Healthy appetite reaps rewards
Alan Chen Cheung-tat's rise from a Pizza Hut waiter to senior management with a big Japanese retail chain is nothing, if not spectacular. From waiting on tables in staff livery to overseeing all operations in the retail shops, the 32-year-old's transformation startled even himself.
'I just scored six passes in the HKCEE and failed English,' he said. 'I never imagined that I could be among senior management of a big company.'
Chen attributed his diligence and determination to make up for what he had missed out on during his schooldays for his transformation from the lower ranks of staff at a restaurant to the top brass of a retail giant. Chen said the importance of education dawned on him only after he joined the labour market.
'I was arrogant in the past. I thought Putonghua would replace English one day as the global language and there was no need to learn it [English],' he said.
Chen got a rude awakening after starting work as a waiter at Pizza Hut. 'I could handle the job well and they offered me a promotion. But I told myself if I accepted it and carried on working there, it would be for life.'
Chen quit in 1998 to take a break from the catering drudgery, and joined Japan Home Centre as a shop assistant. 'I got a salary of HK$13,000 at Pizza Hut, and just HK$7,000 at Japan Home Centre. But the job had more stable working hours which allowed me to study.'
Chen enrolled in a part-time degree in business administration at Open University in 2000. The five-year part-time degree cost HK$120,000 and his free time. 'I had to spend every weekend studying and doing research for assignments. When my colleagues went on overseas trips during holidays, I had to read reference books and papers.'
All the hard work paid off as he became senior operation manager in 2007. Chen completed his master's in business the following year, aged 31.
Chen said the knowledge he acquired through studying was critical to securing promotion. 'The programme covered a lot of modules, including customer psychology, retailing ecology and international business environment,' he said. 'The course taught me to analyse things from a business perspective.
'Over the years, I have been involved in policy making at the company, such as the adoption of direct sourcing, eliminating convoluted layers of sourcing middlemen to save costs and the change from a HK$10 shop before Sars [severe acute respiratory syndrome] to a specialist outlet selling quality merchandise.' Not only did Chen's studies enhance his bargaining power, they nurtured a reading habit that persists to this day.
'I have fallen in love with reading books about philosophy and business,' he said. 'Reading opens new horizons and helps you mellow.'
With many part-time and distance-learning courses available in Hong Kong, Chen is one of many to have embraced lifelong learning at the same time as working to enhance their credentials.
Open University provides tertiary learning opportunities for those who missed out on education at an earlier age. While it adopts loose entrance requirements (completion of Form Five being the minimum requirement for all courses with the exception of post-graduate studies), students must fulfil strict requirements before graduation.
Chen learned that the hard way when he failed the first subject he took. 'I failed marketing as I hadn't followed the instructions,' he said. 'It was more demanding than I thought. After the setback, I mended my ways and followed all the instructions to the letter and retook the subject and got a B.'
He plans to study for a doctorate in business. 'No matter how old you are, studying can always open up a better future. Though my eight-year part-time learning journey was harsh and tiring, the rewards always outweigh the sacrifice you have made.'