Despite having built an enviable name for himself in the local F&B industry, Kent Chua is only getting started
Kent Chua started his first business venture at seven. As a boy, he was infatuated with comic books but couldn’t afford them. Attempts to get his friend to lend him his comic books after he had finished reading them were met with a resounding no.
And so he improvised. He proposed renting the comic books to other friends and then splitting the earnings. The friend was intrigued and agreed.
This enterprising mind of his has led Chua to establish Rhombus Connexion, a platform that offers owners of F&B outlets support services such as accounting, financing and other operational needs.
Chua, 32, hails from Kuching and is a certified accountant. His journey into entrepreneurship began when he met a colleague who shared his passion for diving. They would travel often to new dive sites but soon found that this lifestyle put a strain on their finances.
“Our fixed income was not going to sustain our passion for travel and diving. So we decided to start a business together,” he says. “F&B seemed like a good idea but we didn’t want to open a restaurant because that kind of business was very much dependent on the chef. We didn’t want to deal with a rebellious chef.”
The other option was opening a bar but a cocktail bar was out of the question as that would mean relying on a mixologist. A beer bar was proposed instead. “As auditors, we always consider the worst case scenario. If all of our staff left us, at least we would still be able to serve beer from the tap.”
Hence, The Beer Factory was born. Its biggest selling point is the happy hour prices throughout the day – no matter the time of the day, the more beer you purchase, the cheaper it is. The gimmick worked and The Beer Factory now has 12 branches all over Malaysia including Kota Kinabalu.
To mark The Beer Factory’s sixth anniversary, Chua made a video. The video featured interviews with the staff of The Beer Factory about how they felt they had evolved professionally and personally over the years.
What they said opened Chua’s eyes. “I had a team of very talented and capable people, and I began to see that if I didn’t expand the business, they would leave us. It was this drive to provide them with the opportunity to grow with the company that made me think bigger,” he says.
“It also dawned on me that what really fulfilled me professionally was the ability to make a difference in my employees’ lives. That got me thinking about helping other entrepreneurs to make the same impact.”
This idea spawned Rhombus Connexion and Chua brought on three additional partners, one of them a chef with 17 years of experience in Japanese cuisine.
“It’s an entrepreneur platform with a shared services centre. We provide the backend work that entrepreneurs may need. These people are passionate about their business but may not have the full expertise to run it properly.”
Chua adds: “We support them via three major pillars. First, we have a food production facility where we handle things like bulk purchase, consistency and cost control. Second, we have a training academy for the staff. Last but not least, we have a network of branding and marketing agencies. It’s an ecosystem where we help incubate entrepreneurs.”
The only conditions are that the restaurants must be at least three years old, and the owners are looking to grow their business. “At the moment, we have a restaurant that is 23 years old,” he shares. “Rhombus Connexion is a purpose-driven organisation. We show F&B entrepreneurs that they are not alone because it can be a lonely journey running a restaurant as not many people understand what we have to go through on a daily basis. We merge and acquire; the entrepreneurs that come to us also become part of Rhombus Connexion.”
With almost RM82mil in revenue from 51 outlets and 21 brands across four countries, namely Malaysia, Japan, Singapore and Myanmar, Chua definitely has a full plate. He is nevertheless optimistic about growing the company even further.
Wondermama specialises in Malaysian cuisine
(Rhombus Connexion still runs The Beer Factory but has also expanded its own repertoire to include the ultra-hip speakeasy bar Suzie Wong and restaurants Wondermama, Dancing Fish and Rama V, all of which are well-regarded names in the city’s dining scene.)
Love what you do
“We chose the name Rhombus because it is the shape of a diamond. Diamonds are made from pressurised coal, and the diamond itself is a representation of the people who work for us as they are a precious resource and we want only the best for them,” Chua reveals.
“We want to create value. How do we do that? I’m a firm believer in being happy in what you do. As long as you have that joy, and your business revolves around the pursuit of it, the profits will come.”
This is the main reason why Chua felt it is important to establish within the company the Happiness Lab, a team of people whose job is to ensure all employees are happy.
“I call it the Happiness Lab because I believe happiness can be cultivated. In this world, people do what they think society wants them to do. For the longest time, my entrepreneur friends complained that their staff do not go the extra mile, but I believe it works both ways – if you don’t go the extra mile for your staff, why would they do the same for you? If you want them to do more, look in the mirror first,” he opines.
Each outlet is assigned a Happiness Lab representative who offers one-to-one counselling to those who need a listening ear. It is a safe place for staff to express whatever concerns they have. Chua believes that you don’t want to have anyone become so frustrated that they resign.
“It’s about seeing the glass as half full and half empty at the same time. Look at the part that’s full and be grateful. Then you look at the empty part and think about what you can do. If you can do something about it, then get to work. If not, then learn to accept it and let go.”
In fact, Chua considers the latter to be the best piece of advice he has ever received. During the early days of The Beer Factory, the pressure was high. He recalls: “The work was never ending and problems kept cropping up. I was so tired and when I confided in a friend, he told me to let go. I was taken aback at first but he didn’t mean to abandon ship. He explained that perhaps the best way to build leadership is when there is no leader. Instead of doing everything myself, he told me that I had to learn to let go and delegate the work to others.”
The rush of memories causes him to pause for a moment. “A boy never truly becomes a man until his father allows him to step up and become one. I should have given my employees ownership and let them manage certain tasks themselves. If I kept telling them what to do, they would never grow. They need to learn by making their own mistakes too.”
Heeding his friend’s advice, Chua took a week off. The transformation during his absence was astonishing. “The business didn’t collapse; in fact, (the staff) became so much more competent that it allowed me more time and energy to focus on other things.”
Naturally, Chua practises what he preaches. His passion for making a difference, whether it is his staff or his clients, keeps him motivated. “You need to ask yourself if you are living or merely existing. It gives me fulfilment when I can make a difference, and that energy makes me feel like I can go on forever.”
This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 249.