BreadTalk Group’s cream of the (workforce) crop

BreadTalk Group's Head of HR talks about the big dreams still harboured by the Southeast Asian food and beverage titans.
By: | October 16, 2017

One of HRM Magazine’s cornerstones, the monthly HR Insider spread is an in-depth feature exploring the people management teams of some of the region’s most prolific organisations. 

No one could have predicted that the pork floss bun, an unassuming cream-coated bread roll topped by a generous sprinkling of dried, fluffy meat flakes, would propel BreadTalk Group to become one of the largest food and beverage brands in Asia today.

Perhaps not even its founder, George Quek, a Singaporean entrepreneur who had already achieved success with two earlier business ventures – food court chain Food Junction in Singapore, and snack stall franchise Singa in Taiwan – could have imagined the heights it has scaled.

The first BreadTalk outlet, which opened in Singapore in 2000, was an immediate hit with customers, thanks in no small part to the pork floss bun.

Three years and two dozen shops later, BreadTalk Group was incorporated and publicly-listed on the Singapore Exchange. That year, the chain also set up its first bakery outlets overseas in Jakarta, Indonesia, and Shanghai, China, respectively.

Today, besides the original bakery brand, BreadTalk Group also owns several other highly popular dining brands, including Taiwanese Michelin-star restaurant Ding Tai Fung, concept food court establishment Food Republic, coffee shop Toast Box, and fast food joint Carl’s Jr.

Multi-concept group

With a current headcount of over 7,000 employees working in almost 1,000 restaurants, eateries and shops across 17 countries, BreadTalk Group prides itself on being a multi-concept food and beverage (F&B) establishment, which Head of HR Chan Wing Git says forms a key part of its employer brand.

“We want to position ourselves as an employer of choice, be known as a good employer, treat our staff with respect, and be an organisation that really develops our employees, and where hires can have a good career track,” says Chan.

As a multi-concept F&B player, the group is split into three main business divisions: bakery, food atrium, and restaurant. Chan believes the heterogeneous classification is one of the leading factors that separates BreadTalk Group from its competitors.

That’s because with such an organisational anatomy, employees have the opportunity to be exposed to three different business units through being cross-trained and cross-deployed.

So this means that all employees, regardless of their existing roles, will have the opportunity to experience various business styles, should they express their desire and exemplify the ability to take on different responsibilities.

But the emphasis, says Chan, is on providing operational exposure, since most of BreadTalk Group’s labour needs are for day-to-day in-store processes. Even corporate staff interested in trying out operation roles can do so.

What would perhaps be most appealing to staff, especially those who are younger, is the opportunity for overseas exposure and assignments in any of the territories BreadTalk Group operates in. This allows individuals to experience cultures and places different from their home countries.

Chan says this type of overseas exchange programme is welcomed by the various business divisions because it benefits the different markets through a cross-pollination of ideas, knowledge and expertise.

Being able to offer unique secondments is attractive to employees, but such flexibility is also only possible because the consortium has, over the years, positioned itself as a regional player, gradually cultivating a major presence in places like Thailand, Hong Kong and Taiwan, as well as its home base in Singapore.

“When individuals join us, they are not just joining a restaurant; they’re joining a brand with many portfolios. There’s a chance for them to always learn new things as they progress in the company,” says Chan.

At a glance

Number of employees  (Asia-Pacific): 7,000

Size of HR Team: 100

Key HR Focus Areas:

  • Succession planning
  • Talent development
  • Talent attraction
  • Employee engagement


Fast-tracked to the top

In fact, through its fast-track programmes, individuals who join as operations associates at any of the group’s many brands can progress to become branch managers in as little as 12 months

At Food Republic, for example, entry-level associates are put through a series of trainings so that they pick up all the essential ground skills. Likewise, in the bakery division, staff undergo training in areas from cashiering, all the way to the actual baking. The idea, Chan states, is to expose individuals to all the different roles and stations in a time frame of between 12 to 24 months, then appoint them as branch managers thereafter.

He says the fast-track programmes have proven to be a great motivational and retention tool, particularly for younger staff who can be more impatient, and want to learn and move up the career ladder quickly. But by investing in their development, elevating them to more senior roles and giving them more responsibilities, individuals end up more committed to giving their best to the organisation.

“So it’s dependent on their performance and how fast they can progress in their development. But at least we try and clear the initial hurdles where previously they would have to be a baker or assistant baker first before becoming branch manager,” Chan says.

At present, the fast-track model is limited to only countries where the group is facing more severe manpower challenges, but Chan reveals the plan is to eventually replicate it in every country.

“Singapore, as our headquarters, will always be the place where we start, followed by Shanghai, and Beijing,” he says.

Mobile communication

With the vast majority of employees being in operational roles distributed across hundreds of locations around the region, Chan says engagement and communication are also key concerns for his team.

In China, the company uses the WeChat mobile application extensively to ensure there is a consistent connection with workers.

Chan says BreadTalk employs WeChat because it is the most popular mobile messaging tool in China today, with almost one billion users.

“You’ll think not everyone there uses data technology, but that’s not true,” he notes.

“Almost all our Chinese workers have a WeChat account. WeChat has become their national identity. So naturally, we use it too.”

So HR created an enterprise account on WeChat, which not only acts as the official communication channel for management to staff, but also as a tool for issuing electronic payslips.

As an F&B operator in China, this is a big shift from how things were typically done there. In the past, Breadtalk Group, and other companies like it, would issue hard copy payslips exclusively.

The mobile approach has helped to cut down administrative costs, and also made the process more convenient for employees.

Management also uses the app to broadcast major company announcements, from organisational changes to quarterly financial results. In January this year, the group even posted a video message of its Chairman and Managing Director sending Chinese New Year well-wishes to employees.

“This technology allows us to engage our staff, and lets them know we value them, and that there is communication from the headquarters,” says Chan.

Sometimes, it’s the little touches, not the fancy technology, that counts for more.

In Singapore, staff appreciation can actually come in the form of back rubs.

In March this year, some 220 Ding Tai Fung employees got to enjoy massages provided by the restaurant’s partners at the Singapore Association for the Visually Handicapped.

A section of each restaurant was closed off during off-peak hours, providing employees with some much-needed downtime and physical therapy.

“It’s all in the little treats – the fringe benefits,” says Chan.

New CEO, new systems

Despite the successes of these existing policies, the HR team continues to drive new programmes and systems. With Henry Chu being appointed the new CEO of BreadTalk Group in July this year, HR transformation has become the order of the day – and of the year ahead.

That’s because Chu, who himself holds a degree in HR, recognises people management as a top priority. According to Chan, his superior has always emphasised that as a F&B company, customer service is key, which makes employees the backbone of the whole business.

Succession planning and talent development have been areas of focus for the company, but with Chu now at the helm, they have become bigger objectives than before.

“Our new CEO wants us to differentiate ourselves. To do that, we need to invest a lot more into our people’s development,” says Chan.

Chu is familiar with BreadTalk Group’s operations. He first served as the bakery division’s CEO from May 2010 to April 2012, before re-joining as the Group Managing Director last October.

Another reason behind the ongoing drive for transformation lies in the need for HR to align the respective markets and their individual HR policies and strategies.

Chan says that while the group’s old growth formula allowed it to expand into new territories rapidly, that also led to distinct HR practices and overall misalignment between markets.

The Singapore and China operations, for instance, both run on different HR systems.

“This presents a problem because as Group HR, I don’t have visibility of employee data outside of the Singapore headquarters,” says Chan.

“Each time I need an update, I have to send out a template and have the individual teams get back to me. The data captured is also limited.”

So one area where change is already happening is in the company’s HR systems.

In Singapore and China, the team has already begun moving its information onto a well-known industry solution used by many Fortune 500 organisations.

The new platform will harmonise the various HR approaches used by the different markets, while consolidating talent information and providing functionalities like data reporting and data generation.

“We need to move out of the old systems because if you want to become more global, then you need to align all the different parts,” says Chan.

“Our aspiration is to become a Fortune 500 company, and that’s why we use the same platform as them.”

BreadTalk Group’s evolution is also evident in its performance review process, where a new set of performance appraisal forms were used for this year’s mid-year employee evaluation.

But like the consortium’s other functions, this is only the beginning of the staff assessment modification.

“We will refine it further. The new appraisals will include quantifiable performance indicators and be tied closely with salary adjustments and bonuses, so that we can hold our people more accountable for the results,” says Chan.


Good service goes a long way

As a major food and beverage player, BreadTalk Group expects its people to deliver top-notch service standards, says Chan Wing Git, its Head of HR.

“In this industry, service is a key differentiator,” he says.

“So we focus a lot on how to get the best people, train them up and make sure they deliver the best quality service and products to our customers.”

At the BreadTalk Academy, all new operation hires are required to complete basic training in areas like food hygiene, workplace safety and service excellence, prior to starting work at the frontline.

They also receive on-the-job coaching from their managers or production heads.

The Singapore office also runs some Workforce Skills Qualification programmes and modules on service excellence that are applicable for all ground staff across its brands. These cover basic service aspects such as personal grooming, interacting with guests, greeting, and taking orders.

Furthermore, within each brand, there is customised service training that would be specific to the standards, and operations of the respective business.

For example, the service training in Din Tai Fung would place a greater emphasis on customer engagement and interaction, while BreadTalk would focus on the greeting and cashiering skills.

One of HRM Magazine’s cornerstones, the monthly HR Insider spread is an in-depth feature exploring the people management teams of some of the region’s most prolific organisations.