The heart of Lee Kum Kee’s corporate culture is to consider others’ interests before action. “In Lee Kum Kee, we make decisions based on the benefits of our employees, customers and consumers,” Managing Director South Asia Leslie Lau explains.

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“We can’t make a short-term decision purely to maximise our profits; the staff’s wellbeing is also important. We promote our ‘tri-balance concept’, which means the staff can find the balance between health, family and career.”

Although the company has more than 130 years of history, it tries to maintain “a youthful heart” to adapt to market changes. It encourages the concept of “Constant Entrepreneurship”, so that its team can cultivate creativity and innovation to adapt to the changing business environment and customer needs.

“We introduced this concept not only to our staff, but also to our customers and distributors,” Leslie notes. “They tend to be more sensitive to market change than our staff, so they can also bring new ideas and we can work together.”

Different regions of Asia prefer particular taste profiles, whether saltier or sweeter, so Lee Kum Kee launched localised formulas and products tailor-made for the areas. “This was a substantial change for the company because, in the past century, we’ve been selling the same portfolio worldwide,” Leslie says.

“We offer over 200 kinds of sauces and condiments to more than 100 regions,” he says proudly. “Our mission is ‘Promoting Chinese Culinary Culture Worldwide’. We encourage more people to use our products in their local dishes. South-East Asia’s taste profile tends to be sweeter compared with China, so we needed some sweeter sauces different from our traditional recipe.”

Leslie believes that the industry he works in makes life colourful. “You can eat food with no sauce or condiments, but our sauces and condiments will improve 99% of food,” he says. “When people have good food, they smile, and this gives us great satisfaction.”

“Our sauces and condiments will improve 99% of food.”

Before entering his role in South-East Asia, Leslie worked in China for 20 years, though he’s originally from Hong Kong. He’s never worked for two different companies in the same industry, which means that every time he changed his job, he changed industries.

“This is uncommon because it means that I had to get used to a new industry every five to six years,” he recalls. “The industries I’ve worked in include internet, furniture, beer and baby products, and now I’ve settled in sauces and condiments. I’m new to this region.

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“I think spending so much time in China – with its mindset, the dynamism, how they never say never and their work pace – shaped my way of working. I worked for a Danish beer company in China for 10 years. I would say one obvious similarity between beer and sauces is that they bring fun to your life, whether you are happy or sad. Life with no beer or condiments is boring.”

Lee Kum Kee is a unique company to work for. It wants to see growth, with its mission of “Promoting Chinese Culinary Culture Worldwide”. “Growth means more people try Lee Kum Kee, and that’s part of the journey to promote Chinese culinary culture,” Leslie says.

“We don’t always make decisions based on finances. I always say to my team and customers that some products are used to make friends. For example, we have some products that have a low-profit margin, but we keep them for those who appreciate and love Lee Kum Kee.”

The company also has a unique management concept called the ‘Autopilot Leadership Model’. “The concept is about choosing the right person for the right job,” Leslie explains.

“We do things together; we offer them support and empower them with passion and energy. Doing it together means I show my presence, and if they need, they raise their hand and talk to me. I’m always around, and I’m pleased to help, but if they don’t need me, they can be transparent about it and I understand.”

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Leslie explains that every company goes through difficult years where the numbers may not look impressive, but to do the right thing, some ideas may need to be challenged. “You might need to make a change that upsets people, but you need short-term results to turn things around,” he says.

“I will always make transparent decisions so that people know why. They might not understand, but they know why. Bad years are bad years, but the quality, the brand and the people are still there, so you must be careful not to do any
long-term damage.”

There is much opportunity on the horizon for Lee Kum Kee, and it will continue launching new products with local taste profiles over the next 12 months. “We are also in discussion with some food and beverage service outlets,” Leslie reveals.

“The formula development is promising. We will continue to tailor-make sauces for the foodservice outlets so that they can serve their customer easily.”

Leslie also aims to secure new capacity in the region because the plant in Malaysia is running out of space after more than 20 years of establishment. “Our production team has done a great job in upgrading the facilities, but space is limited,” he says.

“It’s too small for expansion. If we can achieve these things, I believe I will have done a great job, and I’m confident they will be done in the next year.”

After working cross-culturally, Leslie believes the best way to adapt is to keep an open mind. “If you don’t stay open-minded, you have many old rules or measurements by which you see the world,” he states. “You have prejudgement and deception. This does not help accept another culture.”

“If you don’t stay open-minded, you have many old rules or measurements by which you see the world.”

He also says you must have respect. “I think because you were born in a certain country, you have your standards or principles, and not everything is in line with your expectations,” he explains.

“Some people from another culture may do something that you don’t understand, but you try to understand. After you understand, you need to try to respect it. You try to talk to the person that may hold a different opinion than you, and I think trying to understand is already a big step towards respecting others.”