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IT is Saturday night at Jumbo Seafood restaurant at Riverside Point along Clarke Quay, and there is a frenzy of activity.
Dozens of tables are filled with people wolfing down their food. They are cracking open crab shells and dipping their fried buns into the thick chili sauce. Waiters, their brows slick with sweat from the work, are doing their best to make sure that everyone is taken care of. In the back, chefs are rushing to ensure that they fill the orders that flow seemingly non-stop into the kitchen.
It looks like chaos, but it is also a sign of a growing and thriving business, one that has been carefully nurtured by Jumbo Group's chief executive officer Ang Kiam Meng.
Jumbo began in 1987 when his father, Ang Hon Nam, and nine friends bought over a failed restaurant in East Coast Seafood Centre and gave it the name it is famous for today. Despite initial setbacks in the early years, which resulted in a few closures, the Jumbo group has grown to become one of the leading food and beverage groups in Singapore today.
It has more than 20 outlets in Singapore, China and Japan, serving 6,000 diners daily across its brands. Apart from the seafood restaurants, it also has eateries serving ramen, hotpot and local delicacy bak kut teh.
The group is also seeking to list on Singapore's Catalist exchange, according to preliminary documents lodged in September. The firm made a net profit of S$11.5 million for the 12 months ended September 2014, on revenue of S$112.4 million.
But ask Mr Ang what he sees as the most important challenges he faces today and he immediately replies: "Manpower and rising ingredient costs." These same reasons prompted the group to start thinking hard about raising the productivity of its staff back in 1997 and 1998, says Mr Ang, who joined the business in 1993.
"We were experiencing rising costs and we felt that increasing prices was not viable because we couldn't keep increasing prices all the time. So we turned to productivity," he explains.
Mr Ang believes that the key to productivity lies in the efficient use of manpower. This means not only having enough staff, but that each employee is also trained and equipped with the right tools
Meanwhile, the company has made it compulsory for its entire kitchen staff to go through six hours of a skills programme accredited by the Singapore Workforce Development Agency. Under the programme, the new employees are taught about safety and hygiene, how to interact with guests and how to host a dinner, among other things.
The firm has also established in-house training centres to develop curricula tailor-made to meet the firm's operational requirements. Under these programmes, each of the company's staff has, on average, 120 hours of training - three times the national average.
At the same time, it has given staff the tools to work efficiently, reveals Mr Ang. Previously, when waiters took orders, they would do so manually on pieces of paper before keying the order into a computer system that feeds it to the kitchen. Now, each staff has a personal digital assistant to do the same task. The orders are immediately fed to the kitchen, saving precious time and energy.
To help ensure that the quality of the food remains consistent, the company set up a central kitchen that automates part of the food preparation process.
Jumbo is also focused on securing alternative pipelines of labour - such as casual workers - as well retaining existing staff to ensure a stable talent pool to service its operational needs. Casual workers form a significant 22 per cent of the firm's total workforce. As such, the management strives to offer competitive terms and benefits for this group of workers, including the provision of bonus payouts and CPF contribution, says Jumbo.
With an eye on the future, Jumbo also offers a fast-track programme where promising staff can be moved up to supervisory positions within 12 months.
To assess the effectiveness of these initiatives, the company established performance standards for its people and processes. Assessment is based on customer feedback, which comes in the form of direct e-mails, mystery dining audits and customer satisfaction surveys.
The report card looks good so far: Customer satisfaction surveys show that the company consistently scores 93 per cent and above, indicating that there is high customer satisfaction and experience at the restaurants. The proportion of positive feedback received has also grown from 79 per cent in 2012 to 84 per cent last year.
The attention given to manpower and talent is a major reason why awards have been coming Jumbo's way in recent years. It won the SME Employer of the Year Award 2015 at the 12th HRM Awards. Most recently, the company received the People Excellence Award at this year's Business Excellence Awards.
The People Excellence Award recognises organisations with a total approach to managing people and achieving high performance through its people systems.
But the awards are just the icing on the cake. For Mr Ang, the attention on the company's employees has also resulted in achieving "strong financial growth and an increase in market share between 2012 and last year".
The success at home means that the company is now eyeing overseas expansion.
"We've built a strong business model with experienced local management and operating teams in Singapore. Today, we are a leading F&B player in our industry. We want to leverage this strong market position to address the excellent growth opportunities in the region and replicate our successful operating model in emerging markets," says Mr Ang.
"Growing into a regional restaurant chain is our company's goal. That's why Jumbo Seafood went into China."