Career Path

At the top of the food chain

by Alex Chan

Janet Yuen, operations manager, Pret A Manger (HK) Ltd
Photo: Johnson Poon

In the current dynamic economic environment, it is not always easy for employers in the restaurant and retail sectors to hire and hold on to recruits in the younger age group. One company, though, is making a determined effort to counter this trend by projecting an energetic image and positioning itself specifically to attract a young workforce and offer challenging careers.

Janet Yuen, operations manager at Pret A Manger (HK) Ltd, is a perfect example of the policy and her enthusiasm and positive attitude have clearly put her on the fast track.

After graduating with a degree in occupational therapy, Ms Yuen's first job was actually in a hospital in China. After only three months, though, she realised the work environment there just didn't suit her, so she started looking around for something different. Since she was already familiar with Pret's operations and good reputation in Europe, she wasted no time in applying when she heard the company was about to open its first shop in Hong Kong.

"I wanted a career where I could go to work, have fun and have an outlet for my energy," she says. "That's why I left the hospital and joined a firm which focuses on people and personalities rather than their experience or whatever degree they have. Even though my background was not relevant, they still offered me a job."

Ms Yuen began as a team member and, through hard work and aptitude, worked her way up in record time. Within six months, she was promoted to team leader, then to management trainee and, in only her second year with the company, she was already a shop manager. Now, as operations manager, Ms Yuen oversees all the eight outlets in Hong Kong and manages a 120-person workforce with the team members' average age of just under 23.

I feel the energy of the environment and it makes me look forward to the day

Early start
One thing that initially caused her a few problems was the early start to the day. Many team members have to be on duty well before 6:30am to get things ready and make sandwiches for the morning rush. "I'm often very tired in the morning, but once I walk into the shop I feel the energy of the environment and it makes me look forward to the day," Ms Yuen says. "Also, we play loud music in every kitchen, so it's a bit like working in a disco and means that things remain fast-paced."

Ms Yuen makes sure to be at one of the shops before 7:30am to join the daily team briefing which sets the tone for the day. Afterwards, she visits other sites to discuss current concerns with the managers. "I spend a great deal of my time chatting with the team, because I think daily interaction is by far the best way of evaluating performance," she explains.

In her present role, the responsibilities include driving sales, arranging employee development and management training, and maintaining standards since Pret places great emphasis on providing quality products in a hygienic environment. One special project at the moment is preparing to open six or seven new shops in Hong Kong by 2007.

Passionate involvement
Ms Yuen points out that it is essential to have a passion for the job. In her own case, this developed during her college years in the UK when she realised just how much she enjoyed cooking and going to the supermarket to buy ingredients. "I'm lucky that what I like to do in my spare time is now also my job," she says.

This certainly helps in dealing with customers who are ever more discerning in their choice of food. They not only expect good quality and a wide variety, but also healthy options for special dietary needs.

Ms Yuen suggests that the best way of getting a feel for the business is by taking a part-time position while still at school. "It is better to find out then if you want to go into the industry, rather than waiting till after you graduate," she says. Part-time work also gives a chance to learn what it takes to interact with customers and to work in a team. "If you can do that and are also looking to have fun and are willing to work hard, a rewarding career with Pret A Manger awaits you," she concludes.

China Opportunities

Although the current focus is on expanding in the Hong Kong market, opening on the mainland is definitely part of the company's future plans. Ms Yuen explains that the biggest challenge is likely to be establishing a reliable logistics network, which will make it possible to obtain the high-quality, fresh ingredients that the company depends on receiving from around the world on a daily basis.


Taken from Career Times 17 March 2006, p. B12
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