Growing 'green beans' into leaders
Late one evening at a Starbucks store, a lady traveller was looking for a particular coffee mug as a souvenir for her daughter–a ritual she followed on every trip. The store manager told her it was out of stock and suggested she come back the next day. The traveller was disappointed – she had an early flight and would not have time to return.
A barista overheard the conversation and quietly made a call. Afterwards, she approached the lady. She offered to get the mug from another store and have it ready for her the next day before her flight.
Paul Lam, head of partner resources at Starbucks Asia-Pacific, vividly recalls the incident. He says it demonstrates the kind of self-initiative easily seen in Starbucks’ “partners” – a term it uses to describe its employees.
“Passion and commitment are the qualities we always look for,” Lam says. “It is not too difficult to find someone who is capable. The challenge is to get someone who has heart and passion for the job.”
Starbucks has about 1,300 front-line “partners” in roughly 120 stores in Hong Kong and Macau. They work at stores operated by Coffee Concepts, a joint venture between Starbucks Coffee International and local catering group Maxim’s.
“It is a labour-intensive business and all hiring is done in line with business growth,” Lam says. “We have been seeing healthy growth in the number of new stores. With every store opening, we will hire eight to 10 staff on average.”
Most front-line partners are young people and Starbucks is committed to training them into future leaders by offering comprehensive training programmes for baristas and shift supervisors.
“Almost all baristas are hired from outside the industry. We train them as ‘green beans’ as we believe it is important for them to establish a good foundation with us,” Lam says.
He says it may take three to four years for a barista with good potential to become a store manager. Because baristas and store managers are usually separated by just a few years of age, the company relies on store managers to positively influence baristas. “Store managers play an important role in training and building younger baristas. This has proved to be a much more effective method than us from the office going to talk to them.”
Lam says Starbucks measures the stability of store managers – the time they have stayed in the same location – to make sure that their connections with baristas and customers are maintained. “Connecting, discovering and responding to our customers are how we build relationships. Remembering the name and the choice of our customers is a part of that,” Lam says.
Lam looks after Starbucks’ partner resources in the Asia-Pacific region. He says families are now having fewer children, such as in mainland China, and not every parent agrees to their children becoming baristas. This means that when recruiting, Starbucks needs to put in extra effort to attract and retain talent.
“We organise parents days for our partners so that parents can meet management staff and understand their children’s working environment and career path,” Lam says. “These occasions also allow us to show respect to them.”
When Lam joined Starbucks five years ago, he was responsible for compensations and benefits in Asia-Pacific, including mainland China and Japan. “In terms of compensation and benefits, we stay very close to industry and market trends to ensure we offer competitive packages to our partners,” Lam says.
He says a holistic view on compensation and benefits is much needed. “[In addition to monetary allowances], we also have to look at the needs of our partners,” Lam says. “About 90 per cent of our partners in mainland China are young people. If we offer medical benefits and a retirement scheme, they may not find it attractive. Instead we can consider, say, an eye-care benefit scheme that may be more relevant.”
According to Lam, the current trend in mainland China is being flexible in compensation and benefits. He gives an example of a company offering flexible benefits where participants can choose from 40 to 50 products at an online store, including movie tickets and electrical appliances. They can even transfer their flexi points to their UnionPay accounts so that they can make purchases.
“This is an emerging trend. We don’t have this at the moment but we are heading in that direction. The idea is also a part of the Starbucks’ philosophy – the benefits we offer should be flexible and should address people’s diversified needs,” he says.