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Leadership during a crisis: Wee Teng Wen of The Lo & Behold Group on pivoting an F&B and hospitality business

Insights from leaders, CEOs and business owners on leadership during a crisis.

While many businesses have had to pivot digitally during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, it’s near-impossible for some to operate digitally: the aviation, events, and hospitality industries have all come to a virtual standstill. For others like F&B — an industry with low margins and high staff turnover — it has been a journey of figuring out alternative revenue streams. 

This isn’t as simple as setting up an account with a food delivery platform though. Menus have to be streamlined, dishes have to be re-engineered to travel well, and resources have to be redirected. For one of Singapore’s leading F&B and hospitality brands, The Lo & Behold Group, the pandemic has been a black swan-level event.

With over 300 employees spread over 16 concepts, including the fast-casual Extra Virgin Pizza, Tanjong Beach Club, and The Warehouse Hotel, the group has been forced to “fully reimagine the business, almost like starting afresh,” shares Wee Teng Wen, founder and managing partner. 

Wee shares with The Peak his experience in steering the group, some lessons learnt from the pandemic, and leading remotely. 

Do Agility Right

Waiting to react can sometimes be an obstacle — and there always comes a point when decisions have to be made. ““I think the first lesson has been to create agility that can outlast this pandemic…and it’s much easier said than done because you’re working with a lot of imperfect information and a ton of noise. Admittedly, no one really puts in the time and rigour to truly create a playbook for times like this …so you have to come up with a strong point of view of what the short-to-medium term is going to look like,” shares Wee.

This doesn’t just mean diving in blindly though, but having “clear, strong values” that the company can align around. For The Lo & Behold group, this means putting people first.

Lead with Heart

This doesn’t just mean customers, but also staff. While the group has been forced to take the drastic measure of restructuring in order to survive, they’ve thought hard about how they could let people go “in the best possible way”. 

To that end, the group has set up a staff relief fund that upper management contributed to, including a year’s salary from Wee. “We thought about how to administer [the fund], and it’s independently-run. I’m devolved from the decision-making with regards to its disbursement, and basically whoever is affected — anyone that has had to make sacrifices is eligible.” Wee shares.

Besides the relief fund, the group has extended company insurance until the end of the year for those that have left. Its marketing and HR teams have also pivoted their roles, and are actively helping those affected with their resumes, as well as with finding jobs both within, and outside the industry. “I think these are maybe small things in the grand scheme of things but we are trying, and will continue to try our best to think about how to be led by our values in the toughest of times.”

(Related: Meet the men behind Singapore-based private members’ club Straits Clan)

 

Innovate to Compete

One silver lining for the F&B industry has been the fact that food still remains at the top of Singaporeans’ minds. “I think Singaporeans want to get through the circuit breaker, and are willing to make a lot of sacrifices to do so, but food is one area that they cannot compromise on. The moment bubble tea was cut, the SOS was on par or even higher than with the toilet paper,” says Wee.

Competition, however, remains stiff with almost everyone moving towards takeaway-based models. For fine dining restaurants, this has been particularly challenging given that a large part of the experience is service and atmosphere. “What has been amazing is that the brands that are well loved — like Odette — have done extremely well. They’ve really thought hard about how to deliver a differentiated product which I think has become a category within itself: where they do most of the heavy lifting, and put in the same TLC into a dish, but challenge the guests to finish the last 10 per cent of the product themselves — like the final bit of cooking and plating so there’s that level of interactivity.”

Engage Your Community Meaningfully

The pandemic has seen an outpouring of humanity from individuals and companies. Beyond basic human kindness, a rising tide lifts all boats —  helping out the community also helps end this pandemic-inflicted quagmire sooner.

For 34 days, the Straits Clan kitchen was converted into a volunteer team that churned out 450 meals daily for the migrant worker community. “Again, I am a keyboard warrior here. … cooking and packing 450 meals a day is no joke. And they’re doing all this while trying to pivot the business, run Kin [at the same time] and plan for the reopening.” Says Wee. Meanwhile, the group’s more upmarket concepts — like Odette, Le Bon Funk and Kin — which are not on the usual delivery platforms, have taken to supporting Comfort cab drivers by using them as delivery drivers.

(Related: The Peak Interview: Wee Teng Wen)

Engaging more with the community also means building a closer relationship and trust with customers — something that’s important at all times, but especially so now. For The Lo & Behold group, that has translated to not just business, but support for their various efforts like the staff relief fund and community kitchen. Says Teng, “Our guests have come back and contributed their own money and funds to keep this going… We’re fortunate to have loyal guests that have supported us for more than our product. 

I think it’s in tough times, and what you do in those tough times that both your staff and guests remember… It’s been a sort of a north star,  and has given a lot of purpose to our teams to see that they can contribute to something very tangible.”

 

 

More from The Peak’s Leadership During a Crisis series:

Hexogon Solution group MD Adrian Goh

Safe Space CEO Antoinette Renee Patterson

Ninja Van CEO Lai Chang Wen