Hi! My name is Mai Shiotani (@ciotan), editor of THE BAKE MAGAZINE.
Does your company have a system for choosing an “MVP” among your employees?
Maybe it’s often difficult to choose just one, partly because there are so many people whose hard work can go unnoticed, and partly because people can show how valuable they are when you least expect it.
But one person was the clear choice for BAKE Inc. 2016’s MVP. She was selected out of everyone at BAKE to great applause.
Our MVP is Malaysian and speaks Malay, Chinese, English and Japanese, as well as Cantonese and Beijing Chinese.
BAKE Inc. has now opened over 20 stores in Asian countries outside Japan, starting with our Hong Kong store, which we opened in August 2015, and now including stores in Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and China. We could not have achieved this growth without Kerry’s work – and language skills!
Kerry left her native Malaysia at the age of 18 and came to Japan to pursue her dream of becoming a pastry chef. She joined BAKE in November 2015, just as BAKE’s overseas expansion was picking up speed.
Kerry’s work tends to keep her out of our Tokyo office – most of her work consists of flying around Asia on business – but whenever I see her, she always seems to truly enjoy what she’s doing. I wondered where she gets all that energy and decided to ask her to share her story.
Leaving Malaysia at age 18 to study in Japan to become a pastry chef
Shiotani: So you came to Japan to become a pastry chef right after you graduated from secondary school. Back then, did you study at study at st culinary academy?
Kerry: No, I was actually studying law at a normal university.
Shiotani: Really? Why?
Kerry: In Malaysia, the cost of living is very low – not like Japan at all. But that means salaries and wages are low too, so I couldn’t afford to go to a specialist school for pastry chefs. My plan was to go to a normal university at first, then get a job and save up to study at a specialist school.
Shiotani: Wow, that’s quite a long-term plan. So in that case, leaving Malaysia and coming to study in Japan at 18 must have been expensive too.
Kerry: It was, so I worked as hard as I could at part-time jobs during university. As soon as my classes finished, I was off to work.
Shiotani: Wow… So what was your first job?
Kerry: I worked as a translator and interpreter. Really, it was because I needed a translation job to get a visa. So I translated and interpreted for three years or so until I was finally able to go to a pastry chef academy.
Shiotani: In Japan, we tend to enter our specialty as soon as we graduate high school, so working through university and then working as a translator first sounds like a very long road to a Japanese person. But that just shows how much you wanted to be a pastry chef.
Kerry: Yes, I wanted to be a pastry chef in Japan no matter what! At last my wish came true and I worked as a pastry chef in a store in Shinjuku for 6 years. I made things like baked sweets and custom-made cakes.
Shiotani: Why did you move to BAKE?
Kerry: At that time, I was living in Omiya. There’s a BAKE CHEESE TART store there, and when a friend of mine came to visit, we went to eat there.
Kerry: The taste blew me away…I immediately started learning everything I could about the company. I thought “This is the company for me” and applied for a job.
Shiotani: You moved quickly, our food must have really wowed you! But we weren’t looking for pastry chefs at that time, were we?
Kerry: No. But you were looking for a staff member for your overseas department, so I applied for that.
Shiotani: Oh, but you had wanted to be a pastry chef for so long and you were finally able to do it. Why did you change?
Kerry: I was in my 6th year as a pastry chef and wanted a new challenge. That was when I tried your BAKE CHEESE TART and it was the most delicious thing I’d ever had!
I decided that instead of being a pastry chef in a kitchen, I wanted to broaden my scope…I thought it would be fantastic to work with sweets in a global market!
Selected to work in Singapore after just two months at BAKE!
Shiotani: But your new job at BAKE is completely different from the translation and pastry chef work you did before. Our Overseas Business Division works on store preparation overseas, like looking for properties, negotiating, signing contracts and hiring local staff. Weren’t you nervous at first?
Kerry: I had already made up my mind that I wanted to do it. And yet I did work at the Omiya store of BAKE CHEESE TART at first. It was a lot of fun, and I was so happy there that I thought “I’d like to stay here!” But that didn’t happen, of course.
Shiotani: Why not?
Kerry: Two months after I started, they asked me to go to Singapore alone to help start up our Singapore branch.
Shiotani: That was a fast job change!
Kerry: I had almost no business experience, so I wondered if I should really accept the job, but at that time the Overseas Business Division had only three people, so I was their only hope.
And so I went to Singapore and worked on everything from setting up the store to interviewing prospective staff. Of course, I had help from head office. I consulted with Mr. Kanemaki, the head of the Overseas Business Division, on the phone every day.
And then finally our first BAKE CHEESE TART store in Singapore was opened in April 2016, and our second store was opened in October 2016. By that point, things were getting settled, so I hired a local CEO called Jason Last Name. After hiring a Singaporean CEO, my role there wasn’t so critical anymore, so last November I said goodbye to everyone in Singapore and came back to Japan!
Shiotani: That was a big job. You did well!
Kerry: The others apparently were worried at first. They told me later that they thought “Is it really OK to send Kerry alone? Won’t she quit?” (laughs)
But our Singapore stores have ended up being some of the top-selling BAKE CHEESE TART stores in the world, and the stores’ service and sanitation standards have become a model for other stores in Asia. I’m happy that it’s turned out so well!
Kerry’s sisters from Malaysia visited Singapore to see her work there
Shiotani: Since you’re from Malaysia, Singapore is quite similar to home, isn’t it?
Kerry: It is. Singapore and Malaysia have extremely similar cultures and ethnic groups. After leaving Malaysia when I was 18, it was a really nostalgic experience being back in that part of the world after so long. The food brought back memories and so did the language. In a strange way, it was odd not to have to have to speak Japanese. (laughs)
Shiotani: So you hadn’t been home once since you graduated high school and left your country?
Kerry: I have been home once, but back then there were no budget airlines. The fares were really expensive, so I was never able to go during those days. I’m glad we have budget airlines now!
Shiotani: Did you meet up with any friends or family members from home while you were working in Singapore?
Kerry: Yes! I have four sisters who are much older than me. I’m the youngest. So when I told my family that I was working in Singapore, my sisters all came to see me.
I’ll always be a little girl to them, so they were saying things like “You’ve grown up a lot!” and “You’ve done well for yourself!”（laughs）
Shiotani: Well, you’re no little girl to us! (laughs)
Working in 6 languages: Malay, Chinese, English, Japanese, Cantonese and Beijing Chinese
Shiotani: By the way, I remember that you speak – what was it? – Five languages? Six? That makes you…what…five-lingual?
Kerry: I speak six languages, but in Malaysia, there are TV shows and movies in various languages. In an environment like that, everyone picks up about three languages! Although you still need to study them, of course. (laughs) Then on top of our languages, I speak Beijing Chinese and Cantonese because my ancestors spoke Beijing Chinese.
Shiotani: So you can go just about anywhere in Asia with no problems.
Kerry: Yes, for example, if we all go to Hong Kong on business, I could do things like ordering food and calling taxis for the others. It’s very handy!
It helps a lot to be able to speak so many languages. We can’t set up a store in another country if no one speaks the language there. During my time in Singapore, we also set up a BAKE CHEESE TART store in Shanghai, and I was also in charge of starting two stores in Taiwan.
Shiotani: Working in so many countries, there must have been many times when you thought “I didn’t know people did things this way” or “Their view of what’s ‘normal’ is completely different”.
Kerry: Well, I guess so. Different countries have significantly different levels of awareness about sanitation – restaurants in Thailand have a particularly low awareness of it. So we took our Thai workers for training at our Singapore store.
Singapore is as clean as Japan, so I wanted them to see that. When they saw it for themselves, they were finally able to understand the level of hygiene we expect at BAKE. They hadn’t been able to picture it before. Seeing our Singapore store seemed to have had an impact on them – they started to suggest to us their ideas for improvements.
Shiotani: It sounds like they have a whole new level of awareness. That’s great!
Kerry: Another difference is that the Japanese customer service industry has a tough training culture, but overseas, employees often quit right away if you get too angry with them.
So it’s important to keep the mood positive and praise them during training. For example, at Singapore BAKE CHEESE TART, we have a target that the egg basting must be done within eight minutes, but with the boys in particular, if you say “If you break seven minutes, you’ll be a legend!” they get extremely motivated! So when I’m setting up stores overseas, I use fun techniques like that during training, as well as giving strict training when I need to.
Shiotani: That’s a completely different culture from Japanese boys. (laughs) But what a lot you’ve done! It’s incredible, considering you’ve only been at BAKE for a year and a half.
Kerry: It’s been an amazing experience! I’m now married, but there’s still a lot I want to do here. I won’t play it safe; I’ll get out there and do all the things I want to do. After all, I won’t be able to work around the world like this anymore once I get pregnant and need to go on maternity leave.
Shiotani: Won’t things be difficult when you go on maternity leave? There are a lot of jobs that only you can do.
Kerry: I am worried about it, but the Overseas Business Division has recently gained some new employees who speak English and Chinese. And I am now writing up my experiences and have more knowledge that I can share with them. I’m trying to make our working environment more pleasant!
Shiotani: You’re always pushing forward in your work. Do you ever get exhausted and run out of energy?
Kerry: Hmm…there was one time. I was flying back and forth between Singapore and Japan and ended up getting a bad cold because there was such a big temperature difference. I ended up phoning the store manager and saying “I’m sorry, I can’t come in today. Give it 100% while I’m away!” I was really worried because this was my store that I’d set up, but I also realized that I needed to leave things in their hands.
With that said…I guess I rarely get depressed.
Plans to open stores outside Asia are underway!
Shiotani: Do you do anything to recharge?
Kerry: There’s a gym under our company accommodation in Singapore. That’s where I go to recharge! When I feel tired, I go to the gym, swim in the pool and then eat something yummy, and my energy comes back. It’s that easy!
Even when I’m working overseas, when lots of things are going wrong that the other staff are tired, I invite them out for something yummy.
Shiotani: What a positive thing to do!
Kerry: Well, I mean, I do have my share of worries! I mix up the currencies from various countries. When I get to Japan, I panic because I don’t have any yen. (laughs)
Plus, I go for regular massages in both Singapore and Japan, and I always doze off and when I wake up, it sometimes takes me a moment to remember which country I’m in.
Shiotani: Your brain gets all muddled! (laughs) By the way, you won BAKE’s Employee MVP award at BAKE Fes, our company-wide conference, last year. How did that feel?
Kerry: It was a big surprise! But because I’m always out of the country, a lot of people from the Tokyo head office have no idea what I actually do. So it really blew me away when I found out that I’d won.
Shiotani: I have to confess that even I didn’t know much about what you do! When you told me about it, I was amazed by how much you’ve accomplished. It’s clear why you won MVP! And you always seem to enjoy your work so much too.
Kerry: Well, enjoying what you do is the most important thing. We’re now launching a series of new brands and the Overseas Business Division’s preparations to open stores outside Asia are well underway, so I’m enjoying that too!
Shiotani: We’re really blazing a trail! I can’t wait until we have BAKE stores in far-off countries. I’m counting on you to make that happen!
Kerry: I’m on it!