Marrying passion with profit
It’s high noon and a queue of hungry patrons has formed outside the entrance of one of the newest branches of Ippudo on the ground floor of Uptown Mall in BGC.
John Marie A. Concepcion, founder of the Standard Hospitality Group, can’t help but smile as he points to the lengthening line.
“That’s why I work,” he says.
The welcome sight validates his leap of faith, he adds, and proves that the young restaurant group that he established in 2011 out of passion for a good food is going in the right direction.
It certainly lowers his stress level, says Concepcion, who has managed to strike that fine balance between growing his own food company and being the managing director and CEO of market giant Unilever RFM Ice Cream Inc., the 18-year-old joint venture between Unilever and RFM Corp. and the main profit driver of the local food and beverage giant.
“The key to me is in building the process and the organization. I am crazy about that, in anything that I want to do. If you build a process—like putting the right organization in place and having the system that will help ensure consistency of service—then you can replicate yourself and you can listen to jazz,” says the 55-year-old Concepcion.
This is one reason why he decided to invest in a complicated data management system (SAP) to take care of the back end of the restaurant operations.
“We started that when we just had three stores. Nobody does that in the restaurant business. But I needed to know my cost, every day for all of the stores. With SAP, we have the ability to check that. The data also give me an idea of the budget and also from there I will know if the food is consistent,” he says.
This has so far worked like a charm such that in the six years that his company has been in operation, not one brand or store has closed shop, and is in fact gearing up for growth—from Mighty Quinn’s (1 branch) to Yabu (12 branches) and Ippudo (5 branches) and then to new concepts that should be in place by 2018.
“We’re IT-based. That is why there is consistency in our food,” says Concepcion.
Then there’s the matter of hiring the right people for the jobs, from the frontline waitstaff to the back-end cashiers.
In hiring the team members, the right attitude is of primary importance to Concepcion.
“To gauge that, you ask them about their battle scars in life. What they have been through. That will show how hungry they are for the job. If they don’t like to work on a Saturday, that is already a red card for us,” says Concepcion, “I want people who are driven by passion.”
It is passion that has driven Concepcion, son of former Trade Secretary Jose Concepcion Jr., to become the CEO of Unilever RFM Ice Cream and the founder of the growing retail and restaurant group, with both posting consistent and stellar growth numbers under his watch.
“The business continues to grow. Right now, I am exploring retail with my son. We work together to create lifestyle brands,” says Concepcion.
Concepcion, who has degrees in Marketing from Seattle University and Business Administration from Regis School in Denver, Colorado, cannot emphasize enough the value of having consistency of service and quality.
“We are not so much about cost control with the SAP system, but about investment in teaching people. It is one thing to have a system in place, but another to teach people that system all the time. For the Standard Hospitality Group, we have a system created for all the kitchen staff. Anything about the kitchen and how to cook food consistently is there. We make everybody go through a quarterly session on our standards,” says Concepcion.
“Learning for us is all about repetition because people will always look for shortcuts. That is why we have to repeat behavior all the time and then you have to audit,” he adds.
These are management techniques that he has learned from running a company with multinationals.
“Everything I learned, I try to bring to everything that I do, including the food company,” he says.
That the three brands under the SHG group with about 600 people have been able to carve a niche in the crowded and competitive restaurant scene in the Philippines Concepcion attributes to the group’s having been able to offer the market something new and with consistent quality.
“It was just like in ice cream. How did Selecta fight Magnolia? By offering something different. It is the same in food. How do you open the restaurant scene? Do something different. Otherwise, don’t bother,” he says.
For Yabu, which was the group’s first foray into food, the idea came after one trip to Japan where he saw the value of having a concept revolving around a single dish. In Yabu’s case, it was katsu.
The concept extended to other single dishes such as barbecue for Mighty Quinn’s and ramen for Ippudo.
“I was fascinated by the single dish concept in Japan. It was unheard of here so I said, I would create a business model that will revolve around the one-dish concepts. The idea is get the best of these concepts and link them strongly with good hospitality. It was about having good service and expertise in one dish,” says Concepcion.
Behind it again is a strong mindset for process and organization. It pays dividends because it ensures consistency of food and service even if the cost may seem better used elsewhere in the beginning, even more so since Yabu is a homegrown brand, one that he hopes to be able to bring abroad.
This is underway alongside Concepcion’s efforts to likewise grow Unilever RFM, capture more market share and cement its position as the dominant force in the ice cream industry.
At the same time, Concepcion, a devoted husband and a proud father of three, is also bent on improving himself, and leading a more healthy lifestyle now that he’s 55, even working up the courage and the ability to kite surf soon.
His intention is to balance everything, his mind and body, so that he can afford to become “a couch potato” at 75, and ultimately make himself redundant.
“As a CEO, you are always thinking about people. For me, success is when the standards and vision will be followed consistently even without me there to drive them,” says Concepcion.
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