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Meet David Leong, The Entrepreneur Who Quit His Corporate Job … – DollarsAndSense.sg

David Leong started bistro food chain Georges when he was 27 years old. But it was really not a time for risk and challenges.
The business was set up 23 years ago around the same time period with the 1997/1998 Asian Financial Crisis. The economy then was going through a recession and job security was a major problem on many people’s minds.
David was then in his second year working as a well-paid Sales Executive with Coca Cola. It was his first full-time job and a comfortable one. Even though there were immense risks to leave his cushy job and to go on the path less travelled by becoming an entrepreneur, David was undaunted.
You see, the entrepreneur always knew he wanted to be his own boss and was bidding his time. He was quite well educated at that time, having studied Economics and Marketing at a university in Australia and there was actually no need to work so hard.
“The passion to be an entrepreneur then was overwhelming, so I left by job.”
David explained that his university experience had cemented his interest in being his own boss: He did part-time sales and one of the jobs was to sell handphones to the student community and mobile plans to Asian students. He also took up entrepreneurship elective courses.
“I found entrepreneurship exciting as ideas can flow and be implemented easier because it is yourself. I also love a risk environment, it gives me adrenaline and the satisfaction when my ideas are fulfilled.”
“I also always enjoyed managing resources, so being my own boss allowed me to be in control of resources.”
Together with two other friends, Stanley and Harry, they decided to set up Georges bistro.
“We all love the beach and we dreamed to have the Georges bistro brand dotted along the coastline of Singapore, so we decided to chase our dreams and went ahead.”
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The beach theme concept proved to be a popular one, as the Georges brand took off and more outlets sprouted over the years. The brand connected with residents and local expats due to its relaxed beachfront bistro design, which was a contrast to urbanised Singapore. In 2004, the brand moved from the coastlines and entered the heartlands.
Today, it has outlets in Siglap, Punggol, Pasir Ris, Seletar, North Hill, Bedok, Choa Chu Kang, and the Changi Sailing Club.
The business – all internally funded – now has 8 outlets and 1 franchise (at Tai Seng), and hits an average sales of $10 million every year. David is currently the sole owner of Georges, as the 2 other founders chose different paths down the line.
Georges has since grown to employ about 150 staff who take on servers, kitchen staff, operations planning, marketing, accounting, and HR management roles. 80 of them are permanent staff.
Comforting American food decorates its menu, from Calamari Skewers to Bangers and Mash. The brand also sells Asian cuisine, such as Satays and Thai Seafood Pasta.
It offers a wide array of alcoholic beverages, from beers on tap to specialty beers, ciders, cocktails, housepour wine and shooters.
Beyond the comfort food and relaxing drinks, the brand’s motto “When Strangers Become Friends” is the very core identity of Georges. There is a constant focus on developing the “Georges culture” – to create a friendly and personable environment to make customers feel at home. 
Even though the business is now large enough to be operating as a corporate, David stresses that the personable culture is vital to the business.
“I have to train my individual branch manager to deliver the personal touch. But when managing a larger group of staff, they are not always 100%. We do hire foreign workers too and there is the challenge to inculcate this local behaviour and culture among the foreign staff to connect with the customers.”
“It looks very easy to create but it’s not easy to implement, because you need commitment from the staff team. On my own, I cannot change the entire Georges culture. I need my team to also embody the “Georges culture” too. I want every outlet to be friendly and relatable and the last I want is to be seen as a cold and unfriendly organisation.”
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The business has recently tackled one of the toughest challenges since its inception – overcoming the Covid-19 impact. The moment when the lockdown struck in 2020, David assured his entire team that there will be no retrenchments.
“We did not know how long this lockdown would be but we reassured staff an assurance of 6 months. We were able to do so because we have built a pretty strong reserve that we could dip into and sustain for a year or 2 without any business.”
The business had the infrastructure ready to adapt to changes, including taking on more food deliveries and some workers then pivoted to become delivery drivers.
It was able to tap on its Georges app, which was already developed back in 2013. “One of the key functions of the app was delivery. So we really had the infrastructure in place for home deliveries on the get go and that really helped us. As customers were familiar with using our delivery platform, that provided us some cashflow.”
Amid its early digital transformation efforts done before and during the pandemic, the restaurant chain has since automated its point-of-sale system and many operational processes including kitchen operations and human resources.
Confidence in the government kept the bistro going too.
“We knew government support will be there. Because if Georges were to collapse I think many (other eateries) would have dropped off before us. That will cause a big concern for society and I think the government will step in to prevent it.”
The business’ early decision to retain their foreign workers proved to be beneficial to them when economic activities resumed gradually. It prevented a manpower crunch faced by many other companies. 
“We kept all the Work Pass workers as we knew that borders would have restrictions and it would impact the workers from returning. So we made the right decision at that time and were able to jump right into action when things got better.”
But David noted that even though the workers were retained, there has been a shift in demands from workers. “They are now looking for a better work life balance. The challenge is also to keep up with the pay expectations and managing their working hours.”
There are also many more F&B players now in the scene, which is “way more supply than demand”. But he is confident that the Georges brand is here to stay and will remain relevant and stand the test of time.
“People still need to socialise to connect with the community. So although yes, the food and beverage (F&B) industry is saturated, but we offer something that is not mainstream. We are selling an experience and lifestyle. It is the friendship that Georges offers and that is hard to replicate.”
David noted that people are growing to be more environmentally conscious due to the pandemic. As more people stayed home and worked from home, the significant better quality of air and less wastage lead to people wanting a change in their lifestyle habits.
“This is especially so when you’re dealing with the next main market – the millennials. They are more eager to support organisations that are eco-friendly and many care deeply for the environment.”
In 2021, Georges created a beach clean-up activity, partly to bring in more customers to dine with them but also to drive environmental awareness campaigns.
“We launched a beach clean-up activity which takes place on a Sunday of a month and participants are given some free food and drinks.”
“Being located along the coastal line we felt that we had this opportunity to spread this message. The aim was to send a message to the participants that if we do not care for our environment, the environment will not be there to sustain us.”
David is targeting Southeast Asia coastlines as the next step for Georges brand and is looking for interested entrepreneurs. He shared that a franchise model will also suit foreign owners who are seeking a Singapore brand market.
He is currently in talks with a few potential candidates. “Mostly Singaporeans who want to retire and live in Bali and are ready to be semi-retired and want to do their own things.”
He shared that the franchisee model begins with a one-time franchise fee of $35,000 (shop units smaller than 1,500 sqft) to $50,000 (shop units larger than 1,500 sqft).
“We will help you set up your back end. We will also provide you with the infrastructure, staff training, menu planning, connect you to suppliers, and the brand marketing needed.”
The business currently has more than 10,000 customers, and franchisees are also allowed to tap on the ready pool of customers and leverage on the brand. “They don’t start the business from ground zero, there’s a lot of support given to them. Our database will also show the trending items on the menu and what is good to sell.”
Apart from the one-time franchise fee, there is a royalty fee of 5% which is used to offset customers’ bar credits at the outlet.
David said the future of Georges is in franchising because the ability to adopt a “personal” culture is easier from a franchisee. He also said that for his own personal reasons. “It is part of my succession planning because I have no one else to replace me.”
Read Also: Meet Zac Chua: The Singaporean Entrepreneur Who Turned a Popcorn Snack into an Empire
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