Little Sheep growing fatter

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 November, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 November, 2008, 12:00am

Restaurant chain needs staff to cope with rapid expansion

The terms hotpot and Little Sheep have become synonymous when it comes to the popular Chinese fare used to warm the winter blues.

Little Sheep Group introduced the popular dish with a new light pairing of lamb pastured in the green lands of Inner Mongolia with a secret soup base that ousted the need for dipping sauce, traditionally an integral part of the feast.

'People like it and whenever we talk about Inner Mongolia, they think of Little Sheep and whenever they think about hotpot, they think of us,' said chief operating officer Yuka Yeung.

Little Sheep's triumph as one of China's fastest-growing restaurant chains has translated to international fame and an oversubscription when it listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange this year and raised HK$779.7 million from its initial public offering.

But, as is usual with all kinds of achievements, there are always a few bumps along the way that need smoothing out - and one of those is the need for manpower as the group expands.

'Because we are growing and we will have 40 to 60 new stores in the next year, we need people at all levels such as restaurant staff, supervisors, store managers and area supervisors,' Mr Yeung said.

'We need to fill all these shoes all the time and it is becoming more and more difficult and competitive in China finding these people.'

He explains that a burgeoning restaurant industry on the mainland means that companies are recruiting from the same talent pool, whereas in the past there were only a few major players.

But Little Sheep - also known as 'Little Fat Sheep' as per its Chinese name - is ready to tackle the challenge. It believes its position as an industry leader and an employer of choice means it will be able to attract and recruit the best and the brightest.

'We are an actual listed company and in China, as far as restaurant companies are concerned, there aren't that many listed companies and we are able to clearly show people their career path,' he said.

As a recipient of a China Best Employer Award 2008 from the International Human Resource Management Association, Peking University's case management centre and the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, Mr Yeung believes the award is important for the company and it helps to attract the best.

'We feel that as a matter of fact these kinds of things are not one of the top things that a regular Chinese company will have on their mind - to be a best employer,' he said.

'But for us, we are an international company now and we are in different markets, so we do take note of this and try our best to be a good corporate citizen, a company that cares about its staff.'

Mr Yeung emphasised that he wants all staff to understand that they are not just working for a leading hotpot company but 'working with a responsible employer'.

Although the company hopes its reputation as a good employer will attract staff, its recruitment policy has not been complacent.

To help fuel its growth, the company has gone on the offensive and set up its own training school for intensive induction training and staff upgrading programmes and extending recruitment to colleges and universities on the mainland.

'We have a lot of in-house programmes, so we make it into a standardised practice,' Mr Yeung said.

For example, candidates are put in stores to become front-counter staff for two to four weeks when they are able to learn everything relating to the job.

'We make it self-sufficient from a regional point of view so that we are able to train and recruit the staff that are needed,' he said.

Little Sheep has also turned to Hong Kong to invite candidates on board. Mr Yeung, who was recruited from Hong Kong to run the operations side of the business, is an example. The company has hired people at various levels from Hong Kong. It is now seeking people for marketing and development areas as it looks to grow its portfolio.

But there are prerequisites for the job. 'We are looking for people who can work as a team, who enjoy working in the hospitality industry and have genuine concern and care for the customer and for people around them,' Mr Yeung said.

After all, incumbents are working in a service industry, so whether the person is at the store front or at the head office, they need good people skills - always with a smile on their face - and to set an example to colleagues, he said.

Opportunities are plenty in the group, which expects revenue to grow by at least 40 per cent this year and has plans to open 40 wholly owned restaurants by the end of the year. It has 343 restaurants on the mainland, Hong Kong, Macau, Japan and the United States, where 240 were franchised as of June this year.