With a radiant smile and a joyous sparkle dancing in her eyes, Lisa Gwee is effortlessly gorgeous in her embellished mauve lace sari – and a resplendent sight at her youngest daughter’s 100th day celebration held at The St. Regis Singapore. Anybody watching Gwee charming her guests on that October day in 2019 would have thought her life a bed of roses.
In 2016, she set up G&L Surgical Clinic with husband Dr Ganesh Ramalingam, a prominent surgeon who developed the Weight Management Clinic, which includes Bariatric Surgery, in Alexandra and Khoo Teck Puat Hospitals, and is a founding committee member of the Obesity and Metabolic Surgical Society of Singapore.
Both with a passion for serving society, their goal was to make theirs a private practice with a difference: “We wanted to have the ability to help those with financial issues by giving them preferential rates. This is something we could not do in a group practice. We also wanted to have our own nurses, who’d be as committed to our cause as we are, and who’d willingly offer help around the clock. This was not possible when we hired nurses in a cost-sharing scheme with other clinics,” explains Gwee.
Previously a sales director of an IT solutions company and without any medical background, Gwee had to spend a year deep-diving into subjects spanning laparoscopy to colonoscopy, just so she thoroughly understood her clinic’s services.
Not being from the medical service industry did have one advantage as it allowed her to introduce a new way of doing things, such as working with a service team of personnel who’d worked in the hospitality industry.
“There is a lot of stigma around seeing a doctor that dissuades people from getting preventive treatment. I wanted to build a warm, welcoming place that isn’t intimidating. To do that, I needed to work with a team with a natural aptitude for connecting and communicating in a personable manner.” Her unorthodox approach – combined with her husband’s expertise – put G&L Clinic on the trajectory of success.
But that all screeched to a halt when the clinic suffered a blow a few years ago. It was in this critical time that Gwee showed her true mettle. The daughter of an entrepreneur had seen her father weather ups and downs, and steeled herself to be a pillar of strength for her husband and the company, pulling every one through the rut with her grit and wisdom: “This is life. Nothing is smooth-sailing for everybody. You just have to believe that there is a bigger plan. You must always have hope. You have to keep going.”
And she kept going by taking this setback as an opportunity to rebuild the clinic into something better than before – and doing the heaviest lifting while carrying her second child. Those in the industry saw clinic’s efforts, and patients felt everyone’s sincerity.
Slowly but surely, G&L Clinic returned to its place at the top. Yet Gwee’s work is not done, and she tirelessly works the ground, sharing about the clinic’s services with corporate partners and general practitioners alike. “I am still fighting to get our company back on track each day. I never stop,” she says resolutely. And this is how, when a phoenix finally rises from the ashes, it soars.
It started with a vision some might dismiss as too grandiose: build a Singapore brand and go global. Thirteen years on, Skin Inc founder Sabrina Tan has checked off every milestone she set her sights on – and more.
With over 200 points of distribution globally, Skin Inc is a runaway success. So much so that even billionaire investors such as Mistletoe CEO Taizo Son has come knocking on her door. While Tan declines to disclose Son’s investment quantum, the 45-year-old lets on that “it’s strategic enough for Skin Inc to leapfrog to the next digital age in e-commerce.” It is also not every day that entrepreneurs land investors without having to whip out their pitch book, especially for someone like Tan whose beginnings were anything but easy.
We’re not talking about how she started Skin Inc in 2007, a year before the economy collapsed under the weight of the global financial crisis. Neither are we discussing how she powered through jet lag and physical hardship (“I threw up so much because I was just so fatigued”) as she shuttled between Singapore, Los Angeles and New York to take the brand global. And never mind that once back in Singapore, she still had two young children to raise.
Instead, let’s begin with Sabrina, the toddler who was accidentally dropped on the head when her cousin failed to cradle her securely. “They rushed me to the ICU. I nearly died,” says Tan, who couldn’t walk and talk until she was four years old. And, to this day, she is almost completely deaf in her left ear.
“My mother changed the course of my life. She fought for me to be in a normal primary school when experts said that I should be in a special one.” Her parents divorced when she was 12, marking the beginning of a “chaotic childhood” where her mother single-handedly raised four children while running a chain of beauty salons called Sabrina Beauty Centre.
It is perhaps that sense of moxie that rubbed off on her for Tan is not one to deal with the cards she has been dealt. In an industry dominated by conglomerates with million-dollar marketing budgets, Skin Inc is the David to the Goliaths. What it lacked in celebrity style power, it made up for with the simple promise of a product that delivered results, winning consumers over with its made-in-Japan serums.
Skin Inc’s latest product, Serum Glow Filter, is also customised to each customer’s skin tone. Part skincare, part makeup, it diminishes redness and minimises the appearance of pores. A tie-up with fashion label Self-Portrait saw models strutting down the runway at New York Fashion Week 2020, their makeup-free faces all dewy with Skin Inc’s latest innovation.
The fashion and beauty cognoscenti may have given their nod of approval, but the one whose approval would have mattered the most, Tan could not get. Her mother, who passed away seven years ago, was the one person she would have loved to see in the front row. “She collapsed at home and I rushed back to do CPR on her. It’s ironic. She breathed life into me and there I was, breathing life into her.” Her mother passed on in the hospital’s resuscitation room and Tan went into shock.
“I couldn’t cry for three months. Then reality sank in and I wailed the hardest in my life…I really miss her. I wish she could see how far I’ve come.”
Yvon Bock always had a flair for design. Daughter to an industrious father who started Fitson, a manufacturing facility specialising in high-quality mother and baby care products in the 1980s, Bock spent many hours playing at the factory. She even took a fashion design course at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. It was part of her father’s plan to lure the former corporate-banking executive back into the workforce.
In 2004, Bock joined Fitson as a management trainee. There, she learnt the core principles on which her father built the company: an unwavering insistence on excellence and a strong sense of responsibility not just to their clients, but also the end users. “My father always says that success is not about how big the business is, but how it helps people.”
This resonated with the straight- talking Bock who has always had a righteous streak. As a school prefect, she used to stand up for the “naughty ones”, defending them to teachers when she felt their actions were justified.
She went on to challenge her clients in the same way. Those who listened – such as a large European company which flew its head of purchasing to Singapore to confront Bock when she refused to produce what she felt was a flawed design – eventually came to appreciate her dedication to excellence.
“I created such an uproar that their representative flew in, wanting to fire us. I told her she would be foolish to do so as I was helping to save her company’s reputation. She was cynical at first, but finally apologised and told her company that we’d brought compassion back to the product design – something they had forgotten while focusing on project timelines. That was a proud moment because I knew we were doing things right,” shares Bock.
But not everyone appreciated her efforts. In 2008, work pressures from a new project and an intense confrontation with a client who criticised Bock’s work harshly – claiming she knew nothing about quality and design, the precise areas of work that she’s always been so proud of – hit Bock hard that she suffered a miscarriage.
“I was humiliated. And I was angry. I love kids. I wanted to have six children but with the failed pregnancy, I was told that I would only be able to have just one more child,” recalls a teary Bock. “The pain of the loss spurred me on. I had to forgive and move on. I had to take strength from the situation and make something out of it – or it would have been all for nothing.”
Out of that vigour, Hegen, a line of baby care products, was born. Then, just as Bock was about to take her initial design to the prototyping stage, she discovered that the mass production of an identical product was about to commence – her design had been leaked. Without patents, she had to go back to the drawing board.
Yet again, she turned adversity into opportunity. This time, making things radically different. Today, Hegen has sold five million patented PCTO (Press-to-Close, Twist-to- Open) feeding bottles across 15 markets worldwide. Of these, two million were sold in 2019 alone. “I welcome healthy competition, but those who copy and forgo consumer safety for the sake of profits anger me,” says Bock. So, she’s made it her mission to educate consumers at road shows. “My aim isn’t to convert them, but to help them make an informed decision.”
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A mother always wants the best for her child. And when Sharon Wong was expecting her first, she ended up amassing nine strollers and three car seats among other baby essentials. “Those days, there was no Internet. I spent truckloads of money buying different products only to find out later that they were duds,” shares the 56-year-old founder and CEO of Motherswork. “You could say I’ve paid my tuition fees,” says Wong with a laugh.
Twenty-two years on, what started as an exercise to solve a personal need is now a business that helps other mothers sieve out the wheat from the chaff. With a 140-strong team and 14 stores across Singapore and China, Motherswork carries over 10,000 products, ranging from ergonomic strollers to delicate cleansers formulated to minimise allergic reactions on a newborn’s skin, from 300 brands. “Success to me is when first-time mums walk into Motherswork and leave feeling a little less overwhelmed,” says Wong.
As a mother of three, she knows exactly what her target audience needs. However, convincing brands to accept Motherswork as a stockist demanded years of cajoling. “In the early years, brands didn’t care about us because Singapore was too small.”
Undeterred, the former tax and treasury director of an MNC worked on defining a premium store experience. When Bugaboo – the Rolls-Royce of baby strollers – was considering entering the Singapore market, Motherswork naturally became their retailer of choice. After all, with prices ranging from $799 to $2,039, these strollers did not come cheap and any retail partner worth its salt had to be able to justify such price tag to parents.
With Bugaboo on board, other premium brands followed suit. In 2012, Wong decided to break into the China market and the realities of operating there set in very quickly. Making sense of regulations became a daily struggle. “They change the rules all the time and it affects things on an administrative and operational level,” Wong explains. “We spent so much time caught up in these details, but after a while, we just ran fast, evolved, and adapted.”
Then came the age of digital disruption, which saw online retailers muscling in on the market with discounted goods. “I wasn’t willing to sacrifice that experience of interacting with mums in the store,” says Wong, whose personalised approach to customers means mums are recommended different products based on the stage of the journey they are in. Still, she knew that although she’d initiallly resisted the idea of going online, e-commerce was swiftly gaining momentum, so Wong embraced an omni-channel approach – but not before fighting for the survival of the brick-and- mortar stores.
To that end, she spent years negotiating with every brand to control the prices of goods and stem the flow of parallel imports. Today, Motherswork’s stores continue to hold firm alongside an e-store extension and other online platforms.
For someone who describes herself as “a warrior and a dreamer”, she has indeed come a long way from her hometown in Ipoh. And even as Covid-19 takes the wind out of the world, Wong remains unfazed. “Volatility creates opportunity. Some of the malls in China that we couldn’t get into before because they didn’t have space are opening up.”
The greatest origins stories always begin in the underbelly of society, and usually with a young person faced with an unforgiving cauldron of heat and fire. For Lynn Yeow, that cauldron was the bowels of Tanglin Halt where she grew up with her grandmother in a two- room rental flat. Tanglin Halt was a rough neighbourhood then and, unfortunately, Yeow’s grandmother favoured boys over girls, the result of a mindset shaped by a patriarchal era.
Yeow’s mother was a single parent and a beautician who owned a shop at People’s Park Centre. If Yeow didn’t head back home after school, she would make her way to her mother’s outlet – a small, two-bed operation with barely enough room for her mother and the customers, let alone a scrawny, young girl trying to make sense of the world.
“I would go to the hair salon next door when my mum’s shop was packed and they would feed me biscuits,” Yeow remembers fondly. “People’s Park Centre was very rough back then, and my mum was always worried about me every time I came. But the other shopkeepers were friends and always watched out for this little girl with her single mum.”
Her mum remarried and divorced again, and through all that family turmoil and borderline poverty, Yeow grew up to become a feisty, independent teenager. Even after having a mild acid thrown into her eyes during a robbery on her way back to Tanglin Halt one night, her zest for life never waned.
“Growing up, I always kind of knew what I wanted to do,” shares Yeow. After graduating from Nanyang Polytechnic, she secured a role as a marketing communications assistant at the Singapore Marriott. It didn’t pay much – “I think I took home $900 after CPF!” – but it gave her an opportunity to prove her mettle while always keeping her family uppermost in her mind, in spite of their sometimes testy relationship. She even gave half of her salary to her mother and survived on the rest.
Nevertheless, she would occasionally splurge on luxury items to reward herself. In her case, luxury meant a packet of pricey chocolate chip cookies from Mezza9 at Grand Hyatt Singapore or a meal at the now- defunct Glow Juice Bar and Cafe at the Hilton.
And now for the part of her story many know: Yeow became a hospitality hotshot, doing so well at the Marriott that other hotels started to take notice of her. She later became the youngest manager at Raffles Hotel and then opened Pan Pacific Singapore, Capella and a slew of other top hotels. She also started Silver Spoon, her successful hospitality branding and communications company focusing on F&B, opened more businesses and exited a couple of them. Oh, and along the way, she married Michelin-starred chef and restaurateur Beppe De Vito, and had four children together.
But Yeow never forgot her roots as a sickly, young girl finding her way through life and fed royal jelly and cod liver oil by a concerned mother who spent almost everything she earned on her daughter so the latter could grow up strong, healthy and wise.
They say it is what you do in the dark that puts you in the light. For Yeow, she will never forget the hardships she endured, and she will let them define. Now that’s the mark of a true warrior.