Hard-boiled determination takes restaurateur a long way
Workaholic cooked up her own culinary empire from scratch, writes Andrea Li
M AT THE FRINGE has altered little since the restaurant opened in 1989. The wooden floor, angled lighting and patterned upholstery still remain. Yet behind the scenes, it has been nothing but change for owner Michelle Garnaut.
Over the years she has transformed from someone with determination, ambition and no money to presiding over her own culinary empire.
It helped to have a clear concept at the outset: to offer contemporary European food along with a selection of Middle Eastern and North African inspired dishes that were true to their origins. The combination proved to be a hit and led to the opening of another restaurant in Shanghai.
The original idea was not Ms Garnaut's but came from her boyfriend at the time, who was a chef. When he fell ill and pulled out of the venture, Ms Garnaut decided to forge ahead on her own.
Almost a year was spent securing a partnership agreement, structuring a financial deal and then selling the plan to various minority shareholders. Some were friends, while others who worked in banking, property and advertising, were looking for investment opportunities.
'I think I just believed in the concept so much and was so determined and pig-headed about wanting to do it that other people would have seen it too,' she said.
Then came the hunt for premises. The search ranged from Causeway Bay to Pok Fu Lam, but with some newer properties costing HK$65million at the time, Ms Garnaut focused instead on finding an older building and settled on the Fringe Club in Central.
After two years of negotiation and preparation, M at the Fringe finally opened in late 1989 and for the first six months, Ms Garnaut could hardly draw breath. She wrote menus, helped in the kitchen and took care of diners, while looking after all the details of day-to-day management.
Thinking back, she said the pressure created a sense of discipline that generated results. In just nine months, the restaurant was turning a profit - much faster than the usual two to three years for similar start-up ventures - and had enjoyed a steady stream of rave reviews.
The logical business move was to expand, something which would also give the staff new career opportunities. In 1999, Ms Garnaut decided to open M on the Bund in Shanghai near the Peace Hotel, but some distance from other entertainment venues.
'Everyone in Shanghai said it was crazy because back then the closest thing was a 15-minute taxi ride away,' she said. 'But I had seen such potential, such a sense of space and a remarkable site that amalgamated the new and old. I just thought to myself I couldn't really go wrong with this, although it was a big risk at the time.'
Her instincts proved correct, and the Shanghai restaurant became a culinary landmark within a few short years.
This success later led to the opening of The Glamour Bar, a venue covering more than 6,000 sqft on the floor below.
As the eldest of nine children born in Melbourne, Australia, Ms Garnaut grew up fast and learned early about assuming responsibility. At the age of 14 she landed her first job as a waitress at wedding receptions. Two years later, her father's untimely death meant that she had to run the household.
She said that taking on heavy responsibilities as part of a large family taught her about survival.
It also showed her the importance of being able to stand on her own two feet and having the resolve and determination to follow through on plans and make things happen.
10 things I know
1 You need to have diverse interests because this helps to stimulate new ideas and bring to mind alternative possibilities. Outside interests prevent you from just focusing on making money or increasing sales, and can lead to spin-off initiatives. For example, our literary festival in Shanghai initially started in 2003 as a one-off talk. It has now grown to become a major event involving at least 30 international writers each March, as well as a host of other literary events throughout the year.
2 It is a cliche, but people are your biggest asset, regardless of your type of business. I have always made it a priority to take care of our staff. We want them to have a life, not just work like dogs. As a result, our retention level is way above average.
3 Your word is your bond. Follow up on promises whether made to staff, customers, suppliers, associates or stakeholders. For example, pay stakeholders a timely dividend. It is foolish to make big, empty promises. It is better to make small promises you can fulfil.
4 The bottom line is not the only thing. From day one, I never thought about how much money I was going to make or regarded this as the only goal of the business. If you are smart about what you are doing, do your homework and have a good product, the money will come.
5 Stick to your principles because you can't be all things to all people. It took me years to accept that some people might not like our restaurants, the food or the decoration. However, if you try to change direction in response to occasional negative comments, things won't work out. You must learn not to take personal offence and continue doing what you believe in.
6 Maintenance in all areas is essential, including of the building or space you occupy and of programmes and policies. Always look at these things objectively and make changes if necessary.
7 Outline your business plan and stick to it. Don't overreach or create false expectations, which will only lead to disappointment. Many small to medium-sized businesses tend to take on too many projects in order to grow faster, but end up stumbling.
8 Make sure to offer equal opportunities and equal remuneration for men and women. Gender equality is extremely important and you need to follow through on this, not just pay lip service or allow exceptions.
9 Share profits fairly with staff and anyone else with an interest in the company. Many business people justify paying themselves by saying they work harder, but it shouldn't be that way. Everyone should share in the profits. Loyalty doesn't come from nowhere - a boss has to create it.
10 Corporate social responsibility in the form of giving back to the community and supporting other organisations with both time and money is hugely important. When I first persuaded our staff to do charity work, they didn't understand why they had to do something for nothing. After a couple of years, though, they saw the value and started to take the initiative. Now, we do things like the international coastal cleanup and hold an annual family carnival to raise funds for Care for Children. This shows you can only change people's ideas by doing things and giving people a chance to see the results for themselves.