Dr Hoan, thank you for granting me some of your precious time for this interview. Firstly, can you give me a brief introduction about yourself?
I graduated from Nanyang University in 1975. I studied History during my university days. My childhood ambition was to become a teacher. However, at the time of my graduation, Singapore's education system changed, trying to merge English schools and Chinese schools together. Therefore, they did not required Chinese teachers and thus, there was no chance for me to become one.
What about your working experience before you became an entrepreneur?
Thus, after I graduated, I had to find a job. I went to work for those small and medium companies. At night, I attended classes on bookkeeping and accounting. I worked for four companies, most of which are SMEs. The first company was a family-owned shipyard. The second one was a trading company. I worked there for two years but got retrenched, as the company was facing cash flow problems. The third company I worked with is a local cosmetics manufacturer. I worked in this company for seven years. However, one night's fire burned down the whole factory and I became jobless again.
During that time, I was really tired. I decided to stay at home and became a housewife for two to three years. As my daughter was only two yrs old at that time, I was thinking of spending more time with her. After that, I went back to the employment market again. Thus, I went to work for my fourth company for four years as a marketing manager. When I first worked there, their sales were less than fifty thousand. I put in great effort to build up the company's market share and after four years, its financial position improved significantly. However, later on I decide to venture out on my own and left the company.
Why did you decide to leave the company?
Well, at that time, I had some misunderstandings with one of the bosses. She wanted to terminate one of my assistants and I felt that it is quite unreasonable. I felt that I have worked for the company for that few years and I really made efforts to help the company grow. Sometimes, when you have someone who worked so hard for you, you should appreciate it. However, I do not feel any sense of security at that time. I felt disappointed at the way the company treated my assistant, in spite of me putting in much effort to do my job well.
You see, I am that kind of person who is really committed to the companies I worked. But it so happened that so many unpredictable events happened to me. At that time, I really asked myself, instead of putting my fate into people's hands, why don't I put my fate into my own hands?
The day when I felt so disappointed, I called up one of my distributors, Doreen Tan. She suggested setting up a business together with me. Even then, both my father and mother had their own business at that time. I was brought up in the business family. That's why all the while I never really think about wanting to set up my own business. Then, Doreen gave me the idea. I took three days to consider. I took a look at my savings account book. Throughout my working days for others, I had managed to save about $100,000. I pondered deeply on the thoughts that I will take a very long time to save up again if my business fails.
At that time, I was 37 years old. I also asked myself by the time I turn 45 or 50 years old, I may not have the energy to commit to my business at all time. Thus, 37 to me is still young, I have my expertise, industry and management knowledge. I thought that it was a good time to set up my own business. As the saying goes "No risk, no gain", it was a tough decision but I managed to convince myself to go ahead with my plan. You need a lot of courage to make the decision. At that time, a lot of people gave me encouragement and said I can do it. Thus, after three day, I agreed to Doreen's suggestion and set up our own business.
Once I decided to go ahead for me, I was very confident and went ahead.
How shall I describe your business?
In Singapore, I have three companies. Best World International is a company that deals with imported products and developed products too. Talking about products, we are into the healthcare and skincare products business. We also sell our products to related and other companies as well as regions such as Malaysia, Hong Kong, Thailand and Taiwan.
Best World Lifestyle is a marketing company. Right now, the company is doing something like enterprise network marketing. We do our business in Singapore and Malaysia and we also expanded into other countries such as China.
The third company is like a retail company, whereby we sell health supplements products to pharmacies such as Guardian Pharmacy. Therefore, there are three different kinds of companies. But of course, we are all dealing with health supplement products and skincare products.
Is Best World International the holding company of the other two companies?
Actually, it should be. But up till now, we still have not restructured yet. But the management and boss of these companies are the same.
You mentioned that your father is also a businessman. What kind of business is he in?
He opens a furniture retail shop.
Then why didn't you go into his business or think of helping him?
You see, when I was young, I saw my parents went out every morning and came home very late at night. They had no time for their children. When we were young, our parents did not have time for the children. Thus, we as children really do not want this kind of business life. Besides that, I told you that my ambition was to become a teacher at that time. I did not have that kind of vision to go into business.
Do you have children?
Yes. I have a daughter who is studying second year law in NUS presently. But she do not want to be a lawyer.
Then what she wants to be?
She wants to set up her own business.
Why didn't she think of helping you?
Right now, she doesn't have that idea. But she is very keen to set up her own business.
Is it because you have been passing on all the values to her?
I am not sure. Perhaps, during her growing up days, she had seen the way I do business. She has always wanted to start her own business but for now, I suggest she concentrates on her studies first.
Then I told her that if she wants to set up a business, she could study law. Why do I say that? Because studying law is also a form of training. It can train you how to read, defend, and speak well. In business, you also required knowledge about the law regulations. Thus, I felt that this kind of training would help her to be better equipped in future when she starts her own business. Actually, let's say when you do business, it doesn't mean you have to study business or management. For example, I studied History yet I am into business now. Even now when we are into business, we still have to engage lawyers and auditors to do our accounts. That's why I told her to go and study law. Then after she graduated, if she decides not to become a lawyer, she can then start her own business.
In fact, when my daughter was in year one, she already wanted to take up a franchise. However, I did not agree, as I want her to focus on her studies. When she went to year two, she was eager to start her own business too. She exclaimed that a lot of people also do business when they are studying and she promised me not to neglect her studies. So I told her to give me a proposal of her idea. If I think it is profitable and has good potential, I may invest. However, at that time, my daughter could not find any right franchise or right business to do.
Basically, the main part of your business is still located in Singapore?
Of course. I am a Singaporean. I know the local market and I have feelings to my home country. You see, when you build a successful business model, you set up a good system then you can extend to overseas.
So, do you have to get a license for your business here?
Because we are a trading company, we do not need a license. However, we do require certain licenses from the Ministry of Health for some of our health supplements products.
How does the government categorize your business?
Best World International is a trading company and Best World Lifestyle is a direct selling company.
In general, was it easy to get the required licenses?
In Singapore,yes. This is because Singapore is very transparent. As long as you do something legal, it is easy to get the licenses. As I have done business in other countries such as Malaysia and China, compared to these countries, it was so much easier to get the licenses in Singapore.
Do you have any partners? Are they related?
Yes, my partner is Doreen Tan. We are friends. I knew her through my previous company where I was working as the marketing manager. She was one of the distributors of that company.
Can you tell me some challenges and hardships of starting a business from scratch?
To set up a business from scratch, you will face five challenges. I call them the 5Cs.
The first challenge is capital. To start a business, you definitely need certain amount of capital to set up the office, bring in products and employ people. You must plan for at least a few months or some time's cash flows.
The second challenge is your competitors. If you are going into some potential industry, there are bound to be some players already in there. If you encounter a strong, direct and fierce competitor, it will not be easy. This is because they have been in the market for so long while you are still young. These players can afford to engage in price wars by lowering their prices but you cannot. Therefore, when you want to set up a business, you must analyze your competitors.
The third challenge is competency. You must make sure that the business you do has some core competencies. For example, if you bring in a product, how different is the product from others? Do they have any special features that others do not have? You must question yourself and have some differentiation from your competitors, be it in terms of products or services or anything else. Otherwise. You cannot compete with your competitors.
The fourth challenge is cooperation. Doing business involves building up cooperation between you and your partners, employees, suppliers and customers. You need to build up strong rapport with them. In Chinese, we say it as "ren he'.
The fifth challenge is courage. I see a lot of executives who actually have a lot of savings yet they just dare not take the risk to use their money. Their mentality is that once the money is in my pocket, it cannot go out. That's why I say courage is very important. Sometimes, you have the money but you may not dare to take the risk to go into business. If one has the capabilities but is risk-adverse and afraid to fail, he will not be daring enough to take up any risks.
I know that a lot of Singaporeans may prefer working with MNCs and GLCs instead of SMEs. How did you manage to get the people you want?
What you said is very true. I remembered in the past when I was working for those small companies, my friends asked me which company I worked in. I told them the company's name and none of them heard about it. Thus, people may think that you are so incapable while they worked in big companies. This is some kind of a social mindset shared commonly by Singaporeans. Most people prefer to work with government bodies or other big companies.
As for how I attract people to work for me, sometimes it is by chance. I have two keymen with me. One of them is Mr Huang. Before he went to NUS to study bio-chemistry, he was already working part time for me. Even when he went into university, he still continued to work part time for me. Throughout this period, we already built up a good relationship with each other and he was quite talented. Thus, straight after his graduation, I offered him a job.
To keep him with him after working with me for a few years, I asked him what is his ambition. He said he would like to go to China to explore the market there. Thus, I told him that I would invest one million dollars in China and let him handle the project. Even if the project fails, never mind. At least he got to learn something there. After he came back, he was already a director in the company. Then I offered him shares so that he became a shareholder. This helped to develop his sense of belonging to the company. Mr Huang has been with us for about 13 years.
My other keyman is a Taiwanese who studied computer science in Australia. When he came back to Singapore, he applied for an IT position in my company but at that time, I already got someone. However, seeing that he is not bad, I offered him a marketing job. Till now, he has been with us for more than seven years.
I think to keep your employees with you, you must give them opportunities to learn and grow together with us. Develop their sense of belonging with the company and they must share the same vision and mission with the company. I feel that the entrepreneur himself must make sure that the company has a vision and mission to motivate the employees to work together towards the same goal.
What are some of the things you have to overcome in order to succeed in your business?
I say that, as an entrepreneur, your attitude is very important. Why do we want to set up our own business? That's because we wan to be ourselves. When we work for people, we cannot be ourselves. Becoming an entrepreneur mean you can have a chance to fulfil what ever ideas you have in your mind. As an entrepreneur, you want to be better and better. Usually, we always face two decisions - profit or development. If you are thinking of profit only, you may not develop your company. If you want to develop your company such as develop your product or branding, you may need to use your profit to reinvest again.
However, most people are worried to reinvest their profit. In short term, it may seem risky. But if you think in the long term, as your company develops and grows, you are offering more job opportunities to people. When you develop your products, your customers benefit and you can capture a bigger market share. When you develop your staff, they may stay with you longer. For example, recently, I spent one million dollars to go through the whole re-branding exercise for my company.
Thus, I feel that attitude is very important. Different people have different views. For my case, I think it is important to think in terms of long term benefits rather than just short term profits. That is why throughout these years, Best World made money but we reinvested the profits. Thus, we did not really take out any dividends.
Another thing is capability. As an entrepreneur, you need not have high paper qualifications but you need to have general knowledge. You must know how to calculate your budgets and you must know what you are doing such as knowing your strategy and direction path.
Another very important capability you must possess is good judgement of people. You must know how to get the right people to do the right jobs. In this way, it will increase your efficiency. Moreover, since you are the driver, you must try to make a business model in a systematic way. I always tell people - Success = Attitude + Capability + System
What are some of your best days and worst days?
My worst days should be the past few years, when there was the financial crisis and the economy was really bad. The currency crisis affected us to a large extent as 90% of our products were imported from the USA and Japan. Although the costs of our products increased, we could not afford to increase our selling prices as we may lose our market. Thus, our margins dropped. The situation worsened, especially goods sold to Malaysia suffered a fall in currency too. But we still need to maintain our supply.
Therefore, the past few years I made losses. In order to overcome this crisis, I have to do a few things. The first thing I did was to manage my cash flow closely. Almost every week I held meetings to discuss ways to cut costs and push our sales volumes. We did not retrench any employees but we went all out to cut costs in every area as best as we could. From then onwards, we made it clear to our staff that the company is not doing very well and hope everyone will bear with it. Some staff left but we did not get any replacements. We tried to share the additional workload among ourselves. Despite not having any increments in that few years, my staff was fine with it.
Thus, I think it is very important to have a common understanding between you and your staff. Throughout this 'corporate slimming' process, we managed to cut down expenses by 20 t0 30 percent. This cutting of costs cannot be done overnight, it must be carried out at a steady pace. Once we were stabilized, we provided incentives to our staff by setting targets for them and linking bonus to their performance. This worked as a form of motivation for them. I think unity is very important. Between 1998-2000, it was really tough for the whole company but from 2001 onwards, the situation improved. We got back our profits to cover the past few years' losses.
Have you ever thought of giving up during those tough days?
Never. My personal value in life is you are bound to encounter difficulties in some things you do. One must learn to be positive and have a strong belief in your company's vision and mission. Once you have this belief, you will have the determination to hold on right till the end. Perhaps I have gone through a lot of obstacles in my life. Thus, I would feel that any difficulty is nothing great after all. If there are any problems, just find the best solutions to solve them.
What about your best days?
I think my best days are today and tomorrow as I feel that my company should always be improving day by day.
What other achievements you have to date?
In 1998, I got the first Woman Entrepreneur of the Year award. In 1999, I got the similar award. After that, I got into the ASME council and became the second vice-president. In 2000, I represented ASME as the contingent commander in the National Day Parade.
From 2001-2002, I was the president of ASME. During that period, I started a lot of things. One of them was the Singapore Promising Brand award, which was jointly organised with Lianhe Zaobao. After that, I also started the Singapore Brand Festival. I also created a breakthrough as during that years, ASME attracted about 280 new members. Moreover, I helped to turn the deficit suffered by ASME into a profit.
In addition, I also received special recognition for my contributions to the local SMEs and the community.
Where do you all get all the funds for ASME?
Through membership. All the members have to pay a subscription fee. From the membership, we have the secretariat to run activities.
Presently, although I am the immediate past president, I am still very involved with ASME. I am still one of the council members and the chairman of the Singapore Promising Brand award. I have to continue to follow up with this award as it was started by me and is still very new.
What did your family think when you first started out?
My parents were businessmen so they are very encouraging.
Do you believe that people who come from business families are more likely to become entrepreneurs?
To a certain extent, but it's not absolute. I think encouragement from your family is very important to motivate one to venture out on their own.
I think the problem could lie in the education system. Too much safety nets and emphasis on academic excellence may have resulted in Singaporeans being reluctant to choose to become an entrepreneur.
Yes, I agree. Another problem is Singaporeans are too kiasu. Kiasu people are afraid of failure. Thus, the more they are unwilling to go into business as doing business involves risk. Actually, one's decision to become an entrepreneur may be affected by the environment he is in. If the society does not view failure as intolerable, more people would have become entrepreneurs. This is because people who failed will be given a chance to come back. We should accept people who have failed and not laugh at them.
That's the reason why I mentioned the tough times I have been through in the book recently published by me. Some people may be unwilling to talk about their bad times but I beg to differ. I want to use my story as a mean to spur others on. I want to show them that if you think you are in a very poor state, I was worse than you before. But I managed to move on. My main purpose is to tell others that no matter what happens, there is always blessing in disguise.
Do you have any role models or mentors?
I think my past few employers could be considered my mentors. For example, my first boss is a lady and she always tell me, when there's a will, there's a way. Her words had always been in my mind. From my first company, I saw the pros and cons of a family-owned business. As for my second boss, I learnt management ways from him. He employed single women to work for him and he could venture into other areas. I find his way of management quite good.
The third boss inspired me through his never-say-die attitude. I also learnt from his mistakes of not managing his company's accounts properly. The fourth boss sets his goals and targets very well. I was really impressed with his goal-setting skills. I also learnt a lot of qualities from him such as his interpersonal skills and determination.
I feel that when one succeeds and makes money, it is only his outer growth. When you make mistakes and fail, that is the point when you will grow in the inner side of yourself.
What advice would you give to the younger generation of Singapore if they want to start a business?
I believe the younger generation has an advantage over us in the sense that you all are more IT-savvy. However, to become an entrepreneur, it is crucial to learn how to handle people. Human management is very important. You must learn how to build up trust and rapport among one another.
The younger generation must learn to be more humble and less complacent with himself. Most importantly, one must learn not to offend people easily. Life is all about learning. Right now, I am also learning myself.
Throughout these years, have you met anything so significant that changed your way of doing business and your thinking?
Yes. From the 1997 financial crisis till the recent happenings such as the 911 incident and the recent SARS disease, I see a lot of rich and successful people collapse. Our way of doing business has changed. Before 1997, people do business and invest in a lot of property and shares. All these property and shares crisis resulted in great losses for these people in the later years. Banks are also very forceful on these people. Thus, they did not manage to survive. My company also got into the same problem with the banks but we survived.
Thus, I think buying property is no longer an asset but a liability. Doing business needs not be large-scale in everything to be successful. Just like the 'titanic' incident, sometimes being huge may not be so good after all. Thus, we are very alert with cash flows nowadays. In the past, we may do business based on out gut feelings but not now.
If part of the Spirit of Enterprise award is a scholarship given in your name to any schools, which school would you give it to?
I think I would give to give the universities. I think most primary and secondary schools are heavily subsidised. I want to help those poor students and give them a chance to pursue their university degrees.
What other goals do you have?
My greatest vision is to turn Best World into an Asian brand so I guess I still have to work very hard for the coming years. One of my greatest achievements is the satisfaction I get when I see some of my visions coming true. That is the greatest motivation for me to move on.
Okay, that's the end of the interview. Thank you, Dr Dora.
Student Interviewer's Personal Comment