Back in 1986, with four years of hotel F&B (food and beverage) experience tucked under his belt, Wallace Li was among the first from Hong Kong's hotel industry to venture into the mainland market.
Things were very different then and the 20-year time lapse essentially meant a tougher working environment and harsher living conditions. "Back then we had to lodge in state-run guesthouses and cycle into town," Mr Li recalls. "Nights out were almost impossible because even the biggest hotels sealed off their main gates at 11pm." However, nothing stopped him from trying, and that was when he learnt to take hardship in his stride. "We defied the rules, went out for the night and climbed back in," he says.
Now at the age of 46, Mr Li is general manager of racecourse catering operations at the Hong Kong Jockey Club (HKJC), overseeing the everyday management of more than 172 restaurants and eateries at the Happy Valley and Shatin clubhouses.
Mr Li was not born with a proverbial silver spoon in his mouth, so alongside school, work started early during his adolescence. One summer, he became a bellboy for a Malaysian hotel group. "It was only a three-month summer job but my path was sort of set," he recounts. His university studies followed a natural course. Given the choice of hotel and tourism or accounting, he opted for the former and joined the third batch of graduates in a discipline that was not considered hot back in 1981. "I knew intuitively that it was the right choice though," he stresses.
Best of both worlds
Immediately after graduation, Mr Li worked as a management trainee for two years with a reputable hotel group. The following two years would see him quickly rise up the career ladder. Then in 1988, when he turned 25, he readily accepted an opportunity to be part of a launch team for the group's properties in Guangzhou and Hangzhou.
Three years later, Mr Li came back to Hong Kong for another challenge. This time, he became a project manager at the hotel group's corporate office. "That particular job afforded me a panoramic view of F&B operations — from brainstorming menu ideas, planning the right decor, overall management, implementing pricing policies to tableware selection," he says.
A promotion to assistant F&B director brought him back to the frontline but before long, he decided to have a change of pace. He remarks, "I joined the HKJC in August 1992 and was initially made F&B in-charge of the pre-opening of the Happy Valley clubhouse. It was quite a learning experience."
Over the years, Mr Li has climbed one step at a time, taking on increased responsibilities, which have furnished him with ever wider exposure and skills. "People go through different life stages but whatever the job, you must always give quality," he emphasises, noting the subtle differences between frontline and administrative operations. "There is a keener focus on people management and a set of different challenges on the frontline. I was lucky to have laid my hands on both."
"Whatever the job, you must always give quality"
Every year, the HKJC racecourses cater to the varied culinary preferences of 1.9 million HKJC members and race-goers. According to Mr Li, the diverse customer population and taste expectations are not a challenge per se. "The real thrill comes from our pledge to deliver consistent service within a five-hour timeframe on race day," he says.
Off-season periods during the summer months allow Mr Li and his team time to reflect and innovate. For instance, as the new racing season opened only a few days ago, Mezza One, the signature food court at the Shatin racecourse, presented race-goers with a refreshing look. Three of the 18 eateries have also been replaced and now feature clay pot rice, Korean cuisine and Asian noodles. "Each of these eateries has an individual theme," Mr Li explains.
Restaurant menus are also reviewed annually. This entails delicate menu engineering, detailed cost analyses and food tasting. "Careful planning for cost and product positions is indispensable," notes Mr Li who is now working towards expanding the capability of the HKJC non-racing days' catering services.
Live to the full
Recipient of an Outstanding PolyU HTM Alumni Award in 2006 by the School of Hotel and Tourism Management (SHTM) at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, and chairman of the university's SHTM Alumni Association since 2004, Mr Li works 12 hours a day, following a tight daily schedule that usually starts at 8am and sometimes stretches to midnight for night races and special events. Despite this, he still found time to complete an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management in 2001.
"I'm a workaholic and it's not easy for me to separate work from life," discloses Mr Li, father of two young children. "So, when I take time off work, I focus solely on my family." For instance, when going on holiday, he checks his email once before the family wakes up in the morning and one more time before supper, locking away his Blackberry in a safe at the hotel in between these times.
To let off steam, Mr Li exercises regularly. He has also developed an appreciation of fine wine. "The ability to understand and value quality helps me to keep composure and maintain a peaceful state of mind," he says. Due to long and often irregular hours at work, he treasures every quality moment with friends and family. "To make the most of life, I work very hard and play even harder," he adds. "It's a good thing I enjoy my work."