Loyal staff in small business

Competing against big players for staff is difficult so small and medium sized enterprise must sing their workplace charms to attract and keep great staff.

The articles represent the views of the author only and not those of American Express.


Good staff are worth their weight in gold in labour-short Hong Kong where small companies are particularly handicapped in the competition to attract the right people.

Jarron Stephens, who founded meatmarket.hk as an online butcher seven years ago to sell Australian meat to Hong Kong consumers, sets "a gold standard" in retaining his staff of 10.

"We cannot compete on money, so we compete on worklife experience," says Australian expatriate Stephens, a global head of technology with a major investment bank before turning entrepreneur.

"We offer small benefits like health insurance, which is not compulsory in Hong Kong. Our staff have generous maternity and sick leave and we are flexible with time off for exams or family matters. We go out of our way to accommodate all that," he says.

Stephens¡¦ office staff work a five rather than six-day week and his sales team, on a six-day week, work from home one day a week.

Stephens also makes sure that his employees feel included and that staff suggestions to improve the business or operations are valued and taken onboard.

He is particularly mindful of the needs of his sales staff who, on average, stay for a year. ¡§Sales in Hong Kong are very tough. It is a price-driven market," says Stephens.

"One of our big successes has been in retaining our delivery driver, who has been with us for six years. It is remarkable, because delivery driving is tough and drivers are often not treated well."

Meatmarket.hk has expanded into the wholesale business, selling a range of fresh Australian food, wine and beer to Hong Kong restaurants and food distributors. Stephens will soon open two Western-style butcher shops on Hong Kong Island.

"The smaller you are the harder it is to retain staff. It was very hard for us in the early days," he says.

Jane and Dean Sexton, who run their Australian cafe, Cafeine on Queens Road Central, in Hong Kong¡¦s Sheung Wan district, next to Central, pay their staff more than 1½ times above the market rate.

Even then, Jane Sexton says two hires who accepted the job failed to turn up when they were due to start.

The Sextons, who know that the hospitality industry struggles to find and keep good staff, are also accommodating and flexible on working hours, holidays and time-off in lieu.

The Sextons would have liked to keep longer opening hours but have been unable to do so for the lack of staff. They go out of their way to retain their three employees.

They work with one of them who thinks it is "cool" to be a top barista and wants to become one. Another, who aspires to be a cook, spends time in the kitchen with Dean to learn the tricks of the trade.

The unemployment rate in Hong Kong is 3.4 per cent today. The labour shortage is compounded for SMEs because young Hong Kong graduates prefer to work for multinationals and companies with big brands and reputations.

Kirsty Boazman, chief executive of the Australian Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, says while next generation Asian employees attach greater value to a balance of work and recreational life, the profile and brand of an organisation is still a priority consideration for a majority of job seekers.

"This can make it difficult for small businesses to appeal to those with the right skills or working aptitudes,¡¨ she says.

SMEs also find it hard to shake off the perception that the priority of their owners is cost, cost, and cost, and that they are demanding of their employees and drive them hard with little rewards.

Stephens says: "The biggest single advantage you can offer as an SME owner is to give your staff broader roles. The person doing account payable will also get to do receivables and monthly business reports, and so forth. They are not pigeonholed like they would be in big companies."

Meatmarket.hk and Cafeine are among a number of the progressive SMEs that are setting the trend to attract people to their businesses.

"Concepts like job sharing are pretty much unheard of in this part of the world. Australian business owners are among those taking an innovative lead in seeing how best to make these sort of flexibilities work for both employers and employees," says Boazman.

Quote: "We cannot compete on money, so we compete on work life experience," Jarron Stephens, Meatmarket.hk

"The biggest single advantage you can offer as an SME owner is to give your staff a broader role. The person doing account payable will also get to do receivables and monthly business reports, and so forth. They are not pigeonholed like they would be in big companies." Jarron Stephens, Meatmarket.hk

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