How did the famous Korean eatery, MyeongDong Toppokki, with close to 50 branches throughout the nation, come about?
Tragedy and a chip-on-the-shoulder, that’s how you start a fire. Vincent Lua was 11 when his father, who had started a construction outfit, was tragically hurt in a workplace accident. Life drastically changed. His father’s business was snatched by persona non grata, his mum not allowed a single word.
“One of the lessons I want to pass down to my children, is that life cannot be too comfortable,” he says after a brief retelling of childhood events. That overnight shift in family life forced Lua to step up for the sake of his mother and younger sister.
“Secondly, I want my children to be independent and figure out things on their own. Nothing is going to come easy in this life. Persistence is the key to success,” he adds with a warm smile. And because iron sharpens irony.
“Lastly, I hope she surrounds herself with good friends who are driven and purposeful.” In his earliest days, Lua was a finance student who graduated at the height of the 2008 global crisis. Knocking on doors for eight months he finally found work at a local bank. Senior colleagues browbeat him just enough to convince him the rat race wasn’t worth it, and he started a property firm, then a fitness centre, and finally a Korean fast casual dining chain.
“Back in 2015, MyeongDong Toppokki only had two outlets and was already running a negative cash flow of 800 thousand ringgit. That caused sleepless nights for me,” he says. Running towards his challenges, “To turn things around, we undertook a massive revamp and changed into a self-service format. This helped reduce cost and we were able to turn about the business,” he explains.
“But as every entrepreneur knows, the bigger your business becomes, the more things you have to worry about. The stress is consistent with growth,” adding that he still endures sleepless nights, weighing new strategies to take his business to the next level.
His greatest and most immediate challenge? Aligning team members so everyone is headed in the same direction. “My heads of departments meet with me constantly. We have regular meetings, special meetings, and we’re always communicating so everyone can cascade information down to team members.”
“When it comes to team members, I look for attitude above all. With the right attitude, they can learn new skills and innovate solutions. This is a demanding business and there’s little in the way of work-life balance when you’re building something from the ground up. Instead we’ve all learned to incorporate our work into our daily lives,” he explains. “Personally, it can be really hard for me to turn-off when I leave the office. I realise I’m constantly working but that’s the price you have to pay,” he adds.
His three mantras for successful entrepreneurship begin with solving financial issues, lowering the cost of goods and keeping your cash-flow healthy. Then, figure out what your business needs to keep growing.
In MyeongDong’s case, it was a structurally sound franchise agreement to encourage investors. Lastly, look to dominate your market within one to two years.
With an eye on spreading across the Southeast Asian region right from the start, Lua found his niche in the food industry when he realised there were no fast casual Korean diners in Malaysia. It was this big picture thinking that compelled him to invest a small fortune into the restaurant’s app.
“It’s not just a simple tool to order food. It’s linked to AI and built to analyse data, to tell us for instance what Malaysians like to eat and when they want it. While a lot of chains were scrambling during the Movement Control Order to keep afloat, we were actually in a healthy position to capitalise on the digital side of our business,” he says.
When asked if he ever gets exhausted, Lua affably responds, “It is very tiring, but doing nothing is even more tiring and unsettling for me. I feel drained if I don’t achieve a goal or execute a task. You have to embrace and love the pressure,”
On that note, Lua has set himself some lofty targets to keep him busy. In the next few years, MyeongDong Toppokki will look to enter Indonesia, then Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam and finally Cambodia.
“I believe our branding is just as much a commodity as our product itself. It represents quality and if we do it right, people from all walks of life will appreciate it. Now that times are tougher than ever, keep innovating and constantly look for niche markets that you can serve. Look to bigger players within your industry and learn from their success and mistakes,” concludes the man on a mission.
Styling: Johan Kassim