Her vision is for everyone in the world to have access to clean affordable drinking water. As head honcho of Hyflux, Singapore's leading provider of desalinated water, Olivia Lum is forging ahead in realising this vision, one drop at a time.
In the run up to her speaking at the upcoming Distinguished Business Leaders Series in Beijing on 14 September, we had a chat with Olivia to distil some valuable opinions and advice from her ocean of experience.
Humble Beginnings and a Noble Idea
Olivia's story is one with humble beginnings. Growing up as an adopted orphan in a small kampung in Malaysia, Olivia cultivated independence and business acumen at an early age while doing odd jobs as a child, including the sale of fruits during recess in primary school.
A major breakthrough in life came when Olivia made her way to Singapore to pursue further education at the advice of her school principal in Malaysia. She gained admittance to a local secondary school and went on to graduate with an Honours degree in Chemistry from the National University of Singapore. Subsequently, she found her first job as a chemist in Glaxo Wellcome, where she was involved with the company's water treatment technologies.
“I saw that Glaxo had put in a lot of resources into waste water treatment because it's a big company. I thought, if such a big company was putting in so much resources into treating their waste, then what about local and Asian companies? They might not want to spend so much money on waste water treatment because it's like throwing money into the drain. So I told myself that one day all the natural rivers would be totally polluted by the industrialists in Asia. So it must be a sunrise business,” Olivia recalls.
"Someone has to provide clean water. Someone has to do this noble job. And if you can make it into a business, why not? Then you have a business and a noble job to help save the world.”
In this idea, she saw an opportunity. Jumping into the deep end, she resigned from Glaxo and started Hydrochem with just two staff. The rest is history. Olivia and her team persevered, grew and transformed the company, changing its name to Hyflux. As a leading water solutions company with the world's largest desalination plants, its businesses have expanded beyond Singapore and into China, India, Middle East and the African region.
World Entrepreneur of the Year
Olivia is certainly one of Singapore's most successful entrepreneurs. She was awarded the title of Ernst and Young Singapore Entrepreneur Of The Year 2010, and the Ernst and Young World Entrepreneur Award in 2011. She’s made the history books by becoming the first Singaporean and woman to have won this prestigious title.
Olivia believes her humanitarian and environmental vision to bring the world clean affordable water coupled with her successes in building a company in a highly competitive and fragmented industry have distinguished her from other entrepreneurs all over the world.
Besides a bold vision, Olivia shares other ingredients needed to grow a successful business: “You need the star, moon and earth aligned in a straight line. The question is how to make them align. You are not going to see rosy pictures every day. So when you are going through challenges, you just have to persevere, be patient and not go for the short cuts. One day you are going to find the star, moon and earth aligned.”
With almost two decades work of experience in the Chinese market under her belt, Olivia advises budding entrepreneurs venturing into the mainland for the first time, to have a good cultural understanding when cultivating relationships: “Try to be less arrogant. A lot of people make the mistake of going to another country and complaining about the local people because they do not follow the 'Singapore' way. You have to appreciate their culture. That is important to start off when building relationships.”
While it is important to be deferential to other cultures, she warns against humbling oneself too much: “You have to maintain a middle ground - not too arrogant, not too humble…someone with enough standing such that when people look at you, you make them feel that you are someone worth making friends with.” Practical advice indeed.
Envisioning the Future
Looking into the future, Olivia plans for China to continue being an important market for Hyflux in providing expertise in the growing water treatment industry there. While she is confident that her team in China will be able to cope with an increasingly competitive environment, she is not complacent about the company's position: “Hyflux has grown through competition. So we have to keep learning. Everyone entering into a new market or even new phases of change in China will have to adapt. I am still learning even though I have been in China for the last 18 years.”
Back at home, Hyflux continues to play a critical role in providing desalinated water as the vital “4th National Tap” (together with NEWater, rainwater and reservoirs) to help Singapore achieve its goals of water self-sufficiency. Having established SingSpring, Singapore's first seawater reverse-osmosis plant that produces up to 136 million litres of desalinated water a day, Hyflux is now working with the PUB on the island's second desalination plant, Tuaspring. Once completed, the plant can produce another 318 million litres of water, thereby tripling the nation's total water desalination capacity.
As Singapore's water sector advances steadily, Olivia believes that Singapore has the potential to be the world leader in water management with its boldness to implement new and different technologies to achieve sustainable solutions. She is thankful that Singapore's progressive view on water management and its goals for water self-sufficiency have provided an enabling and nurturing environment for companies like Hyflux.
Olivia hopes that Hyflux in turn will provide an enabling and nurturing environment for young talented individuals to grow in the company, like in the CEO office, where they “learn practically everything. They learn different aspects of the business – how to manage a company, how to strategise, how to be operational. It is a very valuable experience.”
“So long as you are talented, committed, innovative, always thinking out of the box, you can join Hyflux”, says Olivia.
Join us for our Distinguished Business Leaders Series with Ms Olivia Lum in Beijing, on 14 September 2012. Register for the event today!
Personal Nuggets from Olivia
We wanted to know Olivia a little more so we asked her to complete some open-ended sentences for me. And she gladly quenched our curiosity.
OSU: The thing that gets me going is…
Olivia: My business. It is the business that drives me.
OSU: If you could meet anyone in the world, dead or alive, that would be...
Olivia: Steve Jobs. He is so innovative. That guy never gives up. He is the kind of person that really understands his business.
OSU: If you could take one hawker dish for every meal, it would be…
Olivia: Fried Hokkien Mee.
OSU: If I had more time I would…
I like to exercise. And in my exercise, I always day-dream. I like to trek. When you trek and look around nature, you get a lot of inspiration.
OSU: My proudest moment in my life is...
Olivia: When I was admitted to the National University of Singapore. I felt very proud because I told my school back home in Malaysia that I got admitted. That was my proudest moment.
OSU: My favourite place in the world is…
Singapore. I have travelled so much. I still like to come back to Singapore. I think the place is safe, clean, efficient. And I can get a lot of things done in Singapore. This is a place where I have a lot of friends.
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