In Yangon’s rapidly expanding restaurant industry, Nico Elliott is a name to be reckoned with.

At the helm of the hospitality management company called 57 Below – which operates notable restaurants such as Union Bar and Grill, Parami Pizza, Gekko and Tintin – Elliott has managed to turn his business into one of the leading food and beverage companies in Myanmar within the course of less than five years, adding to its core business an equally successful catering arm. Sondang Grace Sirait talked to the former corporate finance executive-turned-restaurateur on the local dining scene, management philosophy and his role as father of two young children.

What attracted you to come to Yangon?
I was brought up in East Africa and have lived in Asia for the last ten years, all in developing countries. I was attracted by the excitement and unpredictability of day-to-day life and the opportunities presented by Yangon and Myanmar as it goes through this transitional period.

Tell us about your career path. How did you get your start?
I started my career with Deloitte & Touche in London where I qualified as a chartered accountant. Soon after that I moved into Corporate Finance, also with Deloitte, where I did M&A advisory work, mostly listings on AIM and the LSE. However, I sought more adventure and wanted to return to the developing world. I joined Richard Chandler (originally Orient Global) and worked for their Education Fund, initially building a chain of schools in Hyderabad, India and then a hospitality training school in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

What motivated you to join the culinary industry?
I have always loved to cook, eat out, make cocktails and try new things. Much of my inspiration came from my mother, an amazing cook who taught me to try everything. When I arrived in Yangon the industry was still very young. I was excited by the challenge of providing quality and consistent food to its residents.

As a restaurant entrepreneur, how would you describe the current scene of the F&B industry in Yangon?

The scene has grown very rapidly over the last two years with some exciting new entrants. There is a long way to go and many new cuisines we would like to see in this country. The competition will only ensure that the customer is provided with better quality at cheaper prices. I hope that the broader business environment will support and encourage new entrants and help those that already exist to thrive.

Based on your experience, what are the most important things to get your business up and running?

It is really all about the team. I have been lucky enough to have some very talented people that have stayed with us and helped us grow.

Do you have a favorite mantra that keeps you inspired?

Keep challenging, changing, developing and adapting everything that you do.

What is one mistake you’ve made and what did you learn from it?

I have made plenty of mistakes along the way. I picked the wrong location for a restaurant and didn’t do adequate due diligence on it before moving ahead.

Again, based on your experience, what could go wrong in this business? What are the most sensible areas?

As far as factors you can control go, it is all about having the right team in place and keeping them motivated to keep improving and challenging how they are doing things.

What are the potentials in other cities in Myanmar beyond Yangon?

I believe there are opportunities all over Myanmar in the major cities and tourist destinations.

What remains challenging?

With so many new hotels and big businesses coming to the market it remains a challenge to hold onto your best team members.

How do you motivate and reward your employees?

We have an extensive training programme and for those that stay with us a long time we extend the training overseas. Moreover, we have monthly awards for the best performers and regular appraisals to ensure everyone is kept informed of their progress. And, we provide clear career paths and opportunities within the group.

How do you keep up with best practices in your company?

We constantly review what we do in each department. Heads of departments are well informed and experienced and ensure best practices are implemented and adhered to.

In terms of doing business in Myanmar, how would you describe your own experience as a foreign investor?

My experiences in Yangon have been mostly very positive. However, like any country going through a transition, there have been numerous challenges.

Any plans for the future that you’d like to share?

We have some exciting plans for Tintin in the coming month, as we embark on an adventure to nearby borderlands. We also hope to continue to grow the Parami Pizza and Parami Express brands in the coming months.

What is your vision for your business?

57Below will continue to strive to deliver exciting, new and high quality culinary experiences to Yangon and other cities in Myanmar. We hope to introduce some new concepts and to grow our existing ones with a clear focus on quality and consistency.

How important is it to maintain good balance between personal life and business?

It is a vital balance to maintain. With two small children of my own I make sure I keep a healthy balance between the two.

What does success mean to you?

A healthy and happy family, a thriving business and a happy team that feels empowered to go on build something of their own.

What advice would you give someone considering entering your line of work?

If you are passionate about what you do and driven enough to succeed then take the plunge and have a go. Make sure you surround yourself with those who have sufficient experience in areas you don’t.

Will Yangon ever be your home?

Yangon has been my home for almost five years and I hope it will remain my home for many years to come.

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