To become a successful entrepreneur requires more than just an innovative idea or well thought out business plan, it requires building up trust, partnerships and loyalty with customers, suppliers and employees. According to Bradley Caine, founder and chief executive of EuroChef Asia, a supplier of kitchen utensils and equipment, good business relationships thrive when the parties are stronger for having linked arms and worked as a team.
'One of the first things I learnt when I established my own business is that you cannot be an expert in all areas. You need to build up strong working relationships with employees and clients,' said Mr Caine, who is also the founder of the Pan Handler, a kitchenware and accessory retail outlet.
'I believe the basics of good business include treating people fairly, respecting people and doing what you say you will do. Also, it is important to keep the lines of communication open so that if a problem does arise, you can quickly implement solutions,' he said.
When he launched his business, he visited chefs, purchasing managers and restaurant owners and worked 18-hour days.
'With more than 100,000 items in stock, my aim was to show potential clients they could acquire whatever they needed in Hong Kong without having to wait months for products to be delivered from Europe.'
From a fledgling start-up, EuroChef Asia has grown to become the leading supplier of kitchen and food and beverage equipment to five-star hotels and top restaurants throughout Asia and beyond, including supplying the Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons hotels in the United States and Europe.
A long-time Hong Kong resident, he formed EuroChef Asia after identifying a niche in the market while working for an enterprise that specialises in designing kitchens for the hospitality industry. From the outset, the company was keen to offer clients a wide product choice, so it formed a strategic alliance with Matfer-Bourgeat Group, a French company that manufactures and markets more than 20,000 items of kitchen and bakery equipment and utensils.
'When I launched EuroChef Asia 16 years ago, most kitchen design companies viewed supplying utensils as an annoying add-on service. The kitchen equipment business may not invoke the glamorous 'David Beckham' image of the hospitality industry, but utensils and small kitchen items account for about 10 per cent of the set-up cost of any hotel or restaurant kitchen. There is also resupplying,' Mr Caine said.
His set-up cost was about HK$4million. Mr Caine used HK$2million of his own and family money to secure a 51 per cent controlling stake. The Matfer-Bourgeat Group also invested HK$2million in the company. However, like many small businesses often discover during the early days, cash flow became a problem.
'We had so many orders coming in that we were working flat out to meet deadlines, but the money was going out quicker than payments were being received,' said Mr Caine.
The disparity was a result of the time difference between paying for products as they were ordered, and the time it took for them to be freighted, repackaged and distributed to customers. Further compounding the problem, most customers demanded 60-day payment terms. Mr Caine overcame the problem by extending his payment terms with his main supplier.
EuroChef Asia now has offices in Malaysia and Beijing, staffed by multilingual employees. Mr Caine said his success was directly linked to his staff, the majority of whom had been with the company for more than 10 years.
He employs 26 staff, and that number looks set to grow. 'We are in the process of launching a chef's one-stop supermarket,' said Mr Caine. Plans are also under way to launch an online buying service that will require additional staff. In addition to the business highs, Mr Caine also knows what it feels like to face a crisis. During the Asian financial turmoil many customers delayed or defaulted on payments. Adding a double-whammy to the situation, the devaluation of the Malaysian dollar and Thai baht also affected the exchange rate for goods already supplied.
The twin effects of a massive decline in business and payment defaults left the company in a precarious situation. Still, Mr Caine steadfastly refused to lay off any staff. 'The people who work with me are more than employees, they are friends. Through prudent housekeeping we just about managed our finances. I felt that it was vitally important that we kept the team together in readiness for an economic turnaround. As an entrepreneur I tend to look for the positive,' he said.
That loyalty was a two-way street. During a prolonged absence from work due to illness, his colleagues not only maintained the business, they also managed to grow it. As a result, Jamie Lok, long-time office manager was promoted to managing director.
Mr Caine offered a final piece of advice to would-be entrepreneurs. Any failure should be viewed as the next step before achieving success. 'Metaphorically speaking, if you find the door closed, climb through the window and if the window is barred, look for a cat-flap,' he said.