The food industry has always been extremely competitive and, to stand out in the traditional Chinese food market, companies need to find a winning formula that combines good products, effective marketing strategies and modern management techniques. That is what John Choi Wong-hoe, managing director of Ocean Empire International, a restaurant chain specialising in Chinese congee and pastries, has come up with - after some twists and turns along the road to success. 'There is always a market for traditional Chinese food among Chinese consumers. But it's clear that food trends have evolved through the years to catch up with the fast-paced economic development and ever-changing customer demands,' said Mr Choi, who grew up in a family that ran a small congee shop. 'My family taught me life would not be complete without a well-paid job, a posh car, a beautiful wife, a big house and a lovely child, but I wanted more,' he said, adding that his real dream and 'ultimate career goal' was to run his own business. After graduating from the Chinese University, Mr Choi worked as a secondary physics teacher for two years. But, prompted by his entrepreneurial ambitions, he left education and started his own business in leather goods and logistics in the 1980s. Before long, observing the success of McDonald's, he began to realise that he could apply the same business model to a chain of Chinese congee restaurants. 'My family was in the congee business, so my upbringing helped me tremendously when I ventured into the business,' said Mr Choi, who went about developing a strong brand for his congee business. Knowing that, for many Hongkongers, congee is a food staple, Mr Choi realised all he needed to do was to repackage the product and give it a fresh look and feel. He opened his first branch with a business partner in Hung Hom in 1992, and the business went exceptionally well. Its success boosted his confidence and he opened two more outlets on Nathan Road a year later. The company now runs 25 outlets in Hong Kong and Macau, employing more than 800 workers. 'We were the first restaurant to adopt modern management techniques to run a Chinese congee eatery 17 years ago and it completely changed people's idea about where to eat traditional Chinese delicacies,' Mr Choi said. He said he was able to carry out the transformation by closely following market trends and seizing opportunities in a retail food industry where the dai pai dong was once the norm. Of the many business issues Mr Choi had to resolve over the years, he said staffing problems frustrated him the most. But they also gave him a chance to drastically reinvent his company and come up with a new model for doing business. In the early years of the operation, he hired some experienced congee chefs, as any restaurant would, but later found that experienced chefs tended to be inflexible about holidays, which seriously upset operations. 'They insisted on taking their two-week leave during Lunar New Year so that they could visit their families in China, but that's not possible in the food and beverage business,' Mr Choi said. Knowing the problem would not go away on its own, Mr Choi and his business partner decided to bring in younger chefs and train them. 'It was not an easy decision, but it was the right one to make in the interest of the company in the long term,' he said. But staffing was just one of many management issues that had to be addressed. As Hong Kong became more health conscious, for example, it dawned on Mr Choi that new, low-calorie congee products needed to be introduced, and the environment they were served in had to be spotlessly clean. Equally important was high quality standards. 'Good service ... is just as important as food quality and a comfortable dining environment,' he said. 'They all add to a successful formula, so I have to make sure all my staff meet the standards and have received training before they serve customers in the restaurants.' To motivate staff, the company encourages every member to speak out openly so they know their views are taken seriously. It also has an employee-of-the-month contest and winners get cash prizes. 'All this helps create a sense of belonging among staff. I truly believe how I treat my staff has a direct effect on the way they treat our customers.' Ten things I know 1 Let failures be your teacher With two prior business failures, which I look at as good learning lessons rather than setbacks, I used the experience to guide me in running this business. It proves that my decision was right. 2 Be prepared for obstacles I have encountered numerous obstacles in my current business. I strongly believe there isn't any business that is problem-free. The way I handle obstacles is to stay calm, seek advice from professionals and try to resolve them systematically. 3 Value staff No matter what roles my staff play in the company, be it dealing with customers, cooking, or cleaning, they all work hard to keep the business operating smoothly. They directly contribute to the success of my business. 4 Be innovative To meet the demands of customers, we constantly come up with new food items designed by our in-house nutritionists who make sure they are healthy and tasty. 5 Respect others' views The company is owned by me and my business partner. In order to maintain a harmonious working relationship, we respect, listen and trust each other and seek to compromise when differences arise. 6 Promote teamwork Just like any sizeable organisation, things will be all over the place without strong teamwork and co-operation. I always remind my staff and tell newcomers that individualism is not the norm in this company. 7 Maintain open communication Running a business with more than 800 people is not an easy task. It is even harder to make every worker happy. But I make sure their voices are heard by encouraging them to take advantage of the comment box. This helps build a better employee relationship and make continuous improvement. 8 Be business savvy Besides the ability to oversee the operation of an entire restaurant chain, it is vital for any business operator to seize opportunities when they arise and react swiftly to the market and business environment. 9 Differentiate your brand To combat intense competition from hundreds of congee restaurants in Hong Kong, it is important to implement a good marketing campaign to make your brand stand out from the rest and thus encourage consumers to give your products a try. 10 Fulfil corporate social responsibility As a responsible corporate citizen, we understand our obligations to the community. In the past, we helped raise funds for charitable organisations such as the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals, Po Leung Kuk and Yan Oi Tong, and we will continue to help the needy in our society.