When he was Primary Four, Singaporean millennial Darren Lee was already answering his family business’ hotline and taking catering orders from customers.
“I am still amused by the fact that customers took the 11-year-old me seriously,” he mused in an interview with Vulcan Post.
Darren, 28, is the Corporate Strategy Manager at local F&B chain Lee Wee & Brothers, a business founded by his father, Mark Lee, and two uncles, Ben Lee and Lee Wee. (Yes, the business was named after the oldest of the Lee brothers!)
While many might think that Lee Wee & Brothers is a heritage brand with a history that spans decades, the Lee brothers only ventured into F&B in 2000, when they set up a food stall at Old Airport Road food centre selling Peranakan-style otah and nasi lemak.
Darren recalled how he had always been “in” the business since its early days.
“Back in Primary school, I would go to the hawker stall to help out after school and during the school holidays.”
When the business opened its central kitchen facility, Darren rendered his assistance at the office.
Even with his deep involvement in the running of the company, Darren “didn’t think it was part of the formula” for him to be part of the family business after graduating from his business management course in London.
“I wanted to build a career outside,” he admitted.
“I had my eye on a whole bunch of other stuff, like joining a creative agency or the tourism industry.”
But life is unpredictable, and upon returning to Singapore from his studies, Darren made the decision to join the family business.
“I think it just crept into my family’s subconscious that I will eventually return to assist them in the business,” he quipped.
“They were glad to see me join the business as we were in the midst of expanding and needed more people onboard.”
“Mom was definitely excited that I could assist her in business development work, so that she can retire sooner,” he laughed.
“I Was Overzealous In A Lot Of Things”
Running a business is challenging enough, but when the other parties involved are your family, that’s when tough decisions become even tougher.
“It is a complicated dynamic as sometimes, the interests of the company don’t coincide with personal wants,” he sighed. “We all have our own lives and family to balance with business priorities.”
Thus, Darren is a strong advocate for open and honest communication, and even includes non-family members in strategic discussions.
“At the end of the day, we make decisions based on the best interests of the company and believe that being authentic and honest ensures the family business’ long-term sustainability.”
As the Corporate Strategy Manager, his main role involves modernising and improving business processes, securing new businesses, and keeping projects on track.
When he first joined the business around one and a half years ago, he wanted to help the company adopt a more corporate culture.
“I wanted to shape a culture that drives creativity and performance,” he revealed.
“I brought in a new team of people to bring in fresh ideas and best practices from outside [and] we created a working environment that encourages new ideas.”
For one, he made pretty incremental changes to how the company was run by introducing work-from-home days, a clear career progression scheme, structured performance appraisals, and a management system.
Darren was quick to admit, however, that he was “overzealous in a lot of things, thinking [they] can change X to Y in a short period of time.”
“My mom has the knowledge and experience to tell me otherwise, and explain that [changes take] time.”
He also witnessed firsthand how challenging it is to recruit new employees in the F&B industry, all the while trying to create a good work environment “where good performers are rewarded for their efforts”.
Beyond working with their in-house chef to create new flavours for their stores and catering menu, Darren is also the driving force behind the launch of the brand’s new concept, O’TAH.
A 12-seater kiosk at Jewel Changi Airport’s food hall, Darren described O’TAH as a “departure from Lee Wee & Brothers’ traditional heritage”.
“[It] offers a dining experience characterised by modern interior design, creative plating and packaging.”
“After much research and experimentation, we have put together a menu that provides a fresh take on local delights.”
Making Otah Cool Again
For Darren, his most memorable milestone to date was participating in Singapore Day 2018 in London.
“We had to set up a kitchen from scratch and replicate the taste in a foreign land using ingredients sourced locally all within a span of two days! [But] we brought a taste of home to Singaporeans in London.”
More than 3,000 portions of Lee Wee & Brothers’ favourites were served in the span of 6.5 hours. That’s like an average serving speed of 8 seconds per portion!
“The kitchen was like a war zone but it was such good fun and very heart-warming to see people enjoying our food in the chilly weather.”
Darren may be still relatively new to the business, but he has learned a lot about entrepreneurship.
“Entrepreneurship is definitely not for the faint hearted [but] that’s why I love being in the business,” he chirped.
You take on the risks and reap the rewards. When you are faced with a problem, you cannot simply say you don’t know what to do.Darren Lee, Lee Wee & Brothers
“You have to be resourceful, fast, and accurate. You have to be armed with a ‘Plan B’ and be two steps ahead of your team.”
In fact, Darren enjoys the challenge so much that he “rarely gets any Monday blues”.
“Every day I’m learning something new, whether it is something about accounting or setting up a new outlet, [just] bit and pieces of knowledge to keep the business on track.”
The young entrepreneur also shared words of advice for fellow F&B owners in Singapore:
“Do not forget the core of your business. Dedicate your resources, time, and energy to enhance it.”
As for future plans, Darren shared that they will be creating a revamped menu and moving to a larger central kitchen to cope with the demands of their retail stores and catering service.
“We are also working on a franchise business model and we are not going anywhere until we perfect the recipe.”