In 2002, Sarah Lee, currently managing director of Pret A Manger (Hong Kong) Ltd, came to Hong Kong to pioneer the company's entry into Asia. Some three years later, after building a solid foundation for the Hong Kong operation, she returned to the UK headquarters. Today, she is back in Hong Kong with a mission — to open the 10th Pret A Manger shop in Hong Kong, or the 200th in the world.
"I love food and I want to be loyal to Hong Kong and Hong Kong people who love to eat as well. That's also why I came back," says Ms Lee.
A graduate in hotel and catering management, Ms Lee recalls that she joined Pret A Manger with a long-term career in mind.
"I had worked at a restaurant before signing on with Pret A Manger as a management trainee in 1997 in London. I wanted a great career, and it seemed to me that the company had the potential to grow," she says, adding that another attraction is the company's working hours which are untypical to those of other cafe chains. "Most cafes and restaurants demand their frontline staff work long hours. With Pret A Manger I can enjoy a well-planned schedule and a better work-life balance."
Comparing the company's operations in Hong Kong with those in London, Ms Lee sees a great deal of familiarity in terms of customer segments — both cities are vibrant with plenty of busy office workers.
"Our customers are attracted by grab-and-go, natural, healthy convenience food," she says. "There are noticeable differences in staff behaviour between the two regions though. Local Hong Kong people tend to say very little when they are invited to give an opinion. Therefore, we make a point to encourage staff to speak up and make their voices heard. Constructive suggestions are what we need to improve our operations."
In particular, the company invites all employees to submit bright ideas that can help create a better place to work and eat, with a chance to win a "best idea" award at quarterly gatherings.
"We enjoy working and having fun just the same. Official parties are held five times a year and we have a big bash every quarter," she says.
"There has to be mobility, flexibility and an eye for details"
In spite of current uncertainties in the overall business sector, Ms Lee is confident about the prospects for the local catering industry.
"Regardless of the economic situation, people will still need to eat the right food at the right price," she asserts.
Pret A Manger prides itself on its freshly prepared, hand-made sandwiches made with the best preservative-free ingredients — a promise to customers that makes the company a worldwide success. "Any unsold sandwiches are donated to local charities at the end of each day," Ms Lee adds.
As for her own recipe for success, she says determination is key. "What we do is very different from the average desk job. Aside from business acumen and a customer service mindset, there has to be mobility, flexibility and an eye for details because there are ample opportunities for any of our team members to work in different branches to meet the company's development needs," she says.
The company encourages internal promotion and creates opportunities for staff to develop. "Most of our managers joined us as team members, climbing the career ladder as fast and as high as their potential allowed," Ms Lee emphasises.
Apart from a passion for food and people, the company looks for talented individuals who are extroverts and team players.
"We rely on our staff to create synergy at work and build a trusting and respectful relationship with customers," she remarks. "Pret A Manger builds its success on word of mouth. Customers' trust is the best publicity. We make quality food a priority and this sets us apart from our competitors, but first and foremost we must ensure everybody in the company is on the same page. This is a challenge that I'm only too happy to face."
Ms Lee believes her career has been rewarding not only in monetary terms, but also personal development. "I can meet lots of customers every day and interact with them. Friendships are the greatest rewards in my career." Ms Lee concludes.