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IN 1990, WHEN DOUGLAS DEBOER WAS 18, he travelled from Minnesota, USA, to Tianjin, China, to visit his elder sister studying at Nankai University. His sister was on an exchange programme; the University of Minnesota had a long-standing relationship with Nankai University. The young Mr DeBoer had never travelled out of North America before that and half-expected to experience a culture shock. Instead, he experienced a culture crush in those few weeks, falling in love with the people, the food, the language, the culture.
When it was time for him to select a university, he picked the University of St Thomas where he could do a double major in finance and Chinese language. As an accomplished classical guitarist on a music scholarship, learning Mandarin was easier than expected; he found the grammar "easy" and the tonality "not too difficult" because of his music training. He jumped at the opportunity to go on a language exchange programme in Beijing, and a few years upon graduation found work in branding and marketing for various companies in China.
In 2013, he became the president and CEO of Domino's Pizza China, turning an underperforming company into a profitable one. In 2016, he was named CEO of Daniang Dumplings Restaurant Group, again steering the fortunes of a down-and-out company from red to black.
In September 2017, he was made CEO of Crystal Jade Culinary Concepts Holdings. After months of strategic planning, he's looking to take the brand to between seven and 10 new markets in the next five years, transforming what is now a regional brand into an international one. Presently, Crystal Jade has over 20 outlets in Singapore, as well as 126 outlets in Hong Kong, Macau, China, Indonesia, Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and South Korea. As part of its expansion plans, Mr DeBoer is eyeing North America and the Middle East.
How much do you know about Chinese food?
(Laughs) It's interesting that people have been asking me that question, and I think that's fair because I'm heading such an iconic Singapore brand. But perhaps after they get to know me, they'll realise why this is such an amazing fit. Obviously the time I spent in China during my formative years made a lot of difference. I cook a lot of Chinese food myself; my specialty is hong shao pai gu. Throughout my career I've worked on consumer brands - mostly food brands. I started my career with General Mills, then later with Unilever, before finally moving to Domino's Pizza China, Daniang Dumplings in Shanghai, and now Crystal Jade. I have a deep understanding of Chinese culture and I'd like to think I understand Chinese food too. But I'm not really here to figure out which ingredient is better for which dish. For that I've brought in our new group executive chef Martin Foo who previously headed the kitchens of VLV and Tong Le Private Dining. He'll be responsible for looking into the menus of all the restaurants under the group. My forte is to plot out the strategies of Crystal Jade and take it to the next level by building the brand and enhancing the consumer experience.
Could you elaborate on those plans?
We have a three-fold plan to create growth: global expansion; tier expansion; and extending our commitment to food quality. The first is based on the fact that there's growing international demand for authentic Chinese cuisine. For a long time in North America, we've consumed what I call Americanised Chinese cuisine which is less spicy and more fried than authentic. But as palates expand today, authentic Chinese cuisine is becoming more and more accepted. In the Middle East too, we think there's an amazing opportunity to bring Crystal Jade there - although the menu will be tweaked; for instance, our famous xiao long bao will be stuffed with chicken instead of pork. The second type of growth is tier growth. We've won the Michelin star for the third year running for our fine dining restaurant Crystal Jade Golden Palace. And we have the more casual dining outlets such as Crystal Jade Kitchen and Crystal Jade La Mian Xiao Long Bao. We're also expanding our express services such as Dimsum Inc which tie in with the trends of food delivery and quick service restaurants that are popular among young consumers. The third part of the plan involves our cuisine. Within the tradition of authentic Chinese cuisine, we're asking ourselves: How can we bring innovation around that? How do we give consumers new things so they want to come into Crystal Jade everyday? With Chef Foo now on board, we're expecting great innovations.
Doing business in China has its own particularities. What advice would you give to Singaporeans starting out there?
Obviously, knowing the language and culture are important. But the more I travel and work around Asia, the more I see similarities. Yes, there are nuanced differences to the way people work. But it's still about meeting people, building trust and creating relationships. It's still about understanding what people's goals are and figuring how to create a win-win partnership. Traditionally, we think of Asia as having a stronger emphasis on relationships, but actually it's not that different from doing business in the US.
Your LinkedIn profile states that you have have a knack for "repositioning/ turning-around poor performing mature brands and unprofitable businesses". How have you managed that so successfully?
Frankly it's about understanding what the target consumer wants and making sure you give it to them. What I've been able to do with the underperforming companies such as Domino's Pizza China and Daniang Dumplings is to focus on the two or three things we could do to build the business towards profitability, and also at the same time, being very clear about the one or two things we won't be able to do. It's important to be as clear on the latter points as the former. I think that has been key to my success.
For a long time, the rivalry between Crystal Jade and Imperial Treasures was the talk of town. Is that completely over now?
With the current team, it's not an impact anymore. We really just view them as any other competitor today.
When you're not near a Crystal Jade Restaurant, what do you eat?
I actually eat a lot of Chinese and Korean food at home - my wife is Korean-American. Apart from that, I also enjoy Japanese food for its culinary excellence, and general Singaporean cuisine.
It sounds like you've disavowed Western food.
Well, my breakfast is the one standard American meal I have everyday - scrambled eggs, cereal and so on. A pizza once in a while is great too.