mapped out for them. “Once we see the person has the capability to grow, we will work with the person to groom them further to improve on their strengths and work on their weaknesses.”

He says that Cathay discusses with an employee a three to five years career plan and how they will grow after one year in the organisation. “We would give the person further education and enrichment programmes to put them in the position to run the business better. We also allow the person to upgrade themselves and the company sponsors the person for a part-time degree course with a small bond required at the end of the period.”

Cross-lateral training is also provided to sharpen employees’ skills and engage them at work. Suhaimi says that employees work in an environment where they need to multi-task and if employees find their roles boring, the business seeks to engage them by cross-training them in another division, or giving them the opportunity for lateral movement. “For example, if you a marketing manager we could post you to the central division where we operate malls and we will be happy to give adequate training as marketing of malls is different from marketing of cinemas.”

Employees have their say

Cathay Organisation has its fair share of HR challenges, including having to cater to the needs of its multi-generation workforce. Suhaimi says that the company has a good mix of Baby Boomers, Generation X, Generation Y and the latest generation of working age – “Linksters” but Cathay has to constantly change its standard operating procedures (SOPs) to suit its staff.

“Our SOPs have to be changed continuously to suit employees’ needs and wants so that they can join Cathay and build a career with us.” Suhaimi says that Baby Boomers and Generation X employees are prepared to multi-task, and are willing to “stretch” themselves beyond their roles but Generation Y and Linksters are skilled towards one assignment and sometimes are not prepared to take on multi-tasking roles.

In order to address employees’ concerns, the organisation gives them a platform for feedback. Annually, 100 employees are selected to have dialogue sessions with HR to openly provide feedback on what they feel that the company can improve on.

Moreover, Suhaimi says that he and other heads of departments practice an open-door policy so that employees can approach them to share their ideas openly. “My office door is never closed and I believe an open management concept is very important. We like to hear from the people on the ground.” Suhaimi adds that he meets all the business units once a month or once every quarter in order to listen to their concerns.

Cathay Organisation also gives incentives for employees to come up with innovative ideas that could help improve workplace processes, as well as the bottom-line of the company. “In the Employee Recognition Programme, when employees put a programme on the table, they receive an X amount (bonus) and when it improves the bottom line, they get a Z amount.” One of the recent proposals was to help make beds faster with technology for a hotel under the organisation’s holdings.

Beyond borders

Over recent years, the brand has crossed national borders into the Middle East. In 2007, Cathay Organisation clinched a joint venture deal with Emaar Malls Group LLC in Dubai for a company, Reel Entertainment LLC. The joint venture company opened Dubai’s largest cinema complex at The Dubai Mall and another cineplex at the Dubai Marina Mall.

Though it is an ongoing success story, Suhaimi reflects that at first, when the organisation ventured into the United Arab Emirates, it was mistaken as the national air carrier of Hong Kong. “In Asia, people recognise the name but others might think that we are part of the aviation industry.” Currently, Cathay is operating cinemas on behalf of building owners and developers.

When he took over as CEO, the organisation had just ventured into the Middle East. He says that he was not chosen for the top job because of being a male Muslim but being one “has helped a lot as business people in the Middle East tend to communicate better with me.”

Interestingly, Middle Eastern people look up to Singapore companies as having high productivity and no-nonsense management styles, he adds.

This expansion beyond borders has given opportunities for the organisation to not only extend its brand’s reach but also help engage employees. Staff at Cathay’s head office are given the opportunity to be based in Dubai from two months to three years, while theatre managers and operations employees can be based there for between two and three months.

The exchange programme was started in the first year of the joint venture deal in Dubai. However, even if there are similarities in the business, there are huge differences in terms of culture, language and climate, says Suhaimi.

“Employees are educated about the culture, language, and dress etiquette, and are also taught to be tolerant of cultural differences. You can’t go in shorts and sleeveless tops and women cannot shake hands with men unless they offer it first. Women should serve women and men serve men,” he explains.

Cathay Organisation still has a bright road ahead, and Suhaimi says that he wants to keep the brand youthful. As such, the organisation has ventured into social media engagement over the past 24 months, enhancing the company’s Facebook, Twitter and online interactive site.

“It is important that Cathay is not seen as an old company but a mature company that is also young, hip and trendy. Youths find us interactive and a good 70% of our audience are aged between 17 to 35.”

Bio brief

Born in Singapore in 1967, Suhaimi has over 20 years of experience in the entertainment, leisure, hospitality and F&B industries, as well as extensive experience in F&B management, cinema operations and event organisation.

In 1996, Suhaimi joined Cathay Organisation Holdings, a leading organisation engaged in the businesses of entertainment, leisure, lifestyle and property management services. Suhaimi was then an Assistant General Manager of Cathay Cineplexes, a subsidiary of Cathay Organisation Holdings Limited.

In 2006, Suhaimi was promoted to President of Business Operations where he was responsible for 21 of Cathay Organisation’s subsidiary companies in Singapore and Malaysia. Later in the same year, he was assigned to oversee the Corporate Service functions of the Organisation, including HR, Finance, Legal, Group Communications, Information Technology, Internal Audit and Property & Projects Division.

Also in the same year, Suhaimi was involved in the formation of Cathay Organisation’s joint venture partnership with a leading corporation in Dubai. The joint venture partnership involves an extensive project in the development, management and operations of cineplexes and megaplexes in the Middle East, North Africa, the Indian sub-continent and Indonesia.

Suhaimi was promoted to Chief Executive Officer of the Group in 2008 overseeing all the business functions, which has an annual turnover of S$200 million.



•        I love: To work under pressure

•        I dislike: Unreasonable customers who take things for granted

•        My inspiration is: To see Cathay make a strong footing in its services beyond the boundaries of the Middle East

•        My biggest strength: I am dynamic self-motivater, and a people-person

•        My weakness is: I empathise too much with my employees, though the job needs to get done

•        In five years’ time, I’d like to be: A mentor to young and aspiring entrepreneurial people


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