Dairy Farm’s Choo Peng Chee is driven by the will to work hard and get results
It is usually pointless to look for a shortcut around the extra hours and effort required in moving to a higher rung on the career ladder. Or, as Benjamin Franklin put it: “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”
A reluctance to up his workload when required is not something of which Choo Peng Chee, Dairy Farm’s new regional director for food in North Asia, can be accused.
Choo, a native Singaporean, was born into the Lion City’s retail world, with his parents running a small shop selling everything from clothes to daily essentials. On completing compulsory national service, he joined what was then Fitzpatrick’s, a Singapore-based Dairy Farm operation. Promotion was swift and after two and a half years he was made a store manager.
“It is very tough when you’re 23 and you’re managing butchers who are 50 or 60 years old,” he says. “No matter what you say, you are still a small boy. So I thought the most basic, doable thing was to work very hard. What else can you do? You can’t grow a beard, you can’t dye your hair grey. But working hard slowly gets you respect.”
His early advancement both convinced Choo that food retailing was the career for him, and, he believes, accelerated his rise through the ranks. “The earlier you discover what you really want to do, the further and faster you can go,” he says.
After five years, Choo left to join another supermarket chain, where he worked for 15 years. During that time he covered operations, the buying of fresh food, wines, spirits, frozen goods and dairy, marketing, and many other retail aspects.
He rejoined the Dairy Farm Group in 2000 and, two years later, began a distance-learning MBA programme with Scotland’s Stirling University, majoring in retail. He pursued his studies on top of his day job.
“It wasn’t just the extra workload that made this tough,” he says. “I also had two growing boys. During those three years the three of us ended up working together in the same study room. Looking back, I’m so glad I did it and could be a role model for them.”
In 2005 Choo was made CEO of Dairy Farm’s Singapore supermarket businesses. “In five years, I did quite a few things to rejuvenate the store’s image. We have a few very high-end stores, the middle sector and the value format. That gave me flexibility to manage different brands in a specific way. The results were pleasing, both from a financial and brand-image standpoint,” he says.
Although there had been previous opportunities to relocate to Dairy Farm’s hometown, it wasn’t until 2010 that he finally made the move to Hong Kong, when he was appointed CEO of Wellcome Hong Kong. Again he upped his game, this time to familiarise himself with his new territory.
“Imagine if I’m sitting in my office and my guys come in and say, ‘Mr Choo, can we open a new store in Yuen Long,’ and I’m struggling to understand where they mean. So in the three years I was CEO, I shortened the journey by working extra hard. Every weekend I visited as many stores as possible. Within six to nine months, when someone suggested opening a store here or there [in Hong Kong] at our weekly property meeting, I knew exactly where they were talking about.”
Now, after being promoted to his regional director role, his portfolio encompasses all Dairy Farm supermarket chains: Wellcome, Market Place by Jasons, Oliver’s the Delicatessen, Jasons Food & Living and ThreeSixty in Hong Kong; Wellcome and Market Place in Taiwan; and all 7-Eleven convenience stores in Hong Kong, Macau and South China. “That’s slightly more than 2,000 stores, with a headcount of about 20,000 employees,” he says.
During his time living and working in the city, Choo has repeatedly been asked a question familiar to any Singaporean who has moved to Hong Kong: what is the difference between Hong Kong and Singapore?
Choo, however, has an alternative way of looking at this perennial debate. “When I came here, I asked myself what the similarities are instead,” he says. “And I can tell you there are a lot. Every member of staff in the world wants to be treated in a respectful manner, wants to be treated fairly and wants to be treated well. Every customer wants a good value proposition, especially when it comes to food. Every customer wants to walk into a nice, clean store. Every customer in the world wants to buy fresh, fresh food. Every customer in the world wants to be served well by your staff.”
Although he describes himself as very much a results-driven person, Choo doesn’t believe in short-termism.
“I very much enjoy seeing results and finding solutions to problems. I also truly enjoy working with a group of people to get those results. However, I’m not just interested in ‘harvesting’. When you achieve good results, you can reinvest in your stores,” he says.
CHOO’S CHECKLIST FOR FOOD-RETAIL LEADERS
CUSTOMER FIRST “The fundamental focus must always be the customer and creating an emotional attachment with our customers is critical. We must remember, too, that the visitors of today may be our customers tomorrow.”
SUPER STORES “A good retailer does not just open a store, they create a retail destination to serve the needs of their customers while anticipating the evolving nature of consumer behaviour, market competition and macroeconomics.”
SAFE SERVINGS “Food safety has significantly grown in importance over the past 10 to 15 years, and rightly so.”
LEAD THE WAY “Strong leaders not only treat their team members well and with respect, they are also clear about their own expectations and their demand for high standards, all while encouraging their team to challenge the status quo with an innovative mindset.”
RECOGNISE TALENT “The food-retailing industry needs a sustainable supply of new talent. I believe this can be achieved through increasing the recognition given to top performers.”