Loh Jwee Poh, the man behind the Mr Bean brand of F&B outlets retailing products derived from the humble soya bean, is an unassuming and avuncular gentleman.
But beneath that humble, easy-going, exterior is a sharply-focused mind.
Moments into D:Code’s meeting with him, he unleashes a Chinese saying on us: 将军赶路不追兔 – a general on the hunt won’t be distracted by a passing rabbit.
“Let it go,” he explains gently. “Don’t waste time. Focus on the tiger that you’re chasing,” he adds.
Being focused is important to him, he says.
“If I am doing soya milk, I will do soya, I will go deep into it. I want to make my soya different from other people’s. I won’t go around to see whoever gives me a better offer because I would then have to shift my focus,” he says.
A case in point took place in 2003 when he was encouraged by many to switch from soya bean to bubble tea.
“The bubble tea business was doing very well after landing in Singapore that year. Many people jumped into it. Margins were good. Bubble tea outlets were mushrooming everywhere. At that time, I had more than 10 Mr Bean outlets. People asked me to change my stalls to bubble tea stalls.
“Why not? they said. I would have more than 10 bubble tea outlets with good profit margins. But I decided, no, I would focus on soya bean.”
He might have been seen as being too cautious, stubborn even. But Loh stuck to his guns. Today, 16 years on, Loh feels vindicated for not jumping on the bubble tea bandwagon.
“It was a trend, a craze, which died down after two years. The outlets you now see are part of the second and maybe even third wave,” says Loh.
But while bubble tea continues to be popular, Loh has since opened 76 Mr Bean outlets island-wide, with the last two – one in Paya Lebar Quarters and the other in White Sands Mall – as recently as in the past fortnight.
“What was the thing about bubble tea that made it popular? It was the pearls that people liked. So, while I focused on soya bean, I did not want to lose out by not taking advantage of this. So I took what people liked about it – the pearls – and put it in my soya milk. In other words I adapted what was liked in that product into mine,” he says.
So Pearly Soya Milk is now a signature item on Mr Bean’s menu.
“Adapting and innovating is, in a way, a business strategy,” explains Loh. “I adapted and innovated even though I wanted to stick to my core business. Every business can make money as long as you have the passion. If you have the passion and the will to drive the business, you will be successful in a matter of time.”
So, would he consider the opening of his 76th Mr Bean outlet, which also incorporates his new desserts-on-the-go brand, Do Qoo, a success?
“How would you measure success?” he asks. “How do you define it? I think that, until today, I enjoy my work, I make things happen, and I am happy at the present – I consider it a success.
“I don’t think of success as a long-term thing but more like something you achieve every day and every moment. You make things right and you achieve it, that is success. If you achieve it daily and each moment, you get a momentum and that is the incentive for you to go further,” he says.
For him, it is important to make a success of each day.
“Make yourself happy each day,” he says. “It is the small successes that lead you to becoming a big success.”
So we imagine he must’ve had disappointments in his long, illustrious stint in business?
“There are disappointments, of course,” he concedes. But he does not dwell on these too much. “But disappointments are not significant to me. You disappoint people and people disappoint you, it is not something I should sweat about. I go to bed, I wake up the next day and the world is still there. The sun will still rise, so, really, there aren’t really any memorable disappointments for me,” he adds.
A policy of openness with staff, among staff
His current challenge in a fast-changing market is to get his staff to adapt to the dynamic environment they are in.
“The market is changing very fast and we are chasing the market very hard. How do we lead our people to change? How do we influence them to change? That’s not easy. This is my challenge,” he explains.
“They can see my vision. But how do they achieve that vision? We have to be sensitive to our staff. I feel that it is not because they don’t want to change but because they are experiencing difficulty in doing so.”
It isn’t for want of trying, he insists.
“My staff are hardworking and have a very good attitude. But reacting to change is a skill that we need to master. We need to get them to master the ability to adapt to change.”
Meanwhile, he moves managers around and gets new staff with a different experience to share.
“It’s getting new blood – new colleagues can change the way the team works. Sometimes, you need to shake them up a little but not break them. This is so that they can better adapt to the current market situations,” he explains.
“Many entrepreneurs will also face such a problem,” he says.
Meanwhile, he does his best to make sure his staff are given a sense of mission, and as much support as they need for their development.
“We have an orientation for new crew where I share the company history, my passion, my goal, my vision, my mission. So right from the outset there is a sense of togetherness and a sense of mission from this four hour, half-a-day sharing.”
According to Loh, they then have lunch together with senior staff and during lunch, the new staff and managers can discuss various issues they might experience at the outlets. The heads of department would then be tasked to address these issues.
Loh feels it is vital to know his staff.
“But to really know your staff, you have to be sensitive to their behaviour. Meet them, look them in the eye, talk, discuss their daily performance,” he says. And he is open to them all, from the heads of department right down to the outlet aunties, he adds.
“Whether they are managers or outlet aunties, it is regardless of rank. To me, they are my colleagues, with different roles to play in the company,” he says.
“It boils down to a very friendly company culture,” says Loh. “We don’t practise office politics. We talk, we justify what we say, and we say things openly. We have dialogues that are conducive to making things better,” he adds, outlining his company’s policy of openness towards one another.
“We have a session every month where a Taiwanese consultant would come to share with us about what is happening overseas – business philosophies and management philosophies.
“During these sessions, we have people from different departments speaking face to face and we voice out, we can have very straightforward questions without hesitation or worry that we are going to offend each other. This is what we call the safety zone. Every time you talk within this room during this timing, you are safe. We try to cultivate this openness and freedom to talk without fear of offending your colleagues.
“Nobody needs to worry that they will get marked for making their boss angry,” he explains. “It is a good and valuable platform for us to speak up.”
While these sessions are mainly for the heads of department and management, it is a culture that has been cultivated right down to the rank and file.
“We have this culture right from the top so all levels can experience that same openness. If any complaint comes to me, I will not criticise and scold them. We look at these as feedback for our attention, so we can address problems and fix them.
“We don’t waste time criticising each other and blaming each other or punishing anyone. Nobody is right or wrong. Everyone is in it for the sake of the company.”
Recognition and respect
Such a leadership philosophy is important for unity between management and staff, and ultimately, the success of the company, says Loh.
“It is important because I have so many staff. You must make them love the company, like their boss and respect their seniors before they can put their heart and soul to serve the customer and take care of company property.”
He also makes things interesting for the staff because he realises it could get boring manning an outlet, and gives them recognition, too. For instance, at the opening ceremony of the outlet at White Sands Mall last week, the ribbon cutting ceremony was not done by the boss.
“It was done by the area manager and their staff. This is so they feel a sense of ownership with the company so they will feel involved, and feel for the company,” he explains.
“We give a lot of recognition to our staff. We also have a promotion ceremony where we recognise the staff who have been promoted,” he adds.
Loh believes people need to be recognised for their contributions.
“I have the luxury of being the boss so by default everyone recognises me. And I get praised, but what about them? They deserve recognition, too. So, someone who has the power to do it has to create an opportunity for them to be recognised. This will empower them and give something to them.
“As a boss, I cannot take my staff for granted. And I can make things happen, so I make it happen for them.”
He then shows D:Code a video of his staff rolling a pineapple across the floor, an auspicious custom that’s supposed to bring prosperity to the business.
“Stall ICs want their stalls to prosper, too,” he declares proudly. “We also let the staff cut a birthday cake for Mr Bean’s birthday in June. The staff will offer cake to the customers and there will be promotions. This is a way in which we make our staff engage with customers,” he adds.
Surprisingly perhaps, Loh did not want to be a businessman when he was growing up.
“At that time, I wanted to be a chef. It was different then, it was ‘virgin thinking’. But I really wanted to be a chef – I took part in competitions to master my skills, but sometimes what you think you may be good at may not actually be the case,” he says.
And what would the man who wanted to be a chef enjoy eating when he isn’t consuming products from Mr Bean?
Loh hesitates for a moment.
“I’m not sure if I should say this because it isn’t healthy,” he concedes. We press him for an answer before he finally relents.
“I like bakkwa,” he finally admits. Bakkwa or rougan (肉干), is a sweet, oily dried meat which, though very tasty, is probably, as Loh says, not healthy. He assures us he doesn’t eat it in huge amounts, or every day.
“I like curry chicken, too, and I also like chicken rice,” he says. Yes, all very simple food which, in a way, resonates with Mr Bean’s tagline, Life’s Simple Pleasures.
“Yesterday, I was at Bukit Panjang Plaza and I visited this stall at the food court that sells only curry – mutton curry, fish curry and chicken curry. I used to go to that stall since opening a Mr Bean outlet there 20 years ago. The young girl serving there when I first went is now an auntie,” he says. That story was to show that he would remain faithful to something he likes.
“I am creative and innovative at work and in my professional side but in terms of food, my sentimental and my personal life, I am reluctant to change what I like. If I find that it’s good and I am comfortable with it, I will stick with it,” he explains.
Why being appreciative is so important
If there’s a word he’d use to describe himself, it would be “appreciative”.
In Chinese, it is 感恩, he explains.
“I have to show appreciation for those people who helped me become who I am today. I have to appreciate parents who brought me up, the people who helped me make this business a successful one and the colleagues’ support for Mr Bean,” he says.
As part of his appreciation for his staff, he would celebrate with them during the Festival of the Hungry Ghosts with suckling pigs and a feast, he says.
And on National Day for the past decade, Mr Bean has provided soya milk as their contribution to the nation’s celebrations.
“I believe it is important to give back to society, so we do this each year. I’m just a soya milk supplier, and soya milk is what I can afford to give, so I give that. If everyone does their part, the world will become beautiful,” he says.
When he is not at work, Loh enjoys being alone.
“I also like to listen to songs, sentimental songs, mostly in Mandarin. But for English songs, I like Country music. Like, Take Me Home, Country Road, the old songs. The new ones, well, not so much,” he says.
He also likes walking for exercise, and he says he doesn’t like golf.
“People ask me, ‘Why don’t you play golf?’. I just don’t fancy it. I am not saying golf is bad, just that different people have different preferences,” he explains.
And what advice would this benevolent boss give to people who want to go into business?
“Just do it, don’t be scared of failure, but put your heart and soul in it, if you believe in it. And manage your risks. Don’t be like a stubborn bull and charge in without managing your risks. It’s important to manage your risks so that, if you fall, you allow yourself to recover,” he says.
“I hope I can inspire people to go into business,” he adds. “This business journey of mine is not easy, it was full of hardship and I needed a lot of courage. But if I can succeed, others can succeed, too. I am just a normal person from a humble background.
“If I can, they can, also.”