Thursday, December 18, 2008

KFC in China

Years ago, as part of a Masters degree course, I read the book, "The Burger King" by Jim McLamore, about the founding and development of the Burger King QSR (Quick Service Restaurant, more popularly known as Fast Food Restaurants) chain store. It was a fascinating story, by any accounts. So a few weeks ago, when I came across the brand new book, "KFC in China", I just had to pick it up to read, if only to compare the experiences of these two giants of the QSR industry. Strangely though I have never picked up the numerous similar books on MacDonalds, arguably the most successful of these QSRs. But there was another thing about this KFC book that drew my attention: China. This promised to be a fresh and potentially unusual and different account of a QSR's development, outside of its domicile. I wasn't disappointed.

"KFC in China" is written by Mr Warren K Liu, Vice President of Business Development at Tricon Greater China until the early 2000s. Tricon was a spin-off of PepsiCo and focused on the food business. KFC, Taco-Bell and Pizza Hut are the better known brands under its wings. In this book, Liu traces the start of KFC in China, in 1987, through the enterprise of the "Taiwan Gang" - seasoned veterans in KFC Taiwan. Surprisingly, they preceded MacDonalds in this venture. In quick succession, he relates the development of the KFC restaurant business in China, going over issues of staffing, business strategy, partnerships with the local Chinese and its government and touching somewhat on issues of corruption.

This book also goes into detail about how KFC in China developed its 'DNA' through the siting of its HQ in Shanghai (rather than Hong Kong, which MacDonalds did), relating its product and marketing strategies, supply chain issues as it expanded, first along the coastal regions of China and subsequently westward into more remote parts of China. As with MacDonalds, KFC also acquired real estate as it established new restaurants. Along the way, Liu makes comparisons with the way the KFC has done things and the (different) way that MacDonald's has approached its business in China. It suggests that KFC's approach is one that suited China more than MacDonalds'. The book then goes on to discuss how the operations in KFC were established, the localization and globablisation issues and headquarter support. It ends with an analysis of the model, Liu suggests, that has brought success to KFC in China - Leadership with Chinese characteristics - and the inevitable speculation of what lies ahead. Liu also suggests and provides an analysis using KFC China's experience how certain modes of operations (e.g. decentralisation, centralisation) suited different stages of development in a Business.

This book can be as dry as any Business Management book on an academic's shelf. One gets the impression that Liu wants to avoid singling out real people for mention in his book. Very often, he leaves out the identity of the person, even though that person, in his account, has contributed significantly to the business. For example, Liu mentions a person who has contributed tremendously to KFC China's development with Joint Venture partners, but declines to identify him by name. This makes the account almost impersonal and gives the feeling that one is reading either an academic theses or a textbook, or both. He did make an exception towards the end of the book when he described in greater detail the work of Sam Su, the head of Tricon Greater China, as well as Roger and Elaine - husband and wife to each other - but working in the same department to illustrate how Sam, and KFC China, dealt with issues of close relatives working together.

Yes, in spite of the general absence of personal references and 'inside' stories, I have enjoyed reading the book. This is because Liu writes in a succinct style, allowing him to cover a wide range of topics in a relatively thin 200-page paperback book. What I especially liked was his summary of the book towards the end. For someone who may have taken a 'start-stop' route while reading the book. it does bring together rather nicely, a reminder of what has been covered.

Friday, November 21, 2008

A Life Apart

Participation in the virtual world has taken increasing pace in the last few years. Originally, these worlds belong to the geeky, such as those that live on Ultima Online, etc. But now, with virtual worlds offered by a slew of them - Electronic Arts (The Sims Online - TSO), Linden Labs (Second Life), Blizzard Entertainment (World of Warcraft), Nintendo (the cartoonish but no less absorbing Maple Story) and probably the latest by Google (, one is spoilt for choice. And not all are geeky any more.

For example, TSO is about as geeky as a tomato. It hosts communities of people who would replicate their lifes on planet earth, from the owning of homes to going out to parties to having sex - any kind of sex. Why am I not surprised? Because morals are almost non-existent in these virtual worlds. God didn't create them, man did. And who wants to talk religion when you are having fun? So it wouldn't take long before a curious Avatar - a virtual person in the virtual world with a real life in the real world - would start reporting about virtual worlds instead of just living in it. One Peter Ludlow, erstwhile a University Professor, started the Herald in the world of TSO, taking on the Avatar identity of Urizenus. He would eventually migrate to Second Life, a virtual environment that offered more capabilities and features.

The Second Life Herald chronicles his experience in these virtual worlds through the Herald. The account starts with life on TSO. As the Avatar, Uri, he roams TSO and reports on the various activities going on - such as virtual governments and the griefers and gangs that these governments have to deal with. As he encounters iconic characters that populate TSO, he discusses his encounters with them. The book also has a chapter or two on the sex scene in TSO, which makes for fascinating reading. The Herald is a 'tell-them-as-it-is' online virtual journal in TSO. So there were sometimes un-complimentary things that came out of it, things that can offend. Perhaps the biggest mistake that Urizenus made was to question the fairness of the masters of TSO - EA (Electronic Arts) - over issues of justice. What if someone in the virtual world has a valid grievance - for example - some other virtual character inflicting an injustice on another? Should the creators of the virtual world not intervene to restore justice? Urizenus' argument is that avatars, voluntary and willing participants in the virtual world though they may be, may have invested so much emotion and money into the virtual world that stopping play in virtual worlds was not a viable option at all. Therefore there must exist a set of rules that are consistently enforced to protect players. Often times, the powers that be - the creators and controllers of the games - can be biased and unfair. And he makes the same observation about life on Second Life, which he joined after he got kicked out (erased) from TSO.

Truth be told, I am not a fan of virtual worlds. The first time I entered the virtual world of Google's, I was flipped and thrown to the floor when all I wanted to do was just say 'Hello' to the Avatar who flipped me. No, I am not a whimp, just that I cannot find the time that these virtual worlds demand of my (other) time in the real world. Not so the young. They are taking to virtual worlds like fish to water, unable and unwilling to tear themselves away from the computer which they spend hours on end. This book explains why this is so. Coming from a person that inhabits these worlds and reports on it since the early 2000s, you would be convinced that there is much truth in what he says.

But don't let me report everything. Read the book.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

I am Muslim

I can identify with many of the contexts that Ms Dina Zaman wrote about - the Malays, their practices, their culture and their taboos. I could also identify with the practising Malay Muslim for I made many Malay Muslim friends while studying through the Singapore school system. These, and more, are recorded in this somewhat autobiographical account of the author's life in Malaysia and her encounters as a journalist.

Although a Muslim herself, she never stops to question the many contradictions that runs through the lives and loves of the Malay/Muslims that she encounters in the course of her work, which includes investigative journalism. It makes for amusing reading. But the book is quite uneven and slightly disjointed - a 'theme' does not run through it, and perhaps it is to be expected. The book, I am Muslim, is after all, a collection of Ms Zaman's writing for the news media over a period of time. You can think of it as a collection of blog entries - bite-size chunks of reminisces, opinions and sometimes very irreverent remarks. A search of the Internet showed that the author did start a blog, but abandoned it all too soon. So this is perhaps the only published collections of her writings available to the reading public as of today. You need a paid subscription to Malaysiakini to access her other work.

This book really comes alive from the section "Sex within Islam". No, don't get me wrong. I am not a sex pervert nor a closet reader of Playboy magazine. I do not have suppressed sexual fantasies nor am I a serial stalker. I just enjoyed the way that Ms Zaman wrote this section on taboo subjects in Islam - like sex (yes, in some puritanical sections of the Muslim/Muslim community, sex is a dirty word). The Malay tudung is probably the least sensual of clothes on planet earth today. I remember reading somewhere that a woman's hair is her crowning glory - something that really literally can make heads turn. Yet some Muslims believe in covering it up. Well, to each their own. She also writes about homosexuality and romance (not that these necessarily go together) within the Muslim community and how, as in most societies, it is still very much 'under the hood'. But she had the opportunity of encountering people of these various orientation and interests and I am glad she was brave enough to write about them. In the process, she has enlightened me.

Not that I agree with her at all, I often find her expression of bewilderment, well, bewildering. It appears that Islam does not have the answers to the tough questions she dares to ask, even after consulting her religious mentors. But she is adamant in keeping the faith - a very large leap of the faith indeed. After this section on sex, the book pretty much reverts to the form before. It gets disjointed again, peppered with anecdotes of one sort or another, and it would take all of my will to finish the book. You can tell that I am not too keen on gossip. Its just that a meandering book just cannot hold me for long. It is a wonder that it has sat on my reading shelf for so long. Time to return it to the library.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

eBay Redux

eBay has been around since before the heady days. With Yahoo, it is probably one of the more well-known survivors of the dot-com boom days. eBay has grown leaps and bounds over the years, facilitating ordinary people like you and me in selling off some of our not-so-prized collections and also in buying hard-to-come-by stuff that is either out of production/print or has found its end-of-life with someone else. Indeed, eBay has grown from just a place to auction stuff to a place to set up an online store selling brand new first-hand products. Much has been written about the portal, about how to use it, about how to make more money through it, about it, and all. So I was intrigue to find the brand new book, "Tricks of the eBay Business Masters" on a library shelf. What has Michael Miller, the author, to tell us that we do not already know from the many books already written on the subject?

Well, the title does give an indication. This book collates the wisdom of people (the masters) who have made use of the eBay portal to run successful businesses. Michael doesn't so much preach as he shows how actual businesses have thrived on certain best-eBay-practices. In several 'eBay Business Profiles' (Case Studies), he describes how actual businesses evolved to an online eBay store that complemented their brick-and-mortar operations to businesses that exist solely on the eBay. Words of wisdom from these successes are concisely documented, which will be of much interest to people who already have an eBay business going, but would like to do better, or for aspiring e-Bayers looking to start selling instead of merely trading.

The part I find most interesting is the discussion of various free tools, such as eBay Marketplace Research, eBay Pulse, etc, provided by eBay and others that will help analyse search trends and understand past auction patterns and behaviour. These tools probably can make a difference between dead stores and profitable stores.

While this book has a 'recipe look' about it, it is recipe worth reading. As this book is quite new (published in 2008), the formula in the recipe has been updated to give the reader something new to learn out of the 101 tips and tricks listed.

I recommend this book highly.

By the way, if you haven't heard the eBay song, you simply must. Its so infectious. It should be nominated for an Emmy. And there are several incarnations of it. Enjoy!

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Teacher Man

Frank McCourt is not easy to read. I 'suffered' through his Angela's Ashes more than a decade ago and never returned to him until this year when, on the advice of a wise man, took up his third book, Teacher Man.

I remember trudging through Angela's Ashes because the story, his story, was so depressing. The book recounts McCourt's growing up in Limerick, Ireland and the psychological scars he acquired through the many downs he encountered. He was to mention these again in Teacher Man to similar feelings of depression. In Teacher Man, he added depressing accounts of his start in the teaching profession, of how the schools he started with had students who had no great interest in studying. And McCourt was depressingly frank - he wrote that he didn't know what to do with these students, or how to teach them. It would have been uplifting if he had written of how he faced the odds in the classroom and overcame them. But he didn't overcome the odds, it just got too tiresome. He eventually left for another school - a community college, where the students were older and more mature and probably more willing to learn. It didn't last either because he only had a Master's degree. The school could only offer him a position if he had planned on getting a PhD. So he returned to a teaching position in a Vocational School, but this lasted only 5 months before he was 'forced out'.

When I started out with the book, I wasn't expecting so much 'failure' in the book. I had expected this to be an inspirational book, but for 2/3 of the book, it was not to be found - even in his recounting of his attempt at a PhD in Trinity College, Dublin. But he does keep the narrative interesting by describing some of his students and their antics, and related some of this to his early days in New York, after he came over from Ireland. To me, the narrative starts to sparkle when he join his last school, Stuyvescent High School. before he retired. It is here that he came into his own as an innovative and effective teacher of creative writing. It is not surprising that he eventually put pen to paper himself and produced his autobiographical trilogy - the award-winning Angela's Ashes, Tis! and Teacher Man.

In this book, and his earlier one (I have not read Tis! though), he brings a depressing honesty to his narrative, calling a dog a dog, and not fudging at his failings. At least, that is my impression. And he does have some gems in the book on what teaching is about, and how he developed as a teacher. This is a very interesting book (although somewhat dated), but if you consider teaching an evergreen profession, then you can do nothing better than read his account of teaching and learning. Just for forewarned - you need to be patient to be inspired here.