Career Path

Quality gains

by Charles Mak

Maria Li (left), deputy plant manager, cakes & bakery
Kwok Chi-wah, business development manager
Maxim's Caterers Ltd
Photo: Lewis Wong
Gastronomic fulfilment may only be one of the fundamentals for higher psychological aspirations, according to Abraham Maslow, but the very notion, when applied to a complex contemporary socioeconomic context, requires more than just food security.

In view of the heterogeneous nature of the F&B market in Hong Kong—a city renowned internationally as a gourmet paradise—and the socio-cultural and nutritional aspects unique to the city's food consumption habits, food manufacturers may find it inadequate to simply accommodate the picky palates of today's discerning customers. They need to look further.

Maria Li, deputy plant manager, cakes & bakery, Maxim's Caterers Ltd, understands this. Hailed from a background in food science and nutrition, Ms Li believes that changes in eating trends and patterns have deeper implications for both the consumers and F&B providers.

"Smart eaters in Hong Kong expect quality for their hard-earned money," she says. "As a major local F&B manufacturer, Maxim's is in a constant quest to come up with food items that appeal to their taste buds, something that is aesthetically pleasing and healthy."

Stringent standards

Maxim's, which operates a diverse portfolio of F&B outlets and catering services and manufactures a plethora of food products ranging from nibbles for the slightly peckish customers to hearty meals for the ravenous ones, has over the years come to represent quality. The trusted household brand owes its reputation to a categorical quality assurance (QA) infrastructure, which Ms Li helped build.

Her UK qualifications might have been instrumental in landing her a management trainee position with Maxim's initially in 1994, but her accomplishments over the following years were attributable to her industrious and meticulous disposition. "I was tasked with setting up Maxim's own sampling laboratory and subsequently the QA system after a year at the company's cakes and bakery plant," recalls Ms Li, who during that time also kick-started an ISO accreditation process which involved her in numerous meetings and site visits to the company's business partners, such as vendors and suppliers. "A thorough understanding of their operations was important," she adds. "The opportunity also boosted my interpersonal techniques and management capacity."

Later, a move into R&D let her business flair show. "My previous experience in QA stood me in good stead," she reflects.

Her leadership skills were put to the test in 2005 when she headed to Guangzhou and helped with the company's first cakes and bakery plant in mainland China. The occasion called for Ms Li's expertise and savoir-faire. "My role involved working closely with the mainland team to ensure that the QA system there was up and running," she notes.

Now overseeing the overall operation of Maxim's cakes and bakery plant, Ms Li, who also acts as adviser to the company's centralised QA team, juggles her time between a handful of executive duties, including everything from the manufacture of food, to supply chain management, quality management and even industrial ergonomics.

No let-up

Keeping the company's value proposition consistent with or ahead of customer expectations constitutes business sustainability and very much sums up Maxim's QA objectives.

"Recognised quality standards allow us to innovate," says Ms Li, referring particularly to the company's seasonal delicacy—the "Q-Mark" and HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) certificated mooncake series which this year incorporate certain imaginative ingredients based on the success of the Maxim's signature Angel and Devil cakes.

Kwok Chi-wah, business development manager of Maxim's Tai Po Food Production Centre, agrees. Amateur cook and a fan of Maxim's dim sum and curry dishes, Ms Kwok signed on with the company as an R&D officer in 2001, focusing on R&D and QA. Almost immediately, she became a member of the launch team for the company's Tai Po manufacturing plant and dedicated food laboratory. Two years later, she was promoted to technical services assistant manager and then quality assurance manager before assuming her current position with an increased scope of responsibilities encompassing aspects of QA as well as customer management and product innovation for the company's Tai Po Food Production Centre and laboratory. Her job also requires attention to international and local news about food and participation in regular meetings with chefs and operation managers for prompt actions that bring the QA operation into line with the frontline practice and vice versa.

She concedes that her qualification in food and nutritional sciences has opened many doors. "I am able to speak the same language with internal customers as well as our strategic partners," she remarks. "A job in QA may sound technical but practitioners never work behind closed doors because it requires concerted efforts from a cross section of people."

This is when communication skills supersede authority, she stresses. "Interaction, respect and a shared vision are key in creating synergy. To garner support, you also need leadership and influencing abilities in addition to technical competence."

Currently, Maxim's QA team employs 37 qualified specialists. The company promotes a "QC everybody" concept across its entire workforce, making "quality" a focal point at work. Both Ms Li and Ms Kwok have also been involved in drafting guidelines and operation manuals on quality requirements, product standards, as well as training materials.

"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," Ms Li emphasises. "More than 200 of our frontline colleagues have completed the HACCP certification."

In 2008, Ms Kwok led a QA team for the catering services during the Olympic Games' equestrian events, liaising with the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department and the Equestrian Company to achieve a "zero incidents" goal. "It's occasions like this that make our work even more rewarding," she notes.

Ms Li advises young jobseekers to find a career focus and stick to it. As for those aspiring to a job in QA, career success is down to having a detailed mindset and a positive attitude towards setbacks. "Dexterity is also key," Ms Kwok adds. "A QA professional has every chance to move up the ranks."

Taken from Career Times 13 August 2010, A11
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