A Food Brand’s Quantum Leap to Success – The Man Behind It

by | Sep 2, 2016 | Covers Stories | 0 comments

When Dato’ Francis Lee took over the helm of Kenny Rogers ROASTERS International as the President in 1998, the company stood as little more than ambitious regional player. Thoughts of the brand filling the corporate heavyweight shoes it does today seemed remote and distant. It was on the verge of collapse due to the financial crisis that hit Asia and the rest of the world. But even in difficulties, Lee only saw opportunities. In this issue, Top 10 of Asia speaks with the affable Lee and finds out how he managed to turn around the company into one of Asia’s most successful food franchises.

For the last fifteen years, Dato’ Francis Lee has been an active player in spearheading Kenny Rogers ROASTERS’ fast-paced rise. Starting as an Internal Auditor at Berjaya Leisure which saw him taking charge of many hotels and leisure projects, he heads development for one of the most well-liked food brands in Asia, one that now has an ever-expanding array of one hundred and seventy two restaurants across seven countries in the Asia Pacific region. His achievement is unusual, his enthusiasm high, and the story he shares shows the widespread possibilities restaurant brands can deliver, even in weak markets.

The company struggled at first, and was not very well-known in Asia when he took over but he quickly revamped the whole company by bringing in new management team and staff, studying the costs, rolling out new strategies and stopping loss-making promotions.

“My first task at hand was to stem the flow of losses in the company. At that time, Malaysia was struggling with the fluctuating US dollar and it was difficult to price our products primarily due to our proprietary products being imported directly from the US. However, after the pegging of the ringgit by the then Prime Minister of Malaysia, Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, it became easier for us to price the products. There were around twenty four stores at that time and out of the twenty four stores, I had to shut around eight to nine stores that were bleeding and making losses. We only had around fifteen core stores left but I was very determined to bring them out of the red into the black,” he says.

The first idea he came up with was to shift the emphasis from counter service to table service. Under the counter service model, customers have to go to the counter to order and carry their food to their tables. Instead of burdening customers with heavy trays, he shifted the model to table service where restaurant servers come to their tables and take their orders instead. The concept he came up not only led to a better eating out experience, it also led to more sales.

“To test the new concept, we began searching for suitable locations. At that time, many shopping malls in Malaysia were reeling from slow tenancy growth due to the financial crisis. During our visit to Mid Valley Megamall with the Leasing Team, I chanced upon a huge empty space at the lower ground of the mall. It was very dark, similar to an underground kind of thing, but I saw a huge opening at one side of the space. I was curious, asked the management about the space and discovered the opening led to Carrefour, a well-known hypermarket. I knew the location was perfect for Kenny Rogers ROASTERS when I discovered an escalator leading up to the empty space from the parking lot below. My next task was to convince the directors to fork out RM300,000 to open an outlet there. It was no easy task considering plans were already in hand to close down the entire Kenny Rogers ROASTERS division and the holding company had bigger fires to fight. However, one of the directors relented after much persuasion and considering we still had plenty of unused restaurant equipments in the warehouse,” Lee shares.

The new concept proved to be a highly successful formula. In only two months, it took off and the newly opened restaurant managed to earn back the initial capital. The success gave Lee great confidence and he began to replicate the model in other stores around Malaysia. By 2003, the table service concept was fully adopted in all the restaurants in Malaysia. Complemented by plush seats and cozy ambience for a total transformation to more stylish comforts in designs, since then, the public’s love for Kenny Rogers ROASTERS has grown so much that there are around eighty two outlets across Malaysia, eight in China, twenty four in Indonesia, fifty in the Philippines, one each in Brunei and Bangladesh, and six in Singapore. The outlets occupy a particular space within the food service industry known as ‘casual dining’.

“Two of our most successful markets in the Asia Pacific region are Malaysia and the Philippines. In the Philippines, Kenny Rogers ROASTERS has become a household name and we have got quite a large number of patrons there. They normally frequent our restaurants to have a great meal with their families after attending church services on Sundays. They are also big on outside restaurant activities, such as closing deals with various corporate events to catering as high as 30,000 meals on a given day. In Malaysia, we have recently won a Bronze medal, under the Retail – Fast Food category at the prestigious Putra Brand Awards. For me, the award is a testament of Kenny Rogers ROASTERS’ popularity amongst Malaysians as out of six thousand cold calls made to determine Malaysia’s favourite brands, we came in third. In the future, we plan to tap into territories like Southern China, India, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia and the Middle East,” he adds.

Kenny Rogers ROASTERS professed unique selling point is that it is all about wholesome healthy meals and fun. It prides itself on its freshly-roasted chicken that’s marinated with natural citrus, herbs and spices. Its roast chicken contains 51% less sodium than usual fried chicken served in other fast food chains. On top of that, quality side dishes made up of a rich variety of vegetable salads, pasta, jacket potatoes, soups and home-made muffins are also served together with the chicken. Superior product seems to be its basic selling point, but it’s the friendly atmosphere, both for team members and customers, that keep its fans loyal. Customers know what they’re getting, which is friendly service, clean setting, and a fun atmosphere in each restaurant. To further enhance its dining experience, Kenny Rogers ROASTERS has also launched its first drive-thru service in Malaysia to cater for customers who prefer to enjoy meals on-the-go. As for the management style of the company, it adopts an open culture where employees are encouraged to share their ideas and provide their feedback to the management.

“Normally, I will set an expectation and give achievable targets for staff to achieve. I value their input as their feedback and ideas guide me in making important decisions. My advice to all young people who are just starting out in the food and beverage industry is to be resilient and never give-up,” Lee says.

On striking a work-life balance, Lee normally exercises at the gym and spends time with his family during weekends.

“One of the little pleasures I enjoy in life is visiting the outlets whenever I am free and enjoying a good cup of coffee with my friends there. It can be very hectic working in this fast-moving industry, but I make it a point to have lunch with my dad every week,” he adds.

As a socially responsible company, Kenny Rogers ROASTERS strives to be an establishment that serves delicious and healthy meals without compromising its principles or values. True to its tagline “Deliciously Healthy”, it has come up with many corporate social responsibility (CSR) campaigns such as Roasters Eating Day and Roasters Health Watch to promote healthy living in the communities it serves that is in line with its theme “Less Fat…Less Salt…Less Calories”. Up till today it has contributed to many charitable foundations across Asia and donates around RM70,000 annually to these organizations.