The major challenge for 7-year-olds would be homework, but for mtm labo managing director Kelly Keak, she also had to work. Her mum, Dr Susan Teng, would give her menial tasks to do, such as washing facial sponges and tidying up the treatment rooms, at the facial salon she owned. 

“I went straight from school to the spa. When I was tired, I napped on the bed in the treatment room until the guest arrived and my mum would shake me out of bed!” Keak recalls fondly. Whenever she met her grandfather, she would put clothes pegs on his face, pretending they were part of a skincare machine. “He must really love me very much as he never complained!” she laughs.

 “I have had this unwavering ambition to follow in my mother’s footsteps since young. I derive immense joy, especially when I witness a customer gain confidence after treatments.” She and her brother continued to help their parents in the business into adulthood when Teng brought MTM Skincare to Singapore in 2003. 

“We grew up poor, so launching MTM was a big toll on our family’s finances. We worked long hours because my mum kept saying failure would mean all of us sleeping by the roadside!” She left MTM Skincare for a few years in her 20s to pursue a part-time diploma in marketing and business management while  becoming a financial planner, but rejoined in 2016 and eventually succeeded her mother as managing director. Her mother is still the chairman of the company.

Management did not come naturally to Keak. She recalls how she tried to emulate a fellow manager by being very stern when she was 19. She got a full boycott at her outlet. It made her realise that a genuine leader commands respect by first respecting the staff and taking care of their welfare and development. 

Understanding her weaknesses, Keak also formed a board that she could continue to learn from and be accountable to. From the board and her fellow committee members at the Bentley Owners Club SG she founded, her biggest takeaway was that sustainable success is about building strong community links that focuses on things beyond monetary success, such as giving back. 

“We start by building a firm foundation of culture and values in our company.” Keak also believes in ethics and responsibility. “Many spas and salons have folded in the past year, leaving the customers in the lurch as the money they’ve spent on packages has disappeared. Many customers saved up in order to care for themselves, so we must take care of them just like we take care of family.” 

In mid-2021, she spearheaded the  rebranding of MTM Skincare to mtm labo in Singapore and hired designer Kenya Hara, famed for his clean aesthetics for Muji, to redesign the logo and packaging to a revitalising deep green. Since then, she has seen renewed interest in the brand,  especially from men, for the sleek, gender- neutral bottles and customised formula. Her husband, naturally, uses the products. 

“It’s difficult to be a new age woman while having a successful career. My tip is to first take good care of yourself. Only then will you have the tolerance and capacity to love others. I like to pamper my husband with facials at night. My son would look on and ask when he could get a turn!” 

Forging ahead despite the pandemic, she believes, “The future of delivering beauty looks vastly different because of technological changes, but demand ultimately lies in exemplary customer service. If we meet the customers’ needs and match it with service that enables them to have a strong trust in the brand, the company will continue to be successful.” Keak knows businesses can be disrupted overnight. She would tell future leaders the most important things to do are to “constantly challenge your business model, keep re-investing in R&D and innovation, groom your staff to debate on new ideas, and contribute back to the community that has given you so much.”