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June 6, 2011 5:22 pm
“I have no money, no technology to sell, and no customers, but I feel that it is a sunrise business and I can do something for the environment,” Olivia Lum recalls telling her disbelieving boss at GlaxoSmithKline, the pharmaceutical company, when, in 1989, she announced she was leaving to set up what was to become Hyflux.
Having started with just $15,000, it is now one of the world’s largest water-treatment companies, employing more than 2,300 people across south-east Asia, China, India, the Middle East and north Africa.
Ms Lum’s backstory could not be more poetic.
Adopted at birth and living with four other orphans, she was brought up in an illegally built house with a tin roof and no utilities among hundreds like it in Kampar, Malaysia. The house flooded when it rained, and there was not always enough food.
Now there is more than enough food, and Ms Lum has gained international recognition for her achievements as an entrepreneur.
On June 4, she was crowned the Ernst & Young World Entrepreneur of the Year 2011, having beaten 48 country finalists to seize the top prize – the first woman to do so in the award’s 11-year history.
Francis Yeoh, managing director of the YTL Group, the Malaysian conglomerate, and chairman of the judging panel, cited Ms Lum’s “entrepreneurial spirit”, saying she was a role model for female entrepreneurs around the world.
Looking back, Ms Lum remembered not just the struggles of starting out as an entrepreneur, but also the day-to-day grind of just living.
“Without money it was very painful,” she admits. “Our neighbours quarrelled because of money. I knew early on that I should not let money manage me, and at the start, it was a big motivator for me.”
She adds: “Now I always feel blessed that I can create a lot of opportunities for myself and others. If I am able to create opportunity, that is the biggest satisfaction. My people are able to be better off financially, emotionally. Sometimes they have not discovered how good they are until you give them an opportunity.”
Speaking about the dearth of female entrepreneurs, Ms Lum says women are “socially trapped”.
The pressure may be unspoken but it is real: starting a business is much harder for a woman than for a man, she believes. “But once you have launched your business, then making it really successful is equally hard for a man or a woman.”
Ms Lum escaped becoming a child labourer in the local peanut factories and rubber plantations by selling papaya at a stall at her school. This way she was able to provide for textbooks, her bus fare and a contribution to the family finances, and work her way to a university education. She chose Singapore and chemistry, “because it’s unpredictable”.
A job working for GlaxoSmithKline as a chemist in its division for the treatment of waste water revealed the potential market for water-treatment services.
Her company, originally called Hydrochem, was started with the sales proceeds of her small house and car – S$20,000 ($16,000). Initially it was a trading business selling local water-treatment services to other companies. Paid on commission, Ms Lum began to make money, selling throughout the region. But being the broker was not enough.
“You will not be able to grow your business by just being a trader,” she observes.
With characteristic resourcefulness, she collaborated with her university lecturers for research and development, and began to transform her trading house into an innovation centre and a manufacturer of customised systems that use fine membranes.
When the Singapore government decided to go into desalination, Hyflux won the first government contract and built one of the largest plants in the world to use membranes.
Ms Lum saw the opportunity in China early and opened in Shanghai in 1993 – just four years after launching her business. “I needed to find a big market where I could sustain my growth,” she says now.
At the time, China was poor, closed and a difficult environment in which to operate a business. “For three years, there were zero deals. We almost bankrupted the company,” she recalls. Today, 20 per cent of Hyflux’s business is in China.
It was her bank who first suggested she should take Hyflux public. In 2001, it listed on the Singapore Stock Exchange. Profits rose by 67 per cent to S$12.3m in the year following the initial public offering.
Hyflux “still works like a close-knit family”, Ms Lum says, believing that flat reporting structures, minimal bureaucracy and quick decision-making abilities – all things that characterise nimble and flexible small companies – are vital to entrepreneurial success, whatever the company’s size.
“Entrepreneurs may fail at the first attempt, and even the second, but they will try again,” she says. “They never give up – this is a special trait. They never find it easy to say no, and always think of a better tomorrow. You have to be an optimist.”
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