“We are in this together”: The Stewardship Mindset Guiding Ya Kun through COVID-19
The ongoing COVID-19 crisis has dealt the global economy a significant blow. Businesses in Singapore are not spared, with the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) warning that the country will enter a recession this year. As the government announced tightening measures in an effort to contain the spread of the disease, retail F&B businesses saw a corresponding plunge to their business revenue.
We sat down – remotely – with Jesher Loi, Ya Kun’s Director of Branding and Market Development, and next generation leader, to understand what guides Ya Kun’s response in these challenging times.
Solidarity and Trust
The immediate concern for Ya Kun when the crisis first surfaced, was to ride it out while adapting to the ever-changing landscape and new government directives. Recognising the crisis may last for more than a few months, any measure taken must be sustainable for the company and the staff. “Our approach is to ensure the health and livelihood of our staff, and preserving our business viability,” explained Jesher. “First, if everyone tightens his or her belt from top to bottom, we will be able to keep our workforce intact and be able to rebound quicker and better. Second, is to prioritise speed in adapting our business operations to keep it running. By focusing on key menu offerings, strategic outlets, and partnership with delivery platforms, we have been able to optimise our manpower deployment, manufacture and retail operations.”
To motivate and unite his team of over 300, Jesher made a promise to his staff that everyone will be able to bring home a monthly pay check, and no one will be furloughed or retrenched. “Everyone took a pay cut to protect the entire team. From board member to frontline staff, we are all in this together and sacrifices have to be made. Solidarity and trust are core to our culture and we must be ready to walk the talk” he added.
Business Community: An Interdependent Ecosystem
With the circuit breaker measures set to be eased in phases, Jesher predicts that business will return progressively over a long recovery curve. The F&B landscape will likely face headwinds beyond the government’s support scheme. However, he takes the view that the government cannot support businesses forever and digging into our nation’s reserves is not a long-term solution.
Instead, everyone must pitch in to help the economy and business recover. “From suppliers to landlords, employees to business owners, managers and boards – if we could all tighten our belts along the way, nobody has to tighten his or her belt a hundred per cent.” He elaborated “Businesses do not operate in silos, and are the main economic driver. The business community must hence operate with the mentality of an interdependent ecosystem. For example, landlords may have to reduce rents, suppliers may have to accept lower margins, and businesses like Ya Kun will be able to take these savings to ensure the livelihood of our employees, who will in turn continue to have the ability to spend and keep the economy going.”
This perspective has guided Ya Kun’s response to be ecosystem-driven, instead of profit-driven. When McDonald’s and bubble tea shops had to cease operations temporarily, Ya Kun did not capitalise on this. Instead, it instructed managers not to overstaff outlets nor engage in promotions targeting consumers craving for bubble tea. “Fundamentally, we see our business as being here to serve the community’s needs. It is part of the community and the ecosystem and we will not be opportunistic at the expense of other businesses. Is it not our ethos and is a contradiction of our purpose which has guided us the last 76 years,” Jesher emphasized.
In dealing with a rapidly evolving crisis, setting up a clear and regular internal communication structure is now one of his priorities. “When making a difficult decision, people who are impacted by the decision must first understand the basis and intent of the decision. A management decision on which outlets to close, and who to redeploy, must be explained to avoid discontent and misunderstanding,” he says. “Frequent communication is also key to ensure the management team is well-coordinated in our response strategy and updated on all fronts. In the initial few weeks of remote working, I learnt that lack of communication gave rise to lack of alignment, which led to conflicts and impacted our speed and productivity.”
Empowering the middle and senior management to make decisions previously taken at the board level, was the other key development that really helped drive agility and reaction speed. “The heads of departments were the ones working on the ground, and have the most relevant insights to make the best decisions. Giving them the authority to make the call drives speed, and also allows them to develop their leadership capacity.”
Leading by Example
In April, Jesher launched an initiative named “Gift a Kaya Toast Set” and funded the first 200 sets in his personal capacity. To support the initiative, one simply needs to purchase sets of Ya Kun’s famous Kaya toast, and Ya Kun will then distribute these to families whose livelihoods have been impacted by the pandemic. The response has been beyond his expectations, and the programme has thus far gifted over 1,300 sets with a focus on children and youth. Friends and strangers have come forward in the few weeks, everyone keen to help the community most in need, and to be part of the solution.
With the crisis lasting for the foreseeable future, Jesher believes that leading by example will inspire positive action amongst the community and build trust with his employees, so everyone gets through this as one cohesive effort. “Even though I may be making a decision on behalf of the employees, I am also affected. I want them to know that when I say we are in this together, it really means that we are in this together.”