Businesswoman has triumphed over rough childhood and years of poverty. -ST
Wong Kim Hoh
Tue, Dec 18, 2012
The Straits Times
SINGAPORE - In 2008, Madam Catherine Foo flew in a Santa Claus from Finland to spread some Christmas cheer in Singapore.
The portly fellow visited sick children and distributed presents in the cancer wards of the National University as well as KK Women's and Children's hospitals.
"I just wanted to spread some joy and make some dreams come true. When I was young, I had no gifts and presents at all, nothing," says the executive director of Singapore furniture brand Scanteak.
Madam Foo, 57, had a rough start in life. Given away as a baby, she grew up poor and went through many trials and tribulations before she and her husband - Scanteak's founder Lim Pok Chin - built their company into a furniture chain with over 100 retail outlets worldwide. Its turnover last year was more than $100 million.
Comfortably ensconced on a sofa in the company's head office in Sungei Kadut, she says in Cantonese: "I came from nothing. I don't even know who my real parents are."
She was only a few days old when she was given away to a maid who worked for wealthy families.
"My adoptive mother was engaged to be married but her fiance died. I think she adopted me so that she would not be lonely," she says.
As her mother, Madam Chong Ah Nui, now 87, had to work, the young Catherine was entrusted to the care of four majie, one of whom became her godmother.
Hailing mostly from Guangdong in China, majie were once ubiquitous in Singapore and usually worked as maids and nannies for wealthy families. They were distinguished by their attire of black trousers and white blouses, and neatly braided hair. Many of them, including Madam Foo's minders, took vows of celibacy.
Home was a small rented attic in a shophouse in Ann Siang Road.
"They loved and spoiled me a lot. That's why I have such an affinity for old folk - they remind me of my amahs," she says.
Her life changed dramatically when she was seven.
"One morning, my godmother woke me up early in the morning and gave me a chicken drumstick, which was a real treat then, for breakfast. She then told me my mother would be taking me to the train station and that we would be going to Kuala Lumpur."
Resentful that her adopted daughter had grown close to the amahs, Madam Chong had decided to send the little girl to live with relatives in the Malaysian capital.
"She said she had to go back to Singapore to work and earn money and that I had to live with my grandparents and an aunt I didn't know. She also told me that if I wanted to see my godmother again, I had to study very hard and get very good results."
Madam Foo was forced to grow up very quickly in Kuala Lumpur. Her grandfather, a watch repairer, had a drug habit.
"Often in the evenings, I had to walk half an hour to an opium den in KL's Chinatown to get him to come home," she recalls.
Her grandmother was a chronic gambler and often sent Madam Foo to place bets and buy lottery tickets from neighbourhood bookies.
"When she ran out of money to gamble, she would send me to borrow from friends and neighbours," says Madam Foo, adding that the old woman would get verbally abusive when luck was not on her side.
"She and my aunt even took me to graveyards to pray for lottery numbers. That's why I was afraid of the dark for a very long time."
She slept on a foldable canvas bed and had to wake up early every morning to scrub clothes and do the laundry before walking half an hour from her home in Pudu to attend Imbi Road Primary School.
"I also had to do the ironing, with an old iron heated with charcoal," she says.
Fortunately, she did well in school.
"I really wanted to see my godmother again so I told myself I had to really study hard," she says.
The reunion took place a few years later when she was 13. By then, Singapore had separated from Malaysia, and Madam Chong did not want any complications with her daughter's identity card.
For the first couple of years, Madam Foo - who got into Nanyang Girls' High School - lived in the homes of the wealthy families that her mother worked for.
"But when I was in Secondary 2, my mother finally relented and allowed me to live with my godmother and her sisters. Those were the happiest times of my life," she says.
Never mind that she had to sleep under her godmother's bed in a tiny room rented from a funeral parlour owner in Sago Street.
"In those days, Sago Street was filled with death houses, where old and sick people just waited to die," she recalls with a shudder.
She did well in school, and was especially outstanding as an athlete.
"I was a competitive swimmer, and trained with the national diving team. I was also a high jumper, long jumper and sprinter. I have a lot of medals at home," she says.
She lived with her godmother and her sisters until she got married in 1978. The women returned to China in the late 1980s.
In 1975, she took a government study loan to read business at the now-defunct Nanyang University.
"In the mornings, I'd go for classes. In the afternoons, I'd earn some pocket money picking up basketballs in the sports hall for $1.50 an hour," says Madam Foo, who also worked as a factory operator during her school holidays.
By then, she had already met Mr Lim, who was trying to make a name for himself as a furniture retailer with his company Hawaii Interior Decoration.
"I'd help him do sales in the evenings, promoting furniture at exhibitions in Great World, New World and Gay World amusement parks," she recalls.
Unfortunately, her studies suffered, and her study loan was withdrawn. To repay the loan, she left university and became a probation after-care officer.
"I still remember my first day at work. A man came to see me, cigarette in his mouth and his young son in tow. He said, 'My wife wants to divorce me. If she doesn't come home tonight, I'm going to commit suicide.' "
The learning curve, she says, was steep.
Her charges included young female drug addicts who had no qualms about prostituting themselves to get their fixes.
"One of the cases I handled involved a boy who was molesting both his mother and sister. I saw many shocking things. After a while, you become fearless. Not many things faze me now," she says.
She left the job after more than a year.
"The workload was very heavy. I handled more than 90 cases, and often had to work late into the night. Mr Lim also didn't like the fact that I had to check on male drug addicts alone in notorious areas such as Bukit Ho Swee," she says, referring to the then gangster-ridden neighbourhood near Bukit Merah.
She worked as a travel agent for a year before tying the knot with Mr Lim in 1978. She was then 23.
The following year, her husband renamed his company Hawaii Furnishing. Husband and wife worked together to build the brand.
By 1984, the company was flourishing and had two big showrooms: one in Hougang and another in Parkway Parade.
"At that time, some of the major furniture players in Singapore were Ikea, Actus and Habitat," says Madam Foo.
The couple invested $3 million and managed to secure the distribution rights for the Fly furniture brand from France. They opened a 24,000 sq ft store in Parkway Parade.
It was a big mistake.
"We didn't know anything about international investments. We decided not to install air-conditioning in our store because we thought it wouldn't matter. For three months, our business was not good."
They later spent a six-figure sum to install air-conditioning towers but it did not help.
"We realised that Japanese furniture then was very popular because the products were affordable and of good quality. We were bringing in French products, which were perceived as old-fashioned. Nobody wanted to pay $30 for a cheese bowl," she says.
The oil crisis made things worse and soon the couple were mired in a few million dollars worth of debt.
They moved their store to a cheaper location in Bukit Timah in 1986.
Despite advice that it would be more prudent to shut down Hawaii Furnishing, the couple refused to do so.
"We had fighting spirit. We told ourselves that we were young and we should not be owing people money," says Madam Foo.
They negotiated with Fly in France for more time to settle their debts.
"They could see we had lost a lot of money but they were impressed by the way we went about settling things. They decided to appoint us as their distributor for Asia," she says.
Madam Foo and her husband also sold off a couple of properties - including an apartment in the West Coast - that they had invested in when times were good.
"We sold them at a loss but you cannot be sentimental about these things. You just do what you have to do," she says.
In 1988, Mr Lim started a new brand, Scanteak.
Trips he made to trade fairs in Europe exposed him to simple, minimalist furniture pieces fashioned from teak and made in Scandinavia.
The couple beavered away, applying the lessons they had learnt from their failure.
"For seven years, we were in the desert but we decided we could not lose hope."
By 1994, things started turning around.
"We had settled our debts, business was starting to take off. We lost a lot of money but we also gained a lot of respect. Personally, if I hadn't gone through what we did, my world view would probably be more shallow," she says.
Today, Scanteak has 10 stores in Singapore, and more than 100 stores and retail outlets in Taiwan, Brunei, Japan and Canada. It employs nearly 300 staff and had a turnover of more than $100 million last year.
Madam Foo's two elder children have been roped into the business. Daughter Jamie, 32, who studied film in the United States, is now the company's regional marketing director.
Second child Julian, 29, who has a master's degree in business administration from the University of Michigan, is looking after the Japan operations, which will open its ninth store by March.
The youngest, Julia, is 18, and has just finished her International Baccalaureate at ACS International.
Chatty and congenial, Madam Foo says she gives equal time to her marriage, work, children and charity.
"I believe there's more to life than just children and marriage," says the energetic businesswoman whose company spearheaded one of the first Aids awareness campaigns here in 2000.
A regular volunteer at the wards of hospitals, she also sits on the committee of the Concern and Care Society, which helps the poor and needy.
"I think you don't lose anything when you are nice to people. In fact, you only gain," says Madam Foo, who paid for her Filipino maid to learn to drive and also helped to finance her three children's studies. One of them is now an administrative executive in Scanteak.
Vice-president of publishing company WS Education Poon Sing Wah, 63, has known Madam Foo for more than 10 years.
"I've known her for a long time but I found out about her background only recently. I think that explains her very high EQ and her kindness towards the old, poor and needy. She has no airs, she is very genuine and sincere."
Madam Foo says her approach to life is simple.
"If you want to be good to yourself, don't look back. Look forward and try to achieve what you want within your ability. Looking back will only impede your progress."