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Conscious Business Leadership: Douglas Foo (Sakae Holdings) – Part 1/3



(This is one in a series of articles and interviews about conscious business leadership, which is about leaders creating and promoting workplaces of understanding, honesty, and compassion, for the betterment of their employees, their community, their organization and world.)

How do you grow a company from a single sushi restaurant in 1997 to a public company comprising a restaurant enterprise running over 200 outlets across multiple countries and brands, a charitable non-profit organization, and a financial services arm? Good leadership likely plays a role in it.

Here is Part One of the conversation I had in August with Douglas Foo, the founder and Chairman of Sakae Holdings (, and the recipient of too-numerous-to-list business and philanthropic accolades and awards, including the Public Service Star Award in Singapore and the Eisenhower Fellowship in the U.S.A. in 2013.

Hi, this is Marion Neubronner, interviewing for Asian Entrepreneur. And today, I am very happy to be able to interview Douglas Foo, Chairman of Sakae Holdings.
I actually have been following your journey for some time, as a person, as a friend. And it’s very impressive the amount of things you’ve been doing in the globalization of your brand. And I think a lot of my leaders are questioning how they, as an Asian or Singaporean leaders, move to the next level. So how did you make that jump, that leap, that one step, that moved you from local great brand to international? Three lessons so far.

Well, I’m learning myself. I think one of the key attributes that a leader, or during the journey, is to be able to continue to adapt and learn. And during this learning journey, I observe, and I start to adapt some of those ideas, and try them out. Because not every policy, or not every theory, could be applicable to every organization.

Every organization, like every person, is unique in itself. So, it’s the kind of culture that you want to set within that journey for the organization. And for Sakae, we’ve actually set a very people-centric, a very friendly organization.
And there’s truly a meaning and purpose of what we are doing. So we communicate them. And what we’ve actually done is that we have built contingency and succession planning.

So that’s why I could take a step back from operational things, to be able to build more of the strategic pieces, like our Sakae Corporate Advisory, Sakae Global Resource, Sakae Real Estate, and the human capital, which is one of the key components that we’ve started out since day one. The rest are added on along the way, while we learn.


Right, so definitely this leadership team and development, this succession planning – So many leaders have spoken to me about how they don’t know where to find the next level of leadership.
It’s in fact interesting. Someone from Silicon Valley told me that in Silicon Valley, they start off with an A Team. So there’s the CFO, the founder, the CEO, and the sales director. And that’s the main team and they start.
But in Asia, it seems to be there’s a founder, or one person, and he gathers people around him. So what’s your take on this?

Well, it started the journey quite easily because it was a team of me, myself, and I. So, with that, then you start to build, and bring other people on board.

So, the onboarding was interesting because we build very close relations, and we see people going through the journey, both with the organization, as well as themselves in their lives.

So at the very initial stage when we decided to setup Sakae, we questioned, “Why do people join us”. People join us because they need a job. But do we just want to give them a job? Beyond that, we want to give them a career. And a career has got to have a path. And you need to do training. And so, though we started with one shop during the Asian Financial Crisis in ’97, we have a small training department.

And that’s the emphasis we have for people development, and for building capability. And that’s the reason, today, why, the strength of the company today, is the people, the talents, the capability that we have eventually bought some of the people to do things that is beyond what they’ve ever dream. And they find truly a meaning and purpose to their life. And they feel that by growing the organization, they see themselves growing, in their own personal space as well.

And you would consider this your crucial success ingredient? This people first, and training.

I think this is one of the very critical component of most organizations. Because organizations are made up of people. And if we are going to build a global brand that is synonymous with sushi, called Sakae Sushi, like drink sakae, eat sushi, Sakae Sushi, the brand, we need to build 30,000 stores. To have 30,000 stores, being managed by a group of people, that’s quite a lot of work. And you need a lot of leaders to be able to do those kind of work.

And where do we find the leaders? And we start to train some of the people. We don’t just find the leaders then tomorrow you just have 30,000 stores. It’s a journey. We need to plan.

But me, myself, and I, who started this, how did you conceptualize your 30,000 store culture? That’s the thing we are asking you because –– how did you do that? Do you remember?

Well, at that time, I’ve never been in the food, or F&B, or hospitality space. But we saw the potential, a gap that food is something that is stable. You could have virtual buying. You can spend virtual money. But you still need real food.
So that’s something that from civilization till now, and till the future, is something that’s basic. And what’s the trend like, going forward? People are looking for healthy dining. And Japanese food, is by itself, a very healthy option. But there’s no global Japanese brand.

So you have the business development idea, but how do you build the human culture to represent that? So, the leadership culture, did you know? Or are they all small DNAs of you?

I think, while you have that vision of trying to build that, to realize that, you know that you need to build a team of people. When you start thinking about building a team of people, then you start to look at the management skills, you need a building capability, and you need to look at leadership as well.

Then you need to look at what kind of culture, what kind of leadership, and how do we continue to sustain the leadership, going forward. Because it’s not just essential to the first generation of leaders, because to build 30, 000 stores, it’s not going to happen in 10 years. It may take longer.

So, you need to have a second generation, and your third generation.

So, you had all these in mind, or did you start and stop, and realize that, again and again?

I think along the way, it’s about learning. Learning from different organizations that have been there, done that. Organizations that have not done so well – why did that not happen? Then you take wisdom from those, and you somehow create something that you believe is going to be useful for our own organization.

Please click here to view the video.


What Kills A Startup



1 – Being inflexible and not actively seeking or using customer feedback

Ignoring your users is a tried and true way to fail. Yes that sounds obvious but this was the #1 reason given for failure amongst the 32 startup failure post-mortems we analyzed. Tunnel vision and not gathering user feedback are fatal flaws for most startups. For instance, ecrowds, a web content management system company, said that “ We spent way too much time building it for ourselves and not getting feedback from prospects — it’s easy to get tunnel vision. I’d recommend not going more than two or three months from the initial start to getting in the hands of prospects that are truly objective.”

2 – Building a solution looking for a problem, i.e., not targeting a “market need”

Choosing to tackle problems that are interesting to solve rather than those that serve a market need was often cited as a reason for failure. Sure, you can build an app and see if it will stick, but knowing there is a market need upfront is a good thing. “Companies should tackle market problems not technical problems” according to the BricaBox founder. One of the main reasons BricaBox failed was because it was solving a technical problem. The founder states that, “While it’s good to scratch itches, it’s best to scratch those you share with the greater market. If you want to solve a technical problem, get a group together and do it as open source.”

3 – Not the right team

A diverse team with different skill sets was often cited as being critical to the success of a starti[ company. Failure post-mortems often lamented that “I wish we had a CTO from the start, or wished that the startup had “a founder that loved the business aspect of things”. In some cases, the founding team wished they had more checks and balances. As Nouncers founder stated, “This brings me back to the underlying problem I didn’t have a partner to balance me out and provide sanity checks for business and technology decisions made.” Wesabe founder also stated that he was the sole and quite stubborn decision maker for much of the enterprises life, and therefore he can blame no one but himself for the failures of Wesabe. Team deficiencies were given as a reason for startup failure almost 1/3 of the time.

4 – Poor Marketing

Knowing your target audience and knowing how to get their attention and convert them to leads and ultimately customers is one of the most important skills of a successful business. Yet, in almost 30% of failures, ineffective marketing was a primary cause of failure. Oftentimes, the inability to market was a function of founders who liked to code or build product but who didn’t relish the idea of promoting the product. The folks at Devver highlighted the need to find someone who enjoys creating and finding distribution channels and developing business relationship for the company as a key need that startups should ensure they fill.

5 – Ran out of cash

Money and time are finite and need to be allocated judiciously. The question of how should you spend your money was a frequent conundrum and reason for failure cited by failed startups. The decision on whether to spend significantly upfront to get the product off the group or develop gradually over time is a tough act to balance. The team at YouCastr cited money problems as the reason for failure but went on to highlight other reasons for shutting down vs. trying to raise more money writing:

The single biggest reason we are closing down (a common one) is running out of cash. Despite putting the company in an EXTREMELY lean position, generating revenue, and holding out as long as we could, we didn’t have the cash to keep going. The next few reasons shed more light as to why we chose to shut down instead of finding more cash.

The old saw was that more companies were killed by poor cashflow than anything else, but factors 1, 2 and 4 probably are the main contributing factors to that problem. No cash, no flow. The issue No 3 – the team – is interesting, as if I take that comment ” I didn’t have a partner to balance me out and provide sanity checks for business and technology decisions made” and think about some of the founders and startup CEOs I know, I can safely say that the main way that any decision was made was by agreeing with them – it was “my way or the highway”. I don’t therefore “buy” the team argument, I more buy the willingness of the key decision makers to change when things are not working (aka “pivoting” – point 9).


About the Author

This article was produced by Broadsight. Broadsight is an attempt to build a business not just to consult to the emerging Broadband Media / Quadruple Play / Web 2.0 world, but to be structured according to its open principles. see more.

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Callum Connects

Jasmine Tan, Director of Stone Amperor



Jasmine saves her clients time and effort when doing kitchen fit outs with her biz Stone Amperor.

What’s your story?
I started working in the industry in 2003. I was in a marble and granite supplier company for 5 years. Even though I left the company, I still had customers calling me for my services. I referred them back to my previous company but they refused to because they loved the fast response service that I offered. I realised that customers do look at prices, however most of them prefer quality over quantity. Thus I have decided to establish a sole proprietor company also known as 78 Degrees which later rebranded as Stone Amperor in 2014.

What excites you most about your industry?
The kitchen countertop industry is a very confusing market. There are many brands, materials and prices to choose from. What excites me the most is my ability to help clients choose the best materials and brands within their budgets, whilst saving them time and effort.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I have been in Asia all my life and I love Asia. No matter where you go there is no place like home.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
I love Singapore. This is because Singapore has always been a stable country and it is great for doing business. However as it is a small country, it can be really competitive. I believe that if just do your best and give your best to your customers, you can overcome this.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
“Take actions. Learn and improve continuously. An idea without action is just a dream.” This was really good advice that I received from my partner.

Who inspires you?
A very down to earth billionaire from Malaysia, Robert Kuok

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
Property is the foundation of every business.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
Own instead of renting property for my business.

How do you unwind?
I enjoy going shopping, watching movies and hanging out with friends. I am quite a simple being.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
I love going to Taiwan as I love the culture there. Everyone is so polite and the weather is great.

Everyone in business should read this book:
Sun Tzu, Art of war

Shameless plug for your business:
Perfect top, Perfect price, Perfect life from Stone Amperor

How can people connect with you?
Email me at [email protected]

Twitter handle?

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started, built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
Download free copies of his books here:

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