O’Briens Asia CEO Hugh Hoyes-cock

A mere breeze away from Oohthique, with romantic bumboats wading their way across the river, I was walking along the Boat Quay waterfront whilst being hassled by loquacious touts. It wasn’t long before I found myself standing before the head office of O’Brien’s Asia.

Without moments due, Le Shanne, a sassy P.A. led me into a spartan office with an incredible view and a visible bar fridge. I was offered a San Miguel as I sat down and across the desk from me was the white-maned, imposing figure of Mr. Hugh Hoyes-cock, CEO of O’Briens Asia. Recipient of the retail and hospitality award (From Prince Andrew, no less) as well as given honors at the highest level for humanitarian effort, I was feeling very small when I flicked on my recorder:

THINK: How long have you been in the Sandwich business?

HUGH: Seven years…

THINK: At what age was that?

HUGH: What age? I must have been 45, when I quit the Corporate world to do something for myself. No longer confined in a Glass Tower. I was in Finance – a Chartered Accountant (FCA). I worked for several multinationals such as Village Roadshow, the Village part of Golden Village.

THINK: Why Sandwiches? Finance and Sandwiches is a bit of a shift.

HUGH: It was just an opportunity that came along from a casual telephone conversation with my son that was studying in Dublin. I asked him where he was having lunch and he told me about a great place called O’Briens where a big sandwich fills you up all day long. And as pure coincidence I was looking at a copy of an English Sunday times the next day and saw the name O’Briens looking for Franchisees from the U.K. and having never heard of O’Briens to suddenly seeing them the next day was fate. I contacted them and seven years later, we are one of the fastest growing Sandwich chains in Asia.

THINK: That’s what I wanted to get to: How far has O’Briens gone Regionally?

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HUGH: Regionally we are in Singapore, KL, Jakarta, Bangkok Taipei and Beijing.

THINK: The Chinese market as well?

HUGH: We only opened in China last month and we have the grand opening in September. But, once we got this first store running smoothly, we’ll see a rapid expansion.

THINK: Tell me more about your role here…

HUGH: My role? Difficult question… basically, I own and operate seven outlets and then manage the franchise on behalf of O’Brien’s for the international territories. Find new Franchisees and help them get set up and monitor the quality throughout the region.

THINK: Everywhere in Asia?

HUGH: We are also negotiating potentials in South Korea, other provinces in China, Hong Kong and the Philippines

THINK: How about North Korea? (laughs)

HUGH: We… haven’t been approached by anyone yet (laughs).

THINK: This is sidetracking a little but I have heard from several anonymous sources that you are quite the party animal!

HUGH: I do enjoy the odd evening out (grins). I buy bottles for my friends

THINK: What are some nightspots that you frequent? I have definitely seen you out and about…

HUGH: Definitely still go to Velvet. They do a magnificent job of reinventing themselves and remaining fresh. MOS has been treating us very well and we enjoy the electronic house nights on Fridays and Saturdays. KM8 is nice to relax on a Sunday afternoon. And having the office on Boat Quay enables us to try many establishments on the river.

THINK: What are your thoughts on Boat Quay?

HUGH: I do have two reservations – The consistent hawkering and trying to drag you into outlets is a complete pain. Some outlets block the five-foot way, which is not so fun on a wet day or a hot day.

THINK: So for the last 7 years you have been based in Singapore?

HUGH: I’ve been based in Singapore for 23 years

THINK: Do you eat an O’Brien’s Sandwich every day?

HUGH: EVERYDAY. Some days I have a wrapper or a salad.

THINK: Why stop at Sandwiches? Why not… Indian Cuisine or something fun?

HUGH: I’m a great believer in focusing on one thing. The O’Briens franchise is big enough to take all my time… leaving some time for the party going.

THINK: The last time I met you, you nearly jumped when I said these two syllables: Sub-way.

HUGH: We are distinctly different. In that O’Briens positions itself as a lifestyle cafe promoting healthy unprocessed food items. Whereas Subway have been very successful in their fast-food format. Only in recent years Subway has taken a health food angle in their advertising.

THINK: I’ve heard you are also the humanitarian – are there any charity events that O’Briens have supported?

HUGH: Over the years we have supported the Singapore Special Olympics team – the Olympics for the mentally handicapped. We are also worldwide sponsors of the Christina Nobel foundation, which looks after homeless children in Vietnam and Mongolia.

THINK: Would you be a humanitarian on personal level?

HUGH: I found by accident the spin-offs of being responsible in the community and trying to give something back, have far outweighed the management time, effort or cost. I can give you an example of what I mean.

Hugh Hoyes-cock and President S.R. Nathan

[Hugh pulls out several photographs of himself shaking the hand of the prime minister of Ireland, Dr Yakob Ibrahim, President S.R. Nathan and even Prince Andrew! It seems that you don’t get to meet princes, prime ministers and presidents by just running a sandwich bar.]

… These were for the fund-raiser and the act of participating in the community.

THINK: Spectacular! One last question: What would be the best O’Brien’s Sandwich?

HUGH: The Chicken-bacon triple-decker. That is certainly the best seller. But, if you ask me, the best thing about O’Briens is that you can walk in and decide at the last minute what kind of meat, vegetables and sauces you want. And make your own at that moment in time. As we say, ‘See your sandwich made Fresh in front of you’! (smiles).

[I was rather taken aback on the casual humor that Hugh employed for a man of his standing. He cracked open a Stella Artois and joined me at his beautiful office balcony. We later spent a bit more time speaking on the intricacies of the fresh baked bread that O’Brien’s uses to his stellar acts of charity. The next time I eat at O’Briens, one should feel confident that you are helping someone else while you are eating healthy.