Martin Allies is the chief executive officer of Café Deco Group, which recently merged with Chevalier Pacific Holdings, the parent of Igor’s Group – making it one of Hong Kong’s largest food and beverage (F&B) companies, employing about 900 staff in more than 40 outlets. After graduating from the prestigious Heidelberg Hotel School in Germany, Allies worked with the Hyatt Hotel Group and Mandarin Oriental Group as executive chef and F&B director in Europe, the Middle East and Asia-Pacific. In 1990, he came to Hong Kong where he made a name for himself managing the then newly-opened Peak Café. In 1994, Allies led the Café Deco Group’s expansion with the launch of its landmark restaurant on the Peak. Now on top of his game, he oversees the group’s finances, employees, strategies and ever-expanding operations. He talks to Liana Cafolla.
How did you get into the F&B business? I basically grew up in a hospitality family. My family had everything from restaurants to butcher shops to cinemas. Because I was exposed to the hospitality industry at a very early age, it almost came naturally for me to go into this business. I liked the cooking side of things.
What is your day-to-day work like? It’s a long day! I try to get to the office early so I could get a few things in motion right away. A lot of times, I need to go out and deal with operational matters as well as investor relations, talk to landlords or prospective employees. I basically cover a big spectrum of my operations in order to stay close to it, to understand it all, to stay in touch. That’s important for to me. You need to balance it with the office work. A business like ours is a serious business, and I need to be on top of not only the operational side of things, but also the financial side.
What’s the best part of your job? It’s so diverse. It’s not just sitting in an office. You’re meeting different people. Hospitality is a people business. It’s not just a people business from a customer’s perspective but also a people business in terms of the staff. We now employ over 900 staff from all walks of life. What is exciting about it is that every day is different. It’s never the same because of the diversity of our business.
What are the challenges? The Sars outbreak [in 2003] was a very challenging time because of the expectations of customers and staff. I made sure that the staff were looked after. I also had to deal with suppliers, landlords, and partners. I’m very happy to say we didn’t have to close any of our operations. We had to negotiate very interesting and different combinations of different deals. As quick as Hong Kong goes down, as fast it can go up. We see this in every aspect of our lives, whether it’s property, or business, or commerce. It recovers very quickly. Especially in our industry, the first thing [people] start to cut back is [what] we call “affordable luxury”. We’re certainly not in the fine-dining segment of the business, but even in a casual-dining business, you see immediate changes once the economy turns for the worse because that’s the first thing people can control and cut back.
What is your leadership style? Basically, I have to manage expectations – what I expect from my team and what I can offer them in return. Can we, as a company, provide a career path? How do we keep them? How do we train them? How do we motivate them? We can now move our people around and put them where they will blossom best. We are very fortunate to have different operations, especially after we merged with another company. We can now give them different career options and I think that’s very important.
What is needed to train the next generation? I think a lot of companies should open their doors to youngsters so that they will understand what the business is all about. Five or six youngsters who did internship with us are now taking up hotel management. It helped them to appreciate what it really means to be on the other side of the bar, and to get the service, friendliness, effectiveness and efficiency of hospitality.
How do you relax? Obviously, in order to be fit and run a business, you also have to look after yourself. You need to put time aside – and I’d like to do it more than I actually can – to go to the gym. I work out in the gym for half an hour at least three times a week to clear my mind.
What advice would you give to young people? The pressure on young people to excel in the academic field is tremendous. Very few have an idea where to go. I would advise them to try and experience as much as they can. I think the one thing young people should not have is fear. The fearless will succeed. If they want to go somewhere, and they have the passion and the drive, a door will always open. Write letters to restaurants or to other businesses, and see if a door opens.
What are Café Deco’s corporate targets for the next few years? We want to use the scalability of our business to grow substantially. In terms of numbers, we would like to double our company in the next couple of years. It’s not necessarily the number of outlets, but their scalability. Can we roll out certain concepts? Can we move on to the next level? We have just started a new business which is a funky dim sum bar. One is opening in July, another in October, so we have already identified two locations. This is something we’d like to roll out.
If you have passion and drive, a door will always be open for you