Some people agonise for years about their choice of career. For others, there is never a moment of doubt. As someone who still finds every working day a source of enjoyment Nick Reitmeier, general manager of Great Food Hall, a division of A S Watson Group, clearly falls into the second category.
"I have a passion for the job and never wanted to do anything else," he says. Admittedly, with a father who ran a catering operation and a mother who was a trainer of chefs, it is fair to assume that destiny, or heredity, may have played a part. "You could say it is in the blood," Mr Reitmeier laughs. "My parents always told me to stay away from the food business, and especially from retailing, but, of course, I didn't listen. The first time I saw the food hall in a large store, I knew that was where I wanted to be."
He wasted no time in getting started. After completing high school in his native Germany he joined Kaufhof, an up-market department store, under their apprenticeship scheme. This provided both practical and theoretical training. Each week, two days were spent on the job, two days in the classroom, and one doing internal courses with the employer. "In Germany, you really have to learn your job," Mr Reitmeier explains. "After three years, you can call yourself a salesperson, nothing else, but you know everything about the products, where they come from and how to deal with customers. By rotating every three months from the cheese counter to fish, deli and other sections, you soon pick up experience."
The first time I saw the food hall in a large store, I knew that was where I wanted to be
Having shown his potential, Mr Reitmeier was invited to join the company's highly competitive two-year executive trainee programme and was given responsibility for managing a succession of stores in nine different cities. At the same time, he broadened his knowledge of foods from around the world, which were becoming increasingly popular with German consumers.
Everything changed in the mid-90s, when a phone call out of the blue brought an intriguing offer. Harrods, the prestigious London department store, was looking for someone to update the style of its food hall and bring a more modern approach to retailing. Mr Reitmeier got the job. "It was a great chance to learn about international tastes and dealing with customers who included royalty, movie stars and presidents," he remembers. "I also saw that, in the right environment, there is no maximum price for a good product."
Despite these advantages, the time came to move on. To gain different experience, Mr Reitmeier returned to Kaufhof as general manager in Stuttgart. He combined a five-day week with part-time study for a BA degree in marketing and economics. "The big thing at the time was convenience, so the whole retail operation had to be rebuilt from scratch," he explains. "That was a tough period, combining work and study for three years, but I knew it had to be done."Equipped with both academic and professional training, Mr Reitmeier became an obvious target for recruiters. He was approached by A S Watson Group with an offer to join Great Food Hall and was persuaded to move to Hong Kong in early 2001. "It seemed a logical move," he notes. "I knew about the top-end food market in Europe and Asia presented a new challenge. In my previous job in London as the food hall manager for famous store Selfridges, we had been very innovative, introducing a sushi bar and special food promotions with Asian themes. I wanted to bring European ideas to Hong Kong and also saw it as a doorway to China."
Since his arrival, Mr Reitmeier has overseen two store upgrades and has no intention of stopping there. The aim is to be the leading food hall in Asia and to set standards Hong Kong has not seen before. "Customers expect the very best from us every day," he says. "We want to offer new foods and new flavours but also meet changing consumer demands. People now want more health foods and organic products so we are updating our range constantly."
Already, 42,000 items are stocked, coming from almost every country in the world. Making this possible is a sophisticated buying and logistics operation which keeps things running smoothly. Good training is the key. Recruits, not necessarily graduates, are taken on every year as trainee managers or trainee buyers and complete a comprehensive two-year programme covering all aspects of the business.
"There is a lot to learn," acknowledges Mr Reitmeier, "but I remind people that, in this business, there are many opportunities. There is endless variety and every day brings something new."
Food retailing in mainland China has already started to change. There is a greater consciousness of hygiene and health issues and a gradual move towards experimenting with more international tastes.
Mr Reitmeier regards the China market as a "sleeping giant" both as a potential source of supply for more exotic food items and in terms of consumer demand for overseas products.