As the CEO of Blue Elephant International Group, KIM STEPPE is leading his family’s internationally renowned food empire into a new era, as Bruce Scott discovers.
Back in 1980, chef Nooror Somany Steppe and her husband, Belgian art dealer Karl Steppe, opened the first Blue Elephant restaurant in Brussels, bringing the true taste of Royal Thai cuisine to Europe. The same year witnessed the birth of the couple’s eldest son, Kim Steppe, who has, for the past two years, been the CEO for Europe and Asia of Blue Elephant International Group.
“I feel that it was meant to be,” Kim remarks as he discusses his role in the business he was literally born into. Our afternoon chat takes place at the elegant Blue Elephant Bangkok restaurant on Sathorn Road, immediately following a sumptuous lunch where we sampled delicacies from his mother’s most recent Chef’s Tasting Menu. For me, dining in this historic, century-old landmark mansion is always welcome treat, so I can’t help but envy the gentleman across the table from me who has enjoyed his mom’s award-winning cooking on a much more regular basis.
Not surprisingly, from a very young age Kim participated in the family business. At the original Brussels location, he began early on with the lowly task of cleaning the restrooms, but gradually worked his way up to coat check. “Dad said ‘Whatever you make as tips will be your pocket money’, and I made a lot of pocket money when I was a kid,” he quips, and his gregarious, affable nature makes it easy to imagine him as a smiling seven-year-old helping the well-heeled clientele with their heavy fur coats.“After that they put me in the kitchen,” he goes on to say, recalling a less pleasant episode from his youth. “I had to cut shrimps. That was one of my main jobs. And there were buckets and buckets of shrimps. So, for a very long time I didn’t eat shrimps,” he laughs.
The company soon expanded to include Blue Elephant restaurants in London, Paris, and Copenhagen, as well as an Indian restaurant in Brussels. It was a period of great success for the brand, but Kim, nonetheless decided to take a short break from the family business.
“When I was 18, I told my father that I didn’t want to go to university. He was not very happy about it, and he asked what I wanted to do. I said I want to learn about life. So, he listens to my speech, and says OK, and he puts his arm around me and leads me down the long hallway of our house and he opens the door and says, ‘You want to learn about life, go and find a job’. So that’s what I did.
”Kim worked several different jobs, including selling shoes, acting as the sales rep for espresso capsules, and at night giving his mother a hand looking after the Indian restaurant. But the one job he especially loved was being a bartender, and his initial bartending gig was at the first hip hop bar in Belgium. After six months he became bar manager, and then one busy Saturday night his father dropped by and asked to meet with him the next day. Over Sunday brunch he told Kim of the plans to expand the operation in London.
“He said, ‘We’re going to add a bar and I want you to manage it. You have proven yourself’. I was like, ‘Dad, I really enjoy my job, why should I go?’, give me a good reason. He said, ‘Why would you make money for someone else when you can make it for the family?’”
Upon reuniting with the family workforce – which includes his older sister Sandra and his younger brother Kris – Kim worked at the London and Paris branches before returning to Brussels as assistant restaurant manager. Then, in 2001 he came to Bangkok for both the opening of the Bangkok branch (the following year), and to expand operations at Blue Spice, their newly opened Thai trade office. One very successful product development he spearheaded here, which was revolutionary at the time, was the creation of cooking baskets with all the supplies – including Blue Elephant’s signature curry paste.
Fast forward to 2010 and Kim was busy with the company’s sales and marketing, and managing three of the European restaurants, but he says he had also grown tired of Europe and so he applied for the role of general manager for the soon-to-open Blue Elephant Cooking School & Restaurant in Phuket – a project he affectionately refers to as “my baby”.
Over the years Blue Elephant has become a global representative for Thai cuisine, and it’s a role Kim is proud to uphold, especially when it involves catering for high profile events. “The nicest feather I can put in my cap is Davos,” he says, referring to the lavish gala dinner for 400 guests held during the World Economic Forum of 2018 in Davos- Klosters, Switzerland. “I negotiated that deal within 24 hours. We also did the wedding for the daughter of Lakshmi Mittal, the Indian steel tycoon, in Versailles. He was the first one to book Versailles for a private function.”
Along with his role as CEO of Blue Elephant, Kim is on the Board of Directors of the Thailand Incentive and Convention Association (TICA) and BeLuThai, the Belgian-Luxembourg/Thai Chamber of Commerce. But with the current Covid situation worldwide, there’s no getting around the fact that large-scale MICE events, whether domestic and international, are on hold for the foreseeable future. Weathering tough times like these is part of the job of a good business leader, and Kim has had to make some tough decisions as of late. He emphasises that one of the first things he did as CEO was to take on a financial advisor.
“My first mission was to understand the figures of the business and see where I had to consolidate,” he explains. “That’s why I closed Brussels. That’s why I closed Paris. It was not sustainable. Third was the Indian restaurant in Brussels. It was very rough. A lot of [the staff] knew me when I was a kid. But I think it was a very good move. All this was done just before Covid happened, so I think I played a very important role in saving the future of the company.
”In Kim’s opinion, it’s vital for a business leader to get solid financial and legal advisors on board. However, he stresses that you also need to have a good overview of everything that goes on in your company with respect to IT and all things online related. “Whether it’s your social media, your booking system, your POS… you have to be constantly updated with technology.”
As Blue Elephant continues to grow and adapt to changing times, so too does Kim’s role in the company that, like him, has just celebrated its milestone 40th anniversary.