by Shannon Manuel


Leadership speaks to Grace Harding about the Ocean Basket brand

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Established in 1995 and founded by Fats Lazarides, Ocean Basket started from humble beginnings. Over nearly two decades, it has transformed into South Africa’s number one seafood restaurant with more than 180 branches in 11 countries.

Grace Harding has been the company leader for two years. “We don’t believe in titles at Ocean Basket so you’re not going to find a vice president, CEO, COO or any other O,” she says. “I’m the company leader and my role is to take the first 19 years of this company, work with the magic of it and work together with my colleagues to take it into the future. I take my strategic direction from the shareholders and it is my role to run the company with my colleagues.”

“It’s definitely not easy. You’re responsible for shareholder investment; you’re responsible for people’s lives, for the success of thousands and thousands of people,” Harding says. “We’re a franchise business, so sometimes you lie awake at night, hoping that all the things you’ve put in place are going to make money and be successful for your client. So it’s never easy; it’s rewarding most times; it’s ball-breaking all the time.”

Ocean Basket has achieved brand success internationally, with branches in Mauritius, Dubai, Kenya, Botswana and Swaziland. The company has seven branches in Cyprus and is opening in Greece this year. Recently it was reported that Ocean Basket is set to open 10 outlets in Saudi Arabia. This international move is in line with the company’s plans to expand globally over the next three years.

Currently Ocean Basket and Shell Ultra City have developed a food court environment aimed at the traveller. “They’ve taken their big Ultra Cities and turned them into more exciting one-stop resting and eating areas and Ocean Basket is one of the offerings within that food court.”

Harding explains that it is directed at what they call the transumer—the consumer who’s travelling—and that it is not a pure takeaway but more of a condensed menu in a travelling environment. The company has its sights set on expanding the brand locally as well, as it believes the number of branches does not reflect its maximum potential.

“We don’t have absolute, confirmed market share statistics, but we know that we are the sixth biggest seafood specialist business globally, because there aren’t lots of seafood specialists,” she says. “There’s Red Lobster and a few others internationally, but as a restaurant our market share in South African seafood is about 3%. There are obviously other seafood competitors and there are other restaurants that sell seafood, but from a seafood perspective I would say that we certainly hold our own in South Africa.”

Working strictly within the SASSI and WWF standards, Ocean Basket sources its food all over the world. Harding explains that it’s part of Ocean Basket’s philosophy to do everything it can to support the country that they are in, so product sourcing is a combination of local and central. The most important thing is that the seafood served is factory approved and responsibly sourced. She says that there is a lot of development happening in seafood and the company works with many fish farms and believes that there needs to be more farming.

“The oceans are complicated because it’s not only about too many people taking the food out of the ocean, it’s also about the pollution and what happens with all the oil and the vessels,” she says. “Companies like Ocean Basket have to be aware of sustainability; we participate in sustainability from a fish perspective—fish farming and making sure that we give the ocean time to replenish itself—and now we’re also looking at sustainability around our packaging.

The appeal of Ocean Basket lies in the warm and friendly environment that the company continually strives for. “When we speak to customers, they tell us they feel like they’re in a warm, homely Mediterranean environment; they get a sense of the mad Mediterranean aspect of the brand, and that’s great, because it was born and built by a crazy Mediterranean,” says Harding.

“They love the warmth. They love the casual atmosphere. You can go there in a beautiful dress if you’re going on a date and you can go there with your slip-slops and shorts. The environment plays a big role. The other thing is the uniqueness of the food in the tanks. City dwellers didn’t eat a lot of seafood 20 years ago, but it’s become more and more popular. Ocean Basket packages it in a way that’s accessible, delicious and affordable.”

Creating the perfect environment for customers is an ethos that Ocean Basket extends down to every last individual within the company. Harding says that although it’s an extensive franchise, storeholders are given a lot of guidance.

“The hospitality industry is really a people industry and making people feel good is key. Waiters and front-of-house need to have a natural desire to please people and the support crew that work in back of house are specialists in their fields,” states Harding.

“You’ve got to look at leaders and fellow leaders and that’s where most of the intensive work happens,” she explains. “Because the minute you start to build the leadership culture and ethos that has all the right ingredients, the rest starts to fall in place a little easier. I think everyone looks for the same thing in their staff—people who want to do well, people who respect that it’s a contract between an employee and an employer.”

According to Harding, bravery and lots of charm are two qualities that help shape a good leader. “You have to be brave; you’ve got to acknowledge that you are only human and that you’ll make mistakes. You have to be very careful about how you treat people and know that even when you need to be fierce you must never be fierce with any ill intent.” She firmly believes that as a leader, you’ve got to understand your business and immerse yourself in your team. “You can’t do it alone, and that’s definitely one thing I’ve realised: you need everybody.”

When asked about the challenges she faces, she jokes, “I take lots of medication.” Becoming serious, she says, “Many leaders will tell you that there are two types of challenges. There are the challenges that come from the environment —the economy, the political climate, expenses and so on; these will be around forever. The big question here is how do you continue to offer incredible value for money in an environment where you are under so much pressure from a cost perspective? So the environment is forcing us to be more innovative in our thinking.”

Harding says the second type of challenge is the human challenge—getting people to work well together.

“It is only through debate and collaboration that you can solve problems. Make sure your environment is a fair and happy one for most people, but accept that you will never make everybody happy all the time.”

Harding’s work has always been around people, change management and consulting. From a young age, her passion has been creating a working environment where people are happy and successful. She was drawn to Ocean Basket as it is a young, dynamic company with modern philosophies and a culture that she could identify with.

“It’s an amazing company, and an unusual one. Our head office is spread over four regions: Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban and Cyprus. We serve free lunch to our staff. We don’t have a big, cumbersome corporate structure, so we make decisions quickly. It’s a people-focused environment and there are incredible opportunities. The one philosophy that the founders live by and try to instil into everyone is that there are opportunities everywhere. They want to make sure they create an environment where grabbing those opportunities is possible.”

Shannon Manuel

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