MARTIN J SPYKERMAN

Interview:

About the Company

1. What is the nature of your business?

Our company is called Cavi-Jet (S) Pte Ltd It’s the holding company that we operate under. The restaurant is called Brazil Churrascaria before, and now it’s called Brazil Churrasco. Back in 2008, we decided to rebrand the name. We’re essentially a Brazilian style restaurant, specializing in BBQ meats. It’s a BBQ buffet style, where customers pay a set price for the meal and can eat as much as you want, as long as you like to. The drinks and desserts are separate. The customer will be able to enjoy for the price, which is $47 ++ these days, a whole range of 25 hot & cold salad dishes and 14 different cuts of BBQ meats. We’ve been existence since September 1994, going to be 20years. Since we started, we’ve managed to go overseas, some successful, some not so. Currently, our overseas assignment is in Malaysia, KL and Bangladesh, Dhaka. We are doing a franchise program, currently looking into Indonesia and Myanmar. The focus of the company now after 20years is to focus on the franchise business.

2. When and why did you decide to become an entrepreneur?

When we started there were 4 Partners, now there’s only David and myself, or rather David & his family and myself. David & his family own the majority. We were all in the shipping business in the 1980s, and we came across this restaurant back in 1987, when we were doing some repair job, repairing ships back in Portugal. We came across a restaurant like this, fell in love with the idea, slept on the idea for a few years as we were busy in the marine industry and back in 1993 when I was leaving the marine industry, along with my partners, we decided to do this restaurant. David and one of my ex-partners went to Brazil and got in touch with a Churrascaria called the Palace Churrascaria to help us open this restaurant in Singapore. We signed a deal to get their help in buying of technology, paid a fee for them to help & teach us set-up. When that was agreed, I myself went to Brazil to live for 4 months, understand the business, the whole aspect of the F&B business and brought back the first group of Brazilians, about 8 of them and started this.
We’ve been very lucky; we’ve been full from day 1 and continued to be full. Not as popular as those days as times change, and new outlets come up, new concepts, but all the same we’re still doing well. On the weekends, we still have our regular crowds, and I think after 20 years I can easily say that we’ve served about 1 million customers.

3. What are your reasons for choosing to do business in this particular industry?

Why I chose F&B, was because I always loved F&B. Why we chose to open this restaurant, was because the partners and I loved the idea. We knew this concept would work in Singapore since it’s a buffet, and Singaporean love buffets. Also, it’s not a regular buffet you’d find in other places, it’s a different buffet where you get a lot of BBQ meats, quality meats for that matter, a very sumptuous salad bar and things like that. We felt that this concept was, and still is until today workable. The fact that we ran this business for 10 years without competition, speaks volumes for itself.
For me personally, I enjoy and continue to enjoy F&B, the challenges, meeting & interacting with people…it’s always been one of my joys.

4. How did you put together all the resources needed to start your business? For example: getting the start-up capital, hiring staff, doing sales and marketing, advertising, etc.

To open a Brazilian restaurant is a bit different besides the fundamental equipment. We required a special griller made in Brazil. Of course today you can do it anywhere, but Brazil still brings in the authenticity, the quality, longevity and durability of the equipment better. I had to bring the equipment in, and the skewers, and certain ingredients in, back in those days. Today I can get others to bring it in for me, but in those days I had to bring certain marinades directly from Brazil. We sourced it out by keeping in touch with our associate from Brazil who helped us with this. He also helped us with the bringing in of labour, the passadors, the staff who serve the meats. Even today, he continues to recommend and help us out in the business, and that’s how we do business.
We started back then with half a million, but I think it cost us almost a million to open this. Then again, we were not so experienced, and I’m sure we could have bought things cheaper, but whatever it is, on hindsight yes we’d definitely do it better today, but to be honest Singapore is not a cheap place to do business either. The fundamental of the costs went to setting up the space, and due to the lack of experience we paid more than we should have. That’s to our own fault of being inexperienced, as when you want to start up something you want to make sure everything works out so you just pay. I don’t however believe we were wrong to pay that, as it is all relative, and I think that’s why we’re successful today – we did not compromise on quality and we knew quality came with a cost.
When we started, we engaged a PR company to do the full marketing, and creating the logo, etc. They did a wonderful job, one month before we opened , they got us a full spread-out on Sunday Times, so while we were renovating the place, people had already come to check us out and we had to let them know we weren’t open yet. We spent a lot of money on marketing, but it was over a period of time. Marketing is important for the business, and marketing is never cheap, because it gets us exposure on all communication channels. Today, we don’t do so much marketing, as most of the marketing tends to be word-of-mouth. We keep our current marketing in-house, focusing on the quality and consistency of the food and also on the service.

Entrepreneurship Spirit & Leadership Vision

5. What is your company vision and mission?

How do you convey these to your company staff and team members? Cavi-Jet today would like to expand our business overseas through our franchise program. We’ve developed a franchise program and continue to enhance it as we go along. We just want to share this whole concept in parts of the world that have not experienced it. We’ve gone to Dhaka and we’re the first in Bangladesh to have this. We’re looking into Myanmar, hopefully also as first in the country as well. That’s our vision, to expand this, more so in Southeast Asia, and also Asia, but focusing more on SEA.
What we tell our staff is that the company needs to grow and there’re limitations to just stay in Singapore. We need to grow, and so one thing to look at is overseas. We can expand in Singapore, but there’s only so much we can do due to labour and rental issues and also because profit margins are not that great. Going overseas, there’s no guarantee that it’ll be better. However, as a franchise program, there is lesser financial commitment, but the exposure is greater. Regardless, the challenge is making sure the franchisees continue to sustain the quality that we want to prevail, since they carry our logo and brand. Hence, we’re quite selective of how we pick franchisees, but it’ll always be challenge too as certain countries may not have the quality of meat we’d like to have, particularly for beef. This is for various reasons, fundamentally for costs. All the same, we try to work with them, and deal with the quality as best as we can without compromising too much so that we give people the value they hope for. What we’re selling customers, is quantity and quality of food, excellent service, homely friendly environment and fair pricing. Also, when you come to a restaurant like this, the philosophy is that you’re coming to our home; it’s not just another restaurant. We try to make our customers feel at home, so we try to accommodate them. We’re very flexible in what we do, obviously with limitations, but we still want people to feel at home. This is partly why people come back; they do their birthdays here, celebrate anniversaries, do weddings, and other corporates here. People pick us as one of the first choice for such events, so I think in essence we’ve succeeded in creating that homeliness and comfort level for people coming here.

Resilience and Overcoming Adversity

6. What are some of the challenges you faced when you first went into business?

One of the challenges I faced was language with my Brazilians, due to the different culture, quite a culture shock for them. They had to speak English, and I was helping since I could speak Portuguese, and to make them understand the cultural style, what you should and should not do. I didn’t have problem with labour, it was easy to get. I think to better answer this, some challenges that have continued over the years – trying to maintain the quality and consistency of the food, it’s always a challenge. The food industry is such, customers come to your restaurant to taste your food first, and have high expectations. If their expectations are not met, they may never return again. Being consistent in the delivery of quality in both food and service continues to be my challenge. Another challenge is to maintain the costing at the ratio we’d like. Given that prices are rising in Singapore in all aspects, you can only mark up so much to the customers, otherwise you can’t remain competitive. Today, labour is also an issue, finding really passionate staff.
Other than these, it’s always the general challenges of the food industry. I don’t think customers want to be difficult at times, it’s just because they’re disappointed. When a customer is difficult, I always tell myself what is it that we did not do right, before we say the customer is difficult. It takes two to clap, and because it’s our home, we’ve to look at ourselves first. Customers are generally reasonable but they should not be taken for granted. A lot of people make the mistake that regulars will understand, but that’s biggest mistake you can do. All the more, you should focus on them even more, as they are regulars who come be it rain or shine to support you.

7. Can you remember your worst day in business or a time when you felt like giving up?

What happened that made you feel that way and how did you triumph over it? There have been many, but nothing in particular. The stress of this job can get to you, sometimes when it rains it really pours and everything that can go wrong will go wrong. Regardless, the passion keeps you going. There’s been many times over these 20 years where I felt like giving up, but I took a break and came back, said “okay this is just one of those things in life to go through”…so there’s not really one particular occasion, but even with several instances where I felt like giving up, since I liked what I did I just went on. Without the passion, with the challenges over the years, especially with many small things, passion and enjoying what you do will help you pull through.
There were definitely instances when business was low like SARS, Bird flu, going through lean periods…and one worries, but that’s what business is all about. When the going gets tough, the tough get going. You don’t give up until you really cannot, and fortunately we’ve been going. We’ve gone through bad times; we tried a few outlets that didn’t succeed. Fortunately, this flagship at Sixth Avenue has still kept going, and so are we.

8. Can you share some of the lessons you learnt from overcoming your own business challenges that you think will help other businesses?

Well I guess, one needs to believe in oneself and the business they are doing. All businesses will have and go through challenges. Patience and re-inventing and re –analysis the business does help.

Achievements

9. When was the moment you realised the business would work and support you?

I think from Day 1, we realised that this thing had a lot of potential given the response was so good; it was really chock-a-block come weekdays and weekends. When first opened, in the first two years or so, I had to turn tables until I had no more table cloth, so we knew we had a good thing going. Then again, we were new in the business, so we were not managing the costs correctly.
I would say that after 5 years we knew we got this thing going. Given that we had survived for 5 years despite all the difficulties, we knew we could keep going and so we keep tweaking and changing to improve as we go along. After 5 years, we managed to go through the first 2-3 years of being new. All of us were rather inexperienced in the industry and yet managed to survive 5 years. Then, we reached 10 years, it was like “Wow, we’ve reached 10 years already”…and next thing you know, we’ve reached 20 already. So yes, 5 was the turning point, 10 confirmed it and today is as it is.

10. What are some of your proudest business achievements to date? And why are they so important and meaningful to you?

There were several achievements…well being recognised by the Singapore Charter as one of the top 100 restaurants in our first year and having the Lord of Hoteliers came to view the restaurant to understand who we were and what we were doing, it felt good to see Hoteliers and F&B people coming to see and complimenting us for what we were doing. I think my proudest moment is that wherever I go and say I’m from Brazil Churrasco, people recognise the place, and that recognition by public in itself is quite an achievement.

11. Can you describe the company culture that you have? How does it contribute to the performance of your company growth?

We try to run Cavi-Jet as a family, and so focus on the people. We try our best in the management team to accommodate our staff as much as possible; we’re very people-oriented. The same applies for the clientele, to try to accommodate and appreciate them. Fundamentally, we have to be peopleoriented in the service industry, and that’s what we do.
It definitely helps, as many people come back and say they love both the food and the service, and so the values and ideologies that we passed down to the staff has been put upon to the guests as well, and the guests feel at home and comfortable, and they come back. The guests return, and bring other people and speak about us, and that grows the business. We have people who come here from overseas, and when I ask them how they came to know about us, they say that their friends were here previously and had recommended to come to this restaurant for at least one dinner. This hence speaks volumes. My staff and colleagues, ensure that we deliver quality and the comfort of service.

12. How do you promote learning within your Company? What are the training opportunities that you provide your staff?

My philosophy to my stuff is not to be afraid to teach, not to be afraid to share. What I taught you, teach to the next person. You must never be afraid that somebody will become better than us. So what’s the challenge here – will everybody believe in this? That’s the challenge, but we encourage people. Teach each other and share with others, because if the person next to you does not grow, the company will not grow. If you don’t allow the person below you to grow, you will never grow, and the company will also not grow. Most will agree to this, some will not, but this is something that’s beyond our control. As best as we can, we encourage sharing and teaching.

Future Plans

13. What do you see for your business in the next 5 years, and does it include any plans for expansion?

For the next 5 years, the focus will be on the franchise. We’ve decided to maintain this place, to grow this place and continue to grow it as best as we can, as long as we can. The reason we can’t change too much over the 20 years and further is that people are so adapted to familiarity, they come here so often that you can tweak things here and there, but you can make any big changes.
The emphasis however is to grow the company overseas through the franchise program. Having said that, the staff here can also gain experience overseas, working overseas. If we can develop the franchise program in a successful manner, the staff can go overseas for training, management opportunities and gain exposure. We are not a big multinational company, but just a small SME in Singapore, so there’s only so much experience the staff can gain as well. Of course, we’re all limited in funding, hence why we do franchises. 5 years down the road, the places I’ve mentioned (Singapore, KL, Dhaka, Indonesia, Myanmar) will continue to grow and become established.

Personal Integrity & Ethics

14. In your opinion, what is a good and ethical business? How do you think this helps you in your Company/ business?

I don’t believe in short-changing anybody, be it staff, and more so the customers. There’s no reason to short-change staff, since it’s because of them that you succeed. If anything else, they should be taken care of as best as possible, as fair as possible. For customers, they must be treated with the utmost respect at all times, even if they are difficult. You have to give respect to the fact they came to the restaurant. I believe that in doing a promotion, you have to be sincere and nothing is lessened. The whole nine yards is given, but at a lesser price. For example, my Sunday dinners and brunch menu are actually the exact same, but my brunch is offered at a lower price, around 20% discount. That’s what I call a value promotion. I’m not going to reduce the price, and accordingly reduce the quantity or quality of meat and food provided. That’s not right. It may be okay if you tell that to customers up front, but I don’t believe in that. Fundamentally, it’s important to be honest in what you do, especially in billing the customers. If we overcharge customers and realise at the end of day or the next day, we call them up and let them know. If we undercharge customers, we deal it internally amongst our management, but don’t bother the customers since the onus was on us to ensure we charge them correctly.

15. How will you describe your working relationship with your customers, suppliers and service providers?

We have quite a regular group of suppliers who’ve been with us for many years. In fact, a couple of them have actually been with us since day one. Thus, I have a very cordial relationship with them, I know the bosses over the years, so we’re very give & take and are able to talk to each other and have open communications even in difficult moments. I believe the reason for this is that we’ve built up on the longevity of the business with them.

16. Can you share the working terms (e.g payment terms) that you have established with your suppliers?

We’ve been good paymasters. There are some delays occasionally, but all payments are done promptly. In essence, my relationship with suppliers is respectful and cordial, and they’re very supportive of that.

Business Impact

17. How do you differentiate your business from your competitors? Please provide specific examples. We continued to do what we do, and work harder to ensure consistent quality. We had to be on our toes, and frankly, competition is good for every business as it keeps you on your toes. For 10 years, I had nothing to compare with, so at a point in time I do admit that we had become slightly complacent. When the competition arrived, and they did do quite well, given new restaurants always attract crowds and some comparisons. Even some of our customers went there, and came back to me. Regardless, I continue to do what we do, if not better. In the end, a lot of customers still came back, as quality cannot be disguised. There’s no disguising or compromise in quality, and I ensured that with everyone as well.
I think one thing that I continued to do right was to focus and deliver highest quality of food and service, and ensure the price range was competitive. The competitors did a lot of promotions, but I refused, as I believe that any promotions beyond one’s affordability is going to result in cutting corners, and I never want to do that. I also believe that people, who understand quality, will understand and appreciate quality.

18. What are some business ideas you have implemented that created great results in your business?

After about two years in to the business, I ventured into doing catering for private residences. Today, we continue to do the catering but more for coporates.

19. Where or who do you get your business ideas from?

I have always been inspired by success stories of various other SMEs. I can also get ideas from watching various documentaries.

20. How have these business ideas impacted your Company or business? Please specify the qualitative and quantitative terms of the impact.

We do make changes, but not elaborately. We make changes to the salad bar occasionally with new items, that’s easily done, not an issues. As far as the meats go, there’s only a certain quantity of meats you can sell, otherwise it becomes overwhelming…so it’s difficult to make changes, where I have to remove an item if I want to add in another, or vice versa. Otherwise, the costs to the customers will go up, which I never like to do. It’s very challenging to remove an item, because everyone has their favourites. For example, I used to have the chicken breast wrapped in bacon, but I realised this wasn’t a fantastic item, so I replaced it with smoked duck. There was a lot of fuss initially, but people accepted eventually since I had replaced the chicken breast with a better quality meat. If you remove something from the menu, be sure to put in something better, otherwise don’t touch it. Yes, I’ve made minor tweaks to the menu occasionally, but what we are today still remains as we were years back, just with minor changes. The fundamentals of the concept remain the same. There are just a few changes in the meat, but it’s been quite a few years since the changes already.
Essentially, what people see about the restaurant is that they feel comfortable and at home, and have commented that our salad bar is one of the best around. I give my feedback card to customers, and they pass very good comments. In the end of the day, we didn’t need to make a lot of changes, but actually needed to sustain what we have. Of course, we will change if there is need and if the opportunity calls for it, possibly for something better…but not now.

Community Impact

21. How do you think your business have made a positive impact or contribute to the community that you serve? For example: creating jobs for Singaporeans or underprivileged; upgrading the skills of employees; improving livelihoods or lifestyles of customers.

I think we’ve covered all the touch-points as per the examples, but I’m not too sure to what capacity. Definitely, as a business, we’ve created jobs, we’ve given the public a unique cuisine and different kind of dining experience and people enjoy it since it is fun and communal.
For skills, the door is open for upgrading and we do send our staff for upgrading. I think I can definitely say that all who walk through and work at this restaurant do not go out lesser. Of course, this is subjective to how much they themselves are willing to learn. As earlier mentioned, we are open to teach everyone, and we do advocate for our staff to attend courses – management courses, line courses, etc. Mostly, we get invitations through mails, and we encourage our staff to attend these courses. There may be some staff who may be reluctant. We always tell them to go have look, see if the courses enhance them, and as a result the company, and let us know. Granted, the courses have to be related to the industry and what they are doing, and we do like to send our staff for a lot of midmanagement courses, to help them think more in a management style. Some are not entirely trained in the managerial mind-set, and we want our staff to not just work hard, but work smart, as that’s important and also advocated by the government. Working smart is not a given, and is something that needs to be nurtured.

About the Entrepreneur

22. What does entrepreneurship mean to you?

Firstly, it’s believing in your concept that you advocate. Having the guts to go for it. Be prepared to handle the loss, going in with the mind-set that “I want to win, but I may probably also lose”, and be prepared for that. The reason why people often hold back is the fear of loss, and frankly it’s true – you can lose. Business is a gamble. There’s no guarantee of success, but if you do your homework, take calculated risks and know what your potential losses can be, and if you can absorb it…just do it.

23. What are some entrepreneurship qualities that you have which has helped you come this far?

My patience and personality. I believe my personality is well suited for this industry. Support from my family, without which I would not be able to sustain what I do, especially because I don’t spend a lot of time with them when I am developing something…and support from friends.
To me, that’s about it. I just believed in what I do, I wanted to succeed and I told myself I’ll succeed. Though I knew I may not succeed, I told myself to just try for it, and knew that I would be at least 99% there. Then again, one has to be logical and realistic, because if you can’t do it, you just can’t. When you open an F&B business, you need to know where you stand. After 3 months of opening, you need to take a step back and see how things are going, and perhaps tweak things here and there. After Six months, you review the business again and see what you’re not doing well, and maybe you need to put in more cash, or something else. It’s alright to realise it’s not working, but sometimes we fool ourselves thinking we can still do it. Can or cannot, you should know, so be logical and be realistic.

24. In your opinion, what other qualities does a person need in order to be successful in business? And why? (e.g. Educational qualification, work experience, family influence, attitude, etc)

I’m actually officially an O-level graduate. After completing my NS, I joined the marine industry as a coating specialist and stayed there for 14 years. As a trainee, I thought I would just have fun and explore options, but the job grew on me and I decided to stay. I’m the kind of person who is responsible and passionate, and really got into the job and without knowing it myself, stayed in there for 14 years. After that period however, I had lost the passion for the job, so I decided to leave and join this partnership. Over these two careers, I’ve been successful in my opinion, making a lot of friendships and building good relationships.
I definitely think work experience is useful. If you want to be an entrepreneur, you definitely will be one, so what’s the hurry? So there’s no harm in working for a while at minimal costs to gain experiences and learn how better to be your own boss. I’ve a few friends who started businesses without prior work experience, and since they’re unfamiliar with the working environment, they were unable to handle it and fail. To people who want to be an entrepreneur, I’d advocate to work in the same industry that you’re interested in to understand the industry and environment to become a better boss someday. You’ll be able to learn from others’ mistakes, and it’s always cheaper to learn from other’s mistakes. I’d recommend it, just for a couple of years so that you’re in a better frame of mind to start your business. Success is also about being logical and realistic, but it’d be best to go work in a few establishments to understand how they work. Each establishment would have different operations, so you can look through them and see how you envision yourself as a boss of a similar business. Fundamentally in F&B, it’s a people’s business, so you must be really people-oriented and passionate. There will be long hours and very high expectations, so you must be able to tolerate everything.
One thing about F&B in Singapore, is that you have to stand out. In our case, we were the first in Singapore and most other parts of Asia, and that gave us the advantage. With this, we worked on it and continued to build on the quality. However, because we were one of a kind, we were given the opportunity to succeed. There were definite and high risks, but we were confident of the concept. Our fears were that we were inexperienced, and that’s why we brought in the right people to make up for the inexperience. We knew that the concept was one of a kind. We were definitely afraid, but lucky for us, things have worked out from Day 1. There’s never guarantee of success, but we believed in it, and went for it.

25. In your opinion, what does it mean to have the “spirit of enterprise”?

Again, I’d say people should have the entrepreneurial spirit in them, but they must also be realistic. It’s always good to have the entrepreneurial spirit, but not all of us can in fact be bosses, so we have to be realistic and be sure of our capabilities and position.

26. What are some of your business values and what would you like to pass down to others, particularly the younger generation?

It’s all about etiquette, treat people with respect and be fair to people in all aspects. If we can encompass this in everything we do, everything will fall into place, regardless of what we do. If you can put respect and fairness into the itinerary and etiquette of how we do business, everything will fall into place.

27. Can you share some of the more significant events / incidents that affected or shaped your business philosophy and the way you conduct your business? I.e. SARS, new competition or shifts in market behaviour and trends, etc.

Fundamentally, we’ve always been as we were in the beginning. We’ve changed with the times too, in our marketing, our approach of the business, integrating IT, but in terms of our values and ideologies remain the same; the method of operations change with the times. Things like SARS happen from time to time, and nothing much can be done about it. In the entirety of business, I’ve run the business as always and make small changes on gut feel and if need be. Perhaps, when competition came in, I did get woken up, that we need to be more careful. I realised that I had to become more focused on quality. People respect quality and are price conscious, so I have to keep that in mind and ensure quality, and can’t raise prices as I like to, but need to remain competitive. End-state, I make sure the guests feel appreciated and value them.

28. With the changes in the market today, do you think it has become harder or easier to succeed in business? Why do you say so? - Skipped-

29. What advice would you give young people who want to start their own business? People need to understand that it’s not an easy road, but it is an interesting one. You need to be prepared for the challenges that come your way. Believe in what you want to do, and expect the knocks, and these can be plentiful. If you believe in what you do, these can be overcome. Again, the two things not to forget are to be realistic and logistical. A lot of people forget this sometimes, but we cannot fool ourselves.
These are actually how I approached my business. I didn't know about F&B, but I enjoy it. I always wanted to do it but never quite had the opportunity. Since I enjoy what I do, I learnt to do it. I hired the right people and learned from them. I learnt and developed myself to be better and get it all right. I've taken a lot of knocks, and you have to be vigilant to see & learn the right things from the right people. End-state, these are words people who want to be in entrepreneurship never forget - belief, passion, being logical, realistic and respect. You definitely need to respect everyone, be it your customers, your employees, your colleagues. Regardless of what the concept is, its also important to do your homework.
If you're looking for advice and help to bounce off ideas but are afraid of leaking out your ideas, look to family & friends for opinions. For expert advice, you can always seek a consultant as well. People in general tend to be impulsive, but you have to do your homework. You may want the idea to work, but whether it would actually work is another story. It;s all about calculated risks. Sometimes in business, people tend to fool themselves, saying they have projections. Yes, business is about projections, but you have to ensure your projections are realistic, and you have to have a Plan B in entrepreneurship, people say don't be negative and think about losing. Of course, you have to think about winning, but you also have to see if you can accept the loss when it happens. Don't kill yourself doing it. Maybe today is not the day and the numbers aren't right, but maybe one year down the road or more, things might seem better and it can work out.