Having been CEO for Crussh – Fit Food & Juice Bars for over a decade and sitting on the board of multiple start-ups, Chris Fung made the move to Board Champion Director, a position he created himself. We spoke to Chris about the impact of the internet on the food retail industry, what it is like to work for him and why there is no such thing as bad advice.
What is the worst and/or best business advice you have ever received?
I don’t think I have ever been given bad advice. I look at it from a perspective where I take advice from everyone, all advice is good advice that adds to a collective of thoughts. Different opinions build up to create a view, which forms a bigger picture, which is fluid and able to change direction as you receive more information.
When I was CEO at Crussh I welcomed all advice, as every piece of advice could have been coming from a potential customer. Whether the advice is wanted or not, I can choose whether to take it or leave it but it will feed into an overall picture. Therefore, to me, there is no such thing as bad advice.
In terms of good advice, there is an old Chinese saying I still use. It’s something my mum told me a while back which goes something to the effect of; if you take a step back, the oceans are deeper, the mountains are higher and the sky is wider. Meaning if you take a step back, you can give another person more space, whether in a negotiation, a partnership or discussion, stepping back creates more room for opportunity. This is something I have to consciously continue to apply today as I like pushing things to the limit, so from a personality perspective, this is good advice to remind me to give space.
What is the hardest lesson you have had to learn?
One of my hardest lessons has been around communication, learning to communicate in a number of different ways. I am quite direct, so changing that mindset requires effort. There have been times where I haven’t and there have been consequences. Whist it is a part of my personality and I value directness, there are certain situations where it actually pays to be a little more subtle and tactful.
Head or heart. Are you more emotional or rational?
Head first, then heart. I think you need both, but predominantly head. It begins with logic and rationale and then the heart comes into it. I call it gut, but heart or gut, I have learnt to listen to it more. The head sees certain things but over time your whole conscious body experiences other things that your brain doesn’t always acknowledge. So whilst the heart definitely comes into it as the heart relates to people and business is people, I think for me, head first.
After more than a decade as CEO of Crussh juice and smoothie bar, you have moved in an exciting new direction, could you tell us more about that?
What I am trying to do, I don’t think exists in a current form. When you say a Non-Executive Director you can still think of a board member who comes in once a month, eats some sandwiches and leaves. At a start-up level, you don’t really have a board in the same way. So I created my own term – Board Champion Director – and what I mean by that is I am there to champion the entrepreneur and the business.
I tend to think of it as entrepreneur first, customers and staff second, investors third. Which may be considered interesting advice, but from an entrepreneur’s perspective, with their goal to grow the business, I am able to act as a translator between all parties; the corporate and the entrepreneur, the creative and the analytical, the investor and the entrepreneur. It is fulfilling a role I wish I had more of when I was running Crussh. I wish there were more advisors that were more focused on the entrepreneur and long term good of the business rather than the typical investor timeline.
As an entrepreneur, sometimes you want to bounce ideas off someone but it is not always appropriate to be talking to certain people within the business, as they say, it’s lonely at the top. You’ve got to find other ways of floating ideas and building the business. By considering, entrepreneur first, investor last, you can hopefully do what is right for the business long term and ensure it is sustainable, rather than focusing only on shorter to medium term financial returns.
Was there a moment that made you realise you wanted to make this transition to Board Champion Director?
There are a number of moments I thought, “Is this where I should go?”, where I wondered if I was the right person for this role. Having seen one recession, I have the view that we are running into another one. There is a cycle with these things and we are well overdue with Brexit and everything else that has been happening globally. It’s a challenging time on the high street, popular establishments are closing as there are shifts and changes happening in the market.
They started around the introduction of Deliveroo and Ubereats. At the time, people didn’t really understand the impact of it but there is a fundamental shift happening. You don’t need hundreds of one particular shop because the competition within a couple mile radius is now larger. Previously when a store opened all you would care about is who was in a 200 metre radius, that’s where your customers would travel for lunch. Now you have to think wider, it could be a 2 mile radius thanks to online delivery options and not only physical stores but popups and the like too need to be considered too.
What is the biggest change you have seen in the food retail industry?
If you think about the high street before the last recession in 2007/8 there were many different stores, music stores, furniture stores etc, the recession came and they left. This normally happens during a recession, many retailers leave the high street. The exception is food retailers because everyone needs to eat, so they tend to stay. Companies like Pret made a lot of headway in previous recessions and were able to take advantage and occupy many of the vacated stores.
There was a fundamental change in 2007/08, it was masked as a big financial crisis, which it was, but as everyone moved out and the food companies came in as predicted, the difference this time was once the economy recovered, the other retailers didn’t come back in in the same way as previous experience would suggest. This is because structurally, the internet has changed the way we do business and the way the world operates, with online ordering and deliveries, you don’t need as many stores.
The shift has moved towards the creation of “dark kitchens”, brands don’t need a physical store, they can offer delivery only and work off a completely different model that until recently didn’t exist. Today you go to the high street and the majority of shops are food. We have gone from a ratio of three food stores and seven non-food stores, to seven food and three non-food.
What do you think is the next phase for the food retail industry?
There is always going to be a market for the food retail industry, for people wanting to eat out, but the way people want to do it has changed. I find it useful to use the analogy of cinemas. When vhs/dvd’s were introduced everyone thought that would destroy the movie market but it actually didn’t, the market remained quite robust. Recently however, it has changed and Netflix has actually been the one to have a greater impact. Previously people would go out for a movie and dinner. Now, because of companies like Ubereats and Deliveroo, we have “Netflix and chill”.
We have access to what we want to watch and any food we want to eat. Previously we could have got one or the other, now we can get both. We are still getting the movie and dinner experience, but not necessarily in the same way. Especially if other elements such as family are thrown in there, trying to get everyone out at the same time in the evening, organising babysitters, we now have the option to have people over and not have to worry about these additional elements. I can now open a nice bottle of wine at home, I don’t have to pay for corkage or mark ups, I can order whatever food I like and watch whatever I like. The spectrum has changed. The total cost of the evening may end up being the same but it is spread over different elements. How does this translate to the high street? Food retailers are going to end up moving to something like a showroom like there is for cars or fashion, providing an experience for people to go and experience the brand.
What is it like to work for you?
I think it can be fun and it can be tough. I am quite direct, so I think those that are confident and capable and understand my directness and know its purpose, and that it is coming from the right place, they work well with me. I think directness allows you to get to the root causes more efficiently without the politics. If you are not capable and confident, I think it could be tough because I can be quite constructive.
If you could go back 5, 10, even 20 years, is there a decision you would make differently?
I’m sure there are loads of things I could have done differently but there is one thing I wish I had done twenty years ago. If I could go back I would have put a deposit down on a flat in Coogee, Sydney, instead of buying a new car.
How do you stay inspired?
I stay inspired by being interested and curious about the world. A lot of it comes from being interested about a wide variety of things, travelling and keeping my eyes open, as well as exploring through my children’s eyes as to what their future might hold. Curiosity and wanting to continuously learn are absolutely key.
Who has influenced you the most professionally?
I don’t think there is any one person who has influenced me more than anyone else. I think of it like Timothy Ferriss’ book, Tribe of Mentors. There have been a bunch of people at different stages of my career, from the days I was an engineer student, to the people I worked with at Kelloggs. My engineering manager there taught me a lot about management and going with the courage of my convictions. Another engineering manager I had showed me that the ability talk to everybody at a company, from the shop floor to senior management, is a great skill to have.
More recently I have been working with Leon Taylor, super successful Olympic diving medallist and also Tom Daly’s mentor. He has taught me a lot about having a performance mind set and translating that in to a business sense. Throughout my journey there really has been a range of different people who have influenced me – a tribe of mentors.
If you were guaranteed the answer to one question, what would it be?
How do you cultivate or create luck? I have always thought it is better to be lucky than skilful. There is a limit to skill, with luck, anything can happen.
What is your top tip for a future entrepreneur?
Have vision, have integrity and be prepared to persevere and “build your inner steel”.