Continuing the Madam’s legacy

  • Columns
  • Monday, 02 May 2016

Madam Kwan, the person, and daughter-in-law Maureen Ooi, CEO of Madam Kwan, the food chain.

F&B is a needy business requiring lots of time and attention, says Madam Kwan’s CEO, who confesses to feeling like a chief waitress sometimes. But of one thing she is certain: if it’s not good enough for you to eat, then it’s not good enough for your customers.

IF YOU’VE ever heard of the famous Madam Kwan and wondered who she was, I can tell you. Madam Kwan is my mother-in-law.

She was the brains behind a bustling eatery in the 70s called Sakura Café. Anyone who came to Jalan Imbi in those days was sure to make a pit stop at the cafe.

Madam Kwan loved to cook for people, and seeing them enjoying her food was one of her biggest joys.

I grew up on the border between Penang and Perak, in a small town called Parit Buntar. I was schooled and raised there, before moving to KL in 1992, got married and settled down. At that point, my mother-in-law had made some risky investments and was at the risk of losing her business.

One morning, I walked into the kitchen and immediately sensed her sadness. She looked forlornly at me, and asked why the only thing she sacrificed her whole life for was being taken away from her. This incident led to the birth of the Madam Kwan brand.

We managed to give her kitchen back to her at 65, Jalan Telawi 3.

As CEO of the Madam Kwan chain, I’m passionate about carrying on her legacy. My purpose for going on this journey goes back vividly to that day when I found her in our kitchen, heartbroken at the prospect of not cooking anymore. I told myself at the time that I would do this for a while, but you know how it is.

Three months turn into 16 years, and before you can blink, you’re in the thick of things.

Maureen Ooi is a member of YPO and the CEO of Madam Kwan.
Maureen Ooi is a member of YPO and the CEO of Madam Kwan.

I believe everything happens for a reason. Despite the challenges I have faced, it has been a wonderful ride, and I’m happy with how everything has turned out.

Along the way however, it’s easy to lose yourself in the equation, which is why when I was prospected to join YPO six years ago, I was rather uncomfortable. At the time, I considered our business profitable but small-scaled, and I didn’t see myself on par with the big boys within YPO. They were country managers and CEOs of multi-million dollar companies.

It felt like I was being asked to play tennis against a pro.

However, I was in two minds because I had heard about an amazing YPO product, known as the forum. Because of the value I saw in this product, I mustered the courage to start my YPO journey.

Looking back, I’m so glad I joined because the forum has changed my life. It has made me a better manager, wife, mother, daughter and leader. I’m not perfect but I’m working towards who I want to be.

The forum taught me to categorise my life into three sections — work-business life, family and self. At that point, it wasn’t easy to talk about myself. However, I recognised what I could benefit from this the moment I was asked how I was doing — not how the business was going or how my family was getting on, but me.

I became aware of all the power I had within me to create change within myself, my family and the company.

The other thing that helped to cement my loyalty towards YPO was the moment I realised that I wasn’t alone. Before I joined YPO, I used to feel that my problems were unique to me, but I no longer feel that way. I came to understand that my challenges were a universal thing. Through YPO, I found that every CEO and manager has felt what I feel.

We are all human beings in the rat race; regardless of the size of one’s business, we all experience the same thing. The people I met at my forum every month became my sounding board.

There were times when I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was a simple kampung girl taking on the role of chief waitress. F&B is a very needy kind of business, and it takes a lot of time to look after. It’s a business where anything can go wrong, and it is a huge challenge to deliver the same thing over and over again to your customers.

You don’t always get it right.

Starting a business requires that you practise situational leadership by way of telling, especially in the beginning. Like a conductor, there’s a lot of directing involved. You need to be able to translate business goals into simple terms in order for your staff members to understand your vision.

By attending workshops organised by YPO, I was exposed to the best practices of the multinational companies. I learned that it was important to implement core values in any business. From then on, we built our core values, and what I passed down to my staff was to be the best in everything we do.

My mother-in-law always strove for quality. Whether it was about making the best chicken curry, or the most scrumptious satay, we want to ensure that what you get at Madam Kwan’s, you can’t get anywhere else in Malaysia. We make everything from scratch. I also passed down what our guru, my mother-in-law, taught me: if it isn’t good enough for you to eat, it isn’t good enough for our customers.

She always taught us to put quality ahead of profit.

However, I still have a lot to learn. When I was expanding the business to Singapore, I had a YPO friend who came to spend an afternoon with me there. He asked: How much of time in our daily lives do we spend attending to urgent matters? Have we paused for a moment to think about the last time we attended to important matters instead?

He made me conscious of the fact that many of us spend our whole lives trying to put out fires. I learned an invaluable lesson that afternoon — that we have to ask ourselves regularly where we stand on matters that are truly important in every aspect of our lives, whether in business, family or personal matters.

I urge you to take some time today to implement this in your lives. You might just be surprised at the results. I certainly was.

You can find out more about YPO and its global network of over 24,000 CEOs at

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