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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.

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Callum Connects

Malcolm Tan, Founder of Gravitas Holdings



Malcolm Tan is an ICO/ITO and Cryptocurrency advisor. He sees this new era as similar to when the internet launched.

What’s your story?
I’m a lawyer entrepreneur who owns multiple businesses, and who is now stepping into the Initial Coin Offering/Initial Token Offering/Cryptocurrency space to be a thought leader, writer (How to ICO/ITO in Singapore – A Regulatory and Compliance Viewpoint on Initial Coin Offering and Initial Token Offering in Singapore), and advisor through Gravitas Holdings – an ICO Advisory company. We are also running our own ICO campaign called AEXON, and advising 2 other ICO’s on their projects.

What excites you most about your industry?
It is the start of a whole new paradigm, and it is like being at the start of the internet era all over again. We have a chance to influence and shape the industry over the next decade and beyond and lead the paradigm shift.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I’m Singaporean and most of my business revolves around the ASEAN region. Our new ICO advisory company specialises in Singaporean ICO’s and we are now building partnerships around the region as well. One of the core business offerings of our AEXON ICO/ITO is to open up co-working spaces around the region, with a target to open 25 outlets, and perhaps more thereafter.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Singapore, since it is my hometown and most of my business contacts originate from or are located in Singapore. It is also a very open and easy place to do business.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
Be careful of your clients – sometimes they can be your worst enemies. This is very true and you have to always be careful about whom you deal with. The closest people are the ones that you trust and sometimes they have other agendas or simply don’t tell you the truth or whole story and that can easily put one in a very disadvantageous position.

Who inspires you?
Leonardo Da Vinci as a polymath and genius and leader in many fields, and in today’s world, Elon Musk for being a polymath and risk taker and energetic business leader.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
Early stage bitcoin investors would have made 1,000,000 times profit if they had held onto their bitcoins from the start to today – in the short space of 7 years.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
Seek out good partnerships and networks from day one, and use the power of the group to grow and do things together, instead of being bogged down by operations and going it alone from start.

How do you unwind?
I hardly have any time for relaxation right now. I used to have very intense hobbies, chess when I was younger, bridge, bowling, some online real time strategy games and poker. All mentally stimulating games and requiring focus – I did all these at competitive levels and participated in national and international tournaments, winning multiple trophies, medals and awards in most of these fields.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Phuket – nature, resort life, beaches, good food and a vibrant crowd.

Everyone in business should read this book:
Rich Dad Poor Dad by Richard Kiyosaki

Shameless plug for your business:
Gravitas Holdings (Pte) Limited is the premier ICO Advisory company and we can do a full service for entrepreneurs, including legal and compliance, smart contracts and token creation, marketing and PR, and business advisory and white paper writing/planning.

How can people connect with you?
Write emails to [email protected], or [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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Women on Top in Tech – Pam Weber, Chief Marketing Officer at 99Designs



(Women on Top in Tech is a series about Women Founders, CEOs, and Leaders in technology. It aims to amplify and bring to the fore diversity in leadership in technology.)

Pam Webber is Chief Marketing Officer at 99designs, where she heads up the global marketing team responsible for acquisition, through growth marketing and traditional marketing levers, and increasing lifetime value of customers. She is passionate about using data to derive customer insights and finding “aha moments” that impact strategic direction. Pam brings a host of first-hand startup marketing experiences as an e-commerce entrepreneur herself and as the first marketing leader for many fast-growing startups. Prior to joining 99designs, she founded weeDECOR, an e-commerce company selling custom wall decals for kids’ rooms. She also worked as an executive marketing consultant at notable startups including True&Co, an e-commerce startup specializing in women’s lingerie. Earlier in her career, Pam served in various business and marketing positions with eBay and its subsidiary, PayPal, Inc. A resident of San Francisco, Pam received her BA from the University of Pennsylvania and MBA from Harvard Business School. Pam is a notable guest speaker for Venture Beat, The Next Web, Lean Startup, and Growth Hacking Forum, as well as an industry expert regularly quoted in Inc., CIO, Business News Daily, CMSwire, Smart Hustle, DIY Marketer, and various podcast and radio shows. You can follow her on Twitter at @pamwebber_sf.

What makes you do what you do?
My dad always told me make sure you choose a job you like because you’ll be doing it for a long time. I took that advice to heart and as I explored various roles over my career, I always stopped to check whether I was happy going to work every day – or at least most days :). That has guided me to the career I have in marketing today. I’m genuinely excited to go to work every day. I get to create, to analyze, to see the impact of my work. It’s very fulfilling.

How did you rise in the industry you are in?
I had a penchant for numbers and it helped me stand out in my field. This penchant became even more powerful when the Internet and digital marketing started to explode. There was a great need for marketers whose skills could span both the creative and the analytic aspects of marketing. I capitalized on that growth by bringing unique insight to the companies I worked with, well-supported with thoughtful analysis.

Why did you take on this role/start this startup?
I’m not sure this is relevant to my situation as I had been a marketing leader in various start-ups and companies. I took on the role at 99designs because I was excited by the global reach of the brand and the opportunity the company had to own the online design space. I especially liked the team as I felt they were good at heart.

The challenge I’ve faced in my time at 99designs is how do I evolve the team quickly and nimbly to address new challenges. The work we do now, is very different than the work we did a year ago and even the year before that. There is a fine line between staying focused on the goal ahead and being able to move quickly should that goal shift.

Do you have a mentor that you look up to in your industry or did you look for one or how did that work?
There is no one I’ve sought out or worked with over my entire career as my “mentee” needs have changed so much over the years. There are many people who have helped me along the way. For example, one of my peers at eBay, who was quite experienced and skilled in marketing strategy and creative execution, taught me what was in a marketing plan and how to evaluate marketing assets. As I have risen to leadership positions over the years, I often reach out to similarly experienced colleagues for advice on how they handle situations.

How did you make a match if you and how did you end up being mentored by him?
I learned early in my career that it rarely hurts to ask for advice. So that is what I have done. Additionally, there are people that are known to be quite helpful and build a reputation for giving back to others in advisory work. Michael Dearing, of Harrison Metal and ex-eBay, is one of those people. I, as well as countless others, have asked him for advice and guidance through the years and he does his best to oblige. Finding mentorship is about intuiting who in your universe might be willing and whether you are up for asking for help.

That being said, generally, I have found, if you are eager to learn and be guided, people will respond to the outreach.

Now as a leader how do you spot, develop, keep, grow and support your talent?
I generally look for a good attitude and inherent “smarts”. A good attitude can encompass anything from being willing to take on many different types of challenges to working well amongst differing personalities and perspectives. Smarts can be seen through how well someone’s done in their “passion areas” (i.e. areas where they have a keen interest in pursuing).

I try to hire those types of people because in smaller, fast-growing companies like many of the ones I’ve worked in, it’s more often than not about hiring flexible people as things move and change fast.

Once those people are on my team, I try to keep them challenged and engaged by making sure they have varying responsibilities. If I can’t give them growth in their current job or in the current company, I encourage them to seek growth opportunities elsewhere. I’d rather have one of my stars leave for a better growth opportunity than keep them in a role where they might grow stale.

Do you consciously or unconsciously support diversity and why?
I consciously support diversity. When I am hiring, I am constantly thinking about how to balance the team with as broad a range as possible of skill sets, perspectives, etc. to ensure we can take on whatever is thrown at us, or whatever we want to go after.

What is your take on what it takes to be a great leader in your industry and as a general rule of thumb?
I’m going to assume a great leader in my industry to mean a marketing leader in a technology company. I think a great leader in this industry is not afraid to learn new tricks no matter their age – it’s the growth mindset you may have heard about. I have a friend who inspires me to do this – she purchased the Apple Watch as soon as it was available, and was one of the first people I knew to use the Nest heating/cooling system. She’s not an early adopter by most definitions, but she adopts the growth mindset. This is the mindset I, too, have sought to adopt. In my field of marketing, it most recently has meant learning about Growth Marketing and how to apply this methodology to enhance growth. Independent of your industry, I think a growth mindset serves you well.

Advice for others?
I have been at 99designs for 3.5 years. During that time we’ve invested in elevating the skills and quality of our designer community, we’ve rebranded to reflect this higher level of quality, and have improved the satisfaction of our customers. Our next phase of growth will come from better matching clients to the right designer and expanding the ability to work with a designer one-on-one. We have the best platform to find, collaborate, and pay professional designers who deliver high quality design at an affordable price, and it’s only going to get better. I’m excited to deliver on that vision.

Pam Webber
Chief Marketing Officer of 99designs
Twitter: @pamwebber_sf

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