Steen came to Singapore in 1999 to run regional marketing for McDonald’s. Initially, he had planned to stay for three years, but it has been 18 years since and he has made Singapore his home. The Dane is now a Singapore permanent resident, and is raising two children here, who are seven and 10.
He has worked at some of the biggest restaurant chains around the world, from Europe to Asia Pacific, sampling some of the best food in the world.
But when Steen Puggaard sees laksa, a local dish made up of thick white noodles covered with spicy coconut seafood gravy, he just can’t help himself.
“Laksa. I have always liked spicy food, and it’s indulgent. I eat it with cockles,” he says.
“Whenever I can find it, I go for it.”
Food is clearly Puggaard’s thing. The Dane has been in Singapore for 18 years working in restaurants such as McDonalds and Les Amis, focusing on growing the companies in the region.
He is now taking all that experience and focusing it on bringing Singapore fried chicken chain 4Fingers global.
There’s something about fried chicken chain 4Fingers that one can’t quite put a finger on.
For one thing, it seems unmistakably Korean, with its signature Korean-style fried chicken and kimchi-flavoured fries. But its stores’ decor draws inspiration from New York’s grungy subway scene. And then there’s the Chinese mantou bun for its katsu chicken sandwich. Wait, isn’t chicken katsu Japanese?
“Yes, it’s kind of a rojak,” its CEO, Steen Puggaard, says with a laugh. “The brand is sort of like a mash-up. We have Korean, Japanese and Chinese influences all put together in a dish. We don’t want to be pigeon-holed into one nationality. We’d rather say we borrow a bit from here, a bit from there.”
In many ways, the company exemplifies the diversity that Singapore has been associated with.
Founded in Singapore, 4Fingers was set up by a group of Dutch, Swedish and British businessmen. And today, a Dane has taken the concept and expanded it across Southeast Asia.
Puggaard was first asked by the founders to join and help expand the business back in 2012. But left it after six months because “the owners were perpetually out of funding”.
He eventually did a “Steve Jobs” and returned to the company in 2013, determined to fulfill its potential, with the aim of expanding the Singapore restaurant across the region and world.
And grow the company he did – from one outlet at ION Orchard Mall to 21 stores worldwide today. There are 12 outlets in Singapore, four in Malaysia, two in Indonesia and three in Australia. In a short span of four years, the company grew from $2 million to a $30 million business.
Today, 4Fingers has a total of 243 staff in Singapore, a surge from 60 in 2014. Most of them are Singaporeans, he adds.
And, it’s not done yet. Puggaard reveals that 4Fingers is expanding into Thailand, Spain and USA. Five stores are slated to open by March 2018 in Thailand, with the first outlet located in central Ladphrao.
“I see the world in two groups of people,” says Puggaard, who is 52. “Those who can eat 4Fingers right now, and those who can’t. My job is to make sure those who can’t eat 4Fingers right now get to eat it as soon as possible.”
The Singapore connection
Puggaard always had a strong connection with fast food. Early in his career, he was working in McDonald’s and charged with the responsibility for bringing the American fast food chain into Belarus and Ukraine.
“Then, eastern Europe was coming out of communism. It had its unique set of challenges: corruption, organised crime and inefficiencies. For me to pick up a phone to call to the head office in Copenhagen, I had to keep trying and trying,” he reveals.
“But I was more keen to work with mature markets, and that took me to Singapore in 1999.”
“I brought down my barang barang, told myself I’ll make Singapore my home for at least three years. But three became five, and then 10,” Puggaard says.
It has been 18 years since and it is clear that Puggaard has taken to Singapore in a big way.
“Singapore is a great base to work and live. It is safe, efficient and close to many nice places. It’s home for me,” adds Puggaard, who has two children who are seven and 10, studying in local schools.
Setting up shop in Singapore has benefited the business greatly. “Singapore has a great reputation for good governance, transparency and no corruption. For us to say that we are from Singapore speaks well about the company too.”
Today, the Dane is a Singapore permanent resident, and is comfortable throwing out a bit of Singlish, having peppered his conversation with ‘rojak’ and ‘barang barang’. While most foreigners try, and fail miserably, to use Singlish, Puggaard nails it – even the accent.
What few know about Puggaard too, is that he is a former competitive rower and was the national champion in Singapore in 2004. He toyed with the idea of representing Singapore, but did not take up the offer.
Rowing continues to be a passion of Puggaard. It is perhaps this relentless and uncompromising attitude in the pursuit of goals he learned from competitive sports that catapulted 4Fingers to its success today.
Paying it forward
Apart from growing the business and expanding the Singapore brand, Puggaard also makes it a point to pass on his knowledge and expertise to budding entrepreneurs.
He helps out in a mentorship program under Spring and the Restaurant Association of Singapore, aimed at assisting SMEs in the F&B industry with improving productivity, profitability and scalability.
“I try to pay forward the things I have learnt to help others,” he says.