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Good karma: Meet Uncle Russ’ YB Rai

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Nepalese transplant and Discovery Bay quarter-centurion YB Rai remade Uncle Russ into a local favourite – and he’s not about to stop now. Elizabeth Kerr reports.

If you get YB Rai’s undivided attention, consider yourself lucky. The affable owner of Uncle Russ Coffee is a minor celebrity. On a warm, dry Monday afternoon – just around quitting time at his Central-side The Pier Bar – he gets at least two dozen ‘Hey!’ and/ or ‘How ya doin’?’s from ferry commuters. A garrulous Scot and an equally chatty Australian stop for a pint, the first in a long string of regulars who know each other practically by name. The difference between YB and most celebs is that he waves and says ‘Hi’ right back.

Two weeks later, it’s a repeat of the same – except this time on the roof of the ferry pier. There is nowhere YB goes that he isn’t greeted like an old friend. Looking like a gentleman movie star from Hong Kong’s golden age of Shaw Studios, he is relaxed and unassuming, a neighbourhood business owner rather than a trailblazing entrepreneur.

Born to a Nepalese Ghurkha family, YB is a believer in boring stuff like treating others with respect, in kindness and honesty, and resisting selfishness. “If you do, good karma will follow,” he says.

uncle russ' yb rai

Entrepreneurial spirit

This story really begins in 1991, when YB headed off to South Korea for some new experiences and picked up his taste for entrepreneurial adventure along the way. At the time South Korea was awakening as one of the so-called Asia Tigers, and Korea was turning out a new entrepreneur every day.

“It really inspired me. No one in my family had ever done anything like that,” he recalls. In Korea, YB also got a taste for the hospitality industry.

When YB relocated to Hong Kong in 1994 – with his Hong Kong-born Nepalese wife Gita Sherpa – he immediately settled in Discovery Bay; for him there was no other option.

“If you ask me, truly, where is the best community I would say DB, even compared to Sai Kung, Mid-Levels or Deep Water Bay. Given the same budget I’d choose DB every time,” he says of his decision to settle in the (then) still burgeoning village.

Though it’s busier now than it was 25 years ago, YB believes DB’s peace, safety and multi-national/ ethnic/ cultural vibe still can’t be beat. “There are good schools and enough sports facilities,” he says. “You know your neighbours, and on any day you’ll find 20 nationalities in the plaza. You won’t find 20 nationalities on The Peak.”

One of his two jobs early on (the other was at a Korean restaurant because his Korean was fluent, his Chinese was non-existent) was behind the counter at Uncle Russ Coffee, which he eventually found the means to buy out in 1999 when its owners decided to pack up and go back to San Francisco. It was YB who turned Uncle Russ into a coffee vanguard with shops in both plazas.

At the time it was a challenge, something YB is fond of. “In 1999, Uncle Russ was Hong Kong’s first coffeehouse. There was room and demand for the coffee business. It’s the reason I took up the challenge. As long as you focus on customer service and quality, you’ll survive, and do well,” he theorises.

“People say things are hard because they’re scared to take a risk. I’m willing to try. Of course, I wouldn’t jump in the sea if I didn’t know how to swim,” he jokes, but he’s serious. Following some strategic closings, expansions, marketing redesign and the nerve-wracking decision to roast his own beans (which he still does, in Wong Chuk Hang), YB turned a corner in 2002 – the year his daughter Danica was born. He bought three Just Java coffee shops, expanded Uncle Russ to six locations and shortly after opened a Coffee Academy. Touchingly, the name of his holding company is Danica Ltd.

uncle russ' yb rai

Staying power

The winner of numerous ‘best employer’ awards, including the Asian Social Caring Leadership Award and nods from the Family- Friendly Employers Award Scheme, YB insists his staff work with him, not for him, and hopes he’s leading by example. If he can make a go of it, so can they.

“Nothing is luck, nothing is genetic. Less than 5% of us have exceptional ‘natural talent.’ It’s hard work,” he says, pooh-poohing the notion of anyone being a ‘natural’ at anything. You can have an aptitude for business, golf, teaching, singing, cooking… but you still have to work at honing a skill that will end in success.

That philosophy will be put to the test when DB Plaza reopens after its mammoth makeover. Though it’s probably been a long time coming, coffee behemoth Starbucks is indeed moving in. The revitalised DB Plaza will soon be home to three coffee shops – two global chains – and YB has absolutely no fear the local haunt will suffer. However, like Italians bracing for the imminent arrival of Starbucks in Milan, the country’s first, his attitude is one of ‘bring it!’

“I’ve been in DB for 25 years, as part of the community, as the community coffee house. It’s not just selling coffee or tea. It’s about community service. When there’s a problem with anything, Uncle Russ is there to help. We’re running more than just a business,” he says.

“I know Michael Porter’s Five Forces theory from my MBA studies,” YB adds. “It’s a simple but powerful tool for understanding the competitiveness of your business environment, and for identifying your strategy’s potential profitability. But my main focus is on excellent customer service, excellent product and reasonable price.”

Uncle Russ is a regular event sponsor and charity donor, and YB is active elsewhere. Golf is a personal passion, and he’s honorary president of Discovery Bay Residents Golf Society and a member of the Big Sai Wan Golf Society. “Because we do that, the community supports us,” he says. “We’ve maintained quality with local roasting and great customer service. Our team remembers customers’ orders – soy latte, or Equal sugar, half skim-half full milk. All these things are personal so there’s no reason to be worried. I’m sure the community will continue to support us.

“Do what you love, love what you’ve been doing,” he adds. “That’s why you’ll always find me helping out in one of the coffee shops or on the golf course.”

When it returns, Uncle Russ’ DB Plaza outlet will be the same lean, efficient coffee bar it always was, with a few moderate upgrades, but YB’s not talking yet.

When he’s not minding one of his stores or chatting with regulars, YB is working out or golfing with 12-year-old son Denzel, a Hong Kong junior squad member. Right now, he’s also encouraging Gita to go for her PhD in early childhood and special needs education. “She’s the academic in the family,” he quips.

Photos by Baljit Gidwani – www.evoqueportraits.com, and Katrina Mercado

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