Ip, man, he's dynamic

It has taken 20 years for the Crystal Jade group to grow 100 restaurants, and this year alone, they are opening 22 more outlets. But Crystal Jade Culinary Concepts Holdings chairman Ip Yiu Tung, 60, does not look one bit aggressive in person. When I met him, he seemed almost demure and had no airs about him.

"People always ask me, 'Why do you open so many restaurants?'" says Ip. "It's actually to keep staff."

The chefs and service staff get to have opportunities for promotions to better positions with the addition of new outlets. Ip certainly has many people to take care of – 4,000 total staff to be exact.

Recruitment and retention are notorious challenges in Singapore's highly competitive F&B scene. It is particularly difficult to hire enough locals to meet the required local-foreigner employment ratio.

Interestingly, Ip had never been in the food & beverage (F&B) industry prior to becoming Crystal Jade’s major shareholder in 1992. “Managing people and bottom lines [are] the same, whether you are in manufacturing or F&B,” he says. He concedes that dealing with chefs is quite different because of stronger personalities involved. “But people are your most important asset.”

Ip also cites good ingredients as critical for success. There is a team monitoring the quality of its centrally sourced produce and ingredients. But with inflation so dire in recent years, Crystal Jade's already slim single-digit profit margins often suffer. The group has had no choice but to increase prices, but it has kept those in gentle increments.

Consistency in cooking is also important. Ip refers to something he calls the “corporate taste” of Crystal Jade. He relies on long-standing chefs who understand this taste to replicate it across the branches which are now too numerous for him to personally check.

Crystal Jade’s success was not without upheaval. Ip’s brother-in-law Alfred Leung broke away from the group to start Imperial Treasure in 2004. Understandably, Ip is reluctant to elaborate on the bitter family strife.

"This is something that happened a long time ago, and should be left in the past,” he says. “Now we each take care of our own businesses, and he is just another competitor among many. In fact, this extra competition will only benefit diners because we are spurred to do better."

"I would rather focus on the future, and on building the brand. The Crystal Jade group has reached a size whereby branding is key. That's why we have refreshed our brand image this year."

On the personal front, Ip is a doting father to his only child, a 19-year-old daughter for whom he cooks for. His own tastes are quite simple, and personal favourites include the BBQ meats and roast pork at Crystal Jade.

Outside of work and family, he believes in keeping fit and healthy. He jogs regularly and goes hiking on weekends. He still keeps his original piano manufacturing business because of his interest in music.

Ip shuttles between Singapore and Hong Kong for his F&B business. He is enthusiastic about a contemporary Crystal Jade Kitchen coming up at Scotts Square in Singapore, and a fine-dining restaurant called Sky Crystal in the tallest building in Hong Kong, the International Commerce Centre (ICC).

With so many outlets, Mr Ip admits they have indeed reached a bottleneck. He is looking at other regions (Australia is a viable market) and possibly other cuisines. “Something simple, delicious, and quick,” he emphasised, reflecting the dining needs of the modern generation.

Makansutra celebrates Asian food culture with various platforms – managing food courts, food guides, events and consultancy. For more, click here.