With over 210 franchised restaurants across 12 countries, Ocean Basket has come a long way from its beginnings in Pretoria, 1995; however it still stays true to its ethos of serving delicious seafood in a relaxed setting at honest prices.  CEO of Ocean Basket, Grace Harding, hails from Johannesburg and here she gives us insight into her style of leadership, some of the issues facing the South African hospitality industry, and her most memorable meal.

What is your story? 

I am proudly South African girl.  I grew up selling stuff and hanging out with different people.  I learnt at a very young age that respect for differences was key.  I also learnt the power of positivity and believed in my dreams.  I have spent my working career (over 30 years) driving a new way of work.  I believe that the old paradigms of leadership are defunct and that the future work-force will not have to be managed in this colonial style manner which has suppressed ideas, thoughts and creativity.  My passion for Ocean Basket runs deep.  The founder’s vision and mine are aligned and I have the privilege to work with a brand that has global legs.  I am giving the freedom to dream, change things and disrupt – ultimately with the aim of ‘changing the world’.

Explain who you are to the industry in a couple of sentences?

I believe I am a collaborator.  I believe that I can connect people and would like to connect with all industry leaders to drive change in SA and for all the people.  The modern world is about collaboration. Co-opetition (competitors co-operating).  My background is in leadership and people – I am not a typical hospitality expert but the core of hospitality is generosity, obsession with guests and building a slick value chain that creates sustainability for the future.  My value to this industry is my difference.  Difference of skill, beliefs and unconventional approaches to problems.

How is the South African hospitality industry different from those in different countries that you’ve worked in? 

I have not worked in other countries BUT have engaged with our licensees in other countries.  I believe that there are more similarities than differences.  Each of us are concerned with rising labour costs and other expenses, the high cost of space and sustainability.  One of the biggest differences I notice in SA is a work force that is poorly educated, less use of technology (we are definitely behind here) and overall more labour well-being challenges (violence, crew not living in proper homes, etc.).

What are some of the overall issues that you’ve seen affect the hospitality industry in SA? 

Rising costs of gas, electricity.  Slow innovation from Landlords and property owners in the way that space is ‘sold’and the price points demanded.  There needs to be more of a win-win approach and we need to build success together.  The overall state of the economy in SA is very concerning and some of the rumblings around increasing the minimum wages in this industry.  This will force businesses to operate with fewer people and that will ultimately drive higher unemployment.

What are some of the challenges that Ocean Basket is facing at the moment and how are you addressing these challenges?

Internally, the challenges of catching up from a data/technology perspective.  Sourcing and securing of seafood at the right price for the future and all over the world.  Finding new ways to set up restaurants with less space, higher turn per seat and retaining guests.   Building skills and succession plans in restaurants to ensure we have operators in the future.  The restaurant industry is tiring – always got to have fresh legs on the bench.  We are addressing all these things by having focused and simple plans and have also employed many new thinkers whose background is not in the restaurant industry. Diversity of skills is key.

What are some of Ocean Basket’s focuses at the moment and going into the new year?

Strengthening our value chain.  Building and enhancing skills.

Where do you think its place and brand is, and what makes the company unique in SA?

We are unique because we are focused and we have a purpose.  For us it is not about specials, offers and cheap food.  It’s about giving our guests something they need – happiness.  A place to feel spoilt and special.  Our look is fresh, our approach is humble and our ways are personal.  Our business drivers are the things that put people in a good mood and that in return brings in the profits.

How do you engage your brand to the local SA market?  Any engaging media initiatives and marketing campaigns that you run?

We use focused media strategies as we do not have the luxury of spray and pray.  Right now we are very focused on digital and outdoor marketing.

How do you incentivise and motivate staff as an organisation?

We employ 210 people in SA.  Our franchisees employ their people to work in the stores.  Countrywide Ocean Basket provides jobs for over 6 000 people.    Creating an environment for high performance is a big one.  It goes way beyond incentives.  We approach our people strategy in a unique way and look at all the factors that drive performance from culture fit to clarity of roles, frequent conversations, clear expectations with relevant rewards.  Incentives alone are like pain killers – they take pain away for a while but cannot change behavior to deliver long term results.

Grace Harding’s Pop Quiz

Grace Harding’s Pop Quiz

If you were going to teach a college course, what course would you teach? 

Leadership and how not to be a sales person.

What leader or leaders do you look up to and why? 

Fats Lazarides – because he leads with stories, has a crystal clear vision, gives me freedom and is extremely open and honest with his thoughts.   Elon Musk – he is brave, tenacious and un-conventional.  He does not allow conventional thinking to contaminate his thoughts.    I looked up to Steve Jobs – even though they said he was a tyrant, he changed so much.  He was relentless when it came to quality and would never settle for second best.  He spoke openly and I love how he never had meetings with more than 6 people.  And of course Richard Branson – the first big time entrepreneur – he truly spear-headed entrepreneurship in the world.

What is one truth you believe in that most people disagree with you on? 

That titles and hierarchy are no longer valid in the world.

What’s one assumption people make about you that is dead wrong?

That I was ‘born an executive’and had an easy life.

Who is your mentor/s and what recent challenge/s have you sought their advice for? 

Fats Lazarides is my key mentor, and recent challenges I sought advice for were how to manage the massive demands of leading this global brand, how to best connect with people, and the direction for the brand.

Tell me about a time when you had to make a tough business decision that supported your company’s purpose, but may have had a negative, short-term financial impact. 

The decision to close down stores that were not adding value to the frachisee or the brand.  The decision to earn very little profit on certain stock items in order to assist franchisees weather the storm.

If you could go back and give your 21-year old self a valuable piece of advice, what would you say? 

You are going to have so much more fun when you are 52.

As you think about your career, who is a team member you had a huge impact on and what are they doing today as a result of your leadership?

Two clients who went on to build their own businesses.  The spread of my impact has mainly been with clients and people who have attended my workshops and talks (over 3000 people in 15 years). I also don’t believe that people do stuff because of one person’s impact –that would be very vain thought – I do believe, though, that some of my messages connected at a time that was relevant.

If you could work on solving any problem in the world, what one problem would it be? 


What is your leadership philosophy? 

A leader’s role is to create a  space for others to thrive, dream and succeed.  Direction must be crisp, vision must be clear and expectations must be driven relentlessly.  A leader is responsible to deliver results.  To run a business.  Not to fix people.  And through and with people, is the only way this can be done.  I truly believe that leaders must stop giving people chances and must stop molly coddling people.  Employees must become consultants who sign up for one year and thereafter there should be a review if the contract should be continued.  It is time for the patriarchal and colonial habits and ways of leadership to end.  Meetings need to be stopped, boardrooms turned into small lounge areas with coffee machines.  More women are needed and less egos.  Titles are crap.  Hierarchies create mental blocks and boundaries and prevent incredible ideas and thoughts from coming through.

What specific mental, physical, emotional and/or spiritual activities do you engage in to keep yourself operating at your optimum level? 

I have 3 coaches – one for my soul.  one for my mind.  one for my body.  When I am not working, I am with my family spending loads of quiet time with them.  I read, am obsessed with TED talks, do not like TV at all and love escaping to the movies. Cooking for people and surrounding myself with children makes me feel happy.

What are you learning right now?

The meaning of what is needed to build a sustainable value chain.

Favourite Inspirational Business Quote?

“Chase the dream and the money will come” Fats Lazarides