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From numbers to maps: Lin Chien Chien

Lin Chien Chien Vice President of The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf

Considered by many to be a Hollywood institution, The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf has counted, among its many famous clientele, Lee Marvin, Johnny Carson, David Beckham, Eddie Murphy and Madonna.

The American coffee chain, founded in 1963 by Herbert Hyman as an office coffee service, opened its first franchised location in Singapore in 1996, becoming a company-owned entity when Sunny and Victor Sassoon bought the parent company from Hyman in 1998. The number of locations in the country has expanded to 65, and its growth shows no signs of slowing.

Vice President of Singapore, Country Head and Vice President of Finance, Asia Pacific Lin Chien Chien joined Coffee Bean in 2001, working in an accounting role from which she made her way to Head of Finance for Singapore in 2008, and Vice President of Finance in 2015.

Since receiving the promotion to Country Head in 2017, she has become responsible “not just for finance, but for the entire business. I’m in charge of real estate and store development, and responsible for selecting sites to open new stores”, as well as for the design and construction of these stores. She admits that “coming from an accounting background, moving into store development was a real challenge,” but acknowledges that the accumulation of experience on this side of the business is starting to make her feel right at home.

Lin Chien Chien Vice President of The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf
Lin Chien Chien, Vice President of The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf

After honeymooning in Sweden with his wife Mona in 1966, Hyman was inspired to import gourmet coffee, roasting and selling it to Coffee Bean’s customers in Los Angeles. The company’s reputation for offering quality coffee has stood fast ever since, bolstered by the invention of the Original Ice Blended in 1987. These days, coffee lovers are queueing up for the nitro vanilla bean latte, made from a nitrogen-infused cold brew, steeped for 20 hours, and Coffee Bean’s signature vanilla bean sauce.

With markets for tea in Asia opening up, the company has been taking the opportunity to begin developing a wide range of the alternative option, building on the perennial popularity of its chai tea latte. “For a long time,” Chien Chien tells The CEO Magazine, “we have focused mostly on coffee, but over the past few years we have started to turn our attention to tea.” The brand’s premium quality teas and wide range of iced teas is quickly developing a following, helped by the country’s climate. “In Singapore, it feels like summer all year,” she says, and Coffee Bean’s iced teas and sparkling ice tea offer an appetising way for consumers to quench their thirst.

Growth Strategies

Plans to boost tea sales are complemented by two more significant strategies that Chien Chien will be focusing on in the next 12–18 months. While food is not Coffee Bean’s core business, the company is making a concerted effort to offer attractive food options for those who are seeking an accompaniment to their drinks. Committed to providing healthy choices, the company has always been incorporating natural ingredients in its food items; it does not use MSG, and avoids other artificial flavourings. “Importantly,” Chien Chien says, “we use all butter, and no margarine. Despite rising costs, we hold fast to what we believe. Even though food is not a big part of the business, we are still offering a healthier choice.”

“Despite rising costs, we hold fast to what we believe.”

The third strategy in place for growth over the short term involves responding to shifts in the target market. “Just as the company is evolving,” says Chien Chien, “so too is our target consumer.” These days, it is the millennial market that the company is tapping into, responding to the demands of young consumers on their home turf. “We are very active on social media, building up the brand and increasing interaction with the younger generation.”

Coffee Bean stores offer a welcoming and familiar atmosphere, and Chien Chien notes that “we are as passionate about our guests as we are about our coffee and tea”. In the face of stiff competition, she believes it is Coffee Bean’s global brand that separates it from the pack, with its accompanying reputation that has been developed and strengthened over the past 55 years.

“Our product is good quality,” she says, “and the customer knows what to expect. They know that when they come in for a cup of coffee, they will not be disappointed.” The company selects premium Arabica coffee beans, roasting them in small batches to ensure a full-bodied flavour profile, and works directly with private growers of tea leaves.

To uphold consistency, Coffee Bean has an extensive training scheme in place that also serves to demonstrate a continuing investment in its staff, most of whom join the company at a young age. “Once a month, we have meetings for all the branches, to keep them updated with new developments within the company. We hold regular in-house training sessions for them and offer refresher courses after a year or two to ensure continued development.”

Chien Chien also makes sure to maintain a presence in the stores herself, noting that it provides managers an additional opportunity to make sure they have everything they need for their stores to be operating at optimal levels. “I will visit one or two locations each week to look at how the business is going,” she says, “and to see what kind of help the store managers need.” The managers open up during these visits in a different way, and “they share about whatever tools or marketing support needed to enhance the business”. “It’s the advantage we see when the highest levels of management step into the store and interact with them,” Chien Chien explains.

Lin Chien Chien Vice President of The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf

The success of Coffee Bean in Singapore depends, too, on its suppliers, and strategic partnerships play an integral role in ensuring smooth operations. “The quality of the products we receive from our suppliers doesn’t just safeguard the promises we make to our customers, but also improves efficiency throughout Coffee Bean’s entire system,” Chien Chien notes. This is true of suppliers on the food and beverage side, and extends as well to the teams in charge of constructing the stores themselves.

“In Asia, the ambience of a store plays an important role. We have our construction suppliers who help us in the renovations and the construction work, and make sure that our customers are able to relax in the cosy atmosphere of our stores.”

Chien Chien’s role of scouting for locations for new stores was a huge change for her, two or three years ago. “The new role demands a high level of communication and interaction skills, which you don’t get to practise or use much when you are an accountant.” She describes the change succinctly, remarking that she went “from numbers to maps to square metres and square feet”. “But after three years, I’m enjoying the role, having become used to it,” she adds. “I’m also more familiar with the people in the market and I’ve gained more knowledge.”

“The quality of the products we receive from our suppliers doesn’t just safeguard the promises we make to our customers, but also improves efficiency throughout Coffee Bean’s entire system.”

The scope of the Country Head role required Chien Chien to transform from someone who held a professional certification in the accounting field into someone able to attract new business and oversee locations and even store design. This transformation involved a shift from a profit-and-loss perspective to one that builds on the reality of what is taking place in the stores. Remaining true to her roots, however, Chien Chien is still “able to read the numbers like a storybook”, and the tale they tell, of continued growth in the Singaporean market, is surely pleasing.

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