17 Sep 2012

People - OS Hotshot

On The Challenges of Cleaning Water

“I'm here to sell my koyok,” laughed Olivia Lum as she took to the stage and began her presentation on Hyflux Limited. It turned out that the koyok was not some sales pitch trying to sell ice to Eskimos. She was selling her dream of providing clean, affordable drinking water to the world.

Tan Meng Chuan

“I'm here to sell my koyok,” laughed Olivia Lum as she took to the stage and began her presentation on Hyflux Limited. It turned out that the koyok was not some sales pitch trying to sell ice to Eskimos. She was selling her dream of providing clean, affordable drinking water to the world.

How? With the company that she built from scratch with a capital of just S$20K and an immense passion and belief. Today, Hyflux is one of the world's leading water solutions and desalination company.

And on that note and in front of a crowd of about 180 Singaporeans in Beijing, commenced a candid, enlightening and lively evening of sharing by Olivia, Executive Chairman and Group Chief Executive Officer of Hyflux Limited.

“Always stay on your course. Don’t waver.” Olivia Lum dispenses advice to the many aspiring entrepreneurs in the audience.

Keep Learning and Don’t Waver

As Olivia related the challenges of operating in the China market and what she has done to meet these challenges, the reactions from the audience was evident: nodding heads and faces with wry smiles of empathetic agreement.

One particular lesson stood out from Olivia’s 18 years of experience doing business in China: To keep learning in a constantly changing environment. Because of the fluid and dynamic nature of the Chinese market, Olivia learned to adapt to the challenges she encountered, like water that takes the shape of the vessel that contains it.

“You have to continue to learn. Don't be too arrogant, but also don't be too humble. You don't have any place to be arrogant as there are many companies bigger than yours. Don't be too humble or they will look down on you and not want to do business with you,” advised Olivia. “Always stay on your course. Don't waver.”

Embrace Copying to Stay Competitive

The audience was evidently curious and hungry to know more of Olivia's experiences and opinions as the questions flowed one after another during the extended Question-and-Answer session. Olivia gamely fielded questions about her personal challenges, successes and passion, her advice on doing business in China, her experiences in the Middle Eastern and North African markets, her opinion on being a woman entrepreneur and an intriguing question on “embracing copying.”

A member of the audience posing a question.

Referring to the prevalent “copycat” strategies adopted by competitors in China, Olivia urged aspiring entrepreneurs not to be intimidated: “If you come to a place where people keep copying you and you can't do anything about it, what can you do? You have to embrace it right?”

To Olivia, the situation seemed stark but the solution, obvious. One to roll with the punches, she advocated that instead of fighting against the prevalent phenomenon, one should sharpen one’s competitive advantages and constantly look out for opportunities: “It's all about whether you are competitive enough. I have to be faster than them. If I can embrace it, then I can do this business.”

Fiery Passion for the Water Business

Olivia’s personal stories of struggles and successes are inspirations for many.

If there was one trait of Olivia’s that impressed many in the audience throughout the evening, it was her passion for her business. She recounted how she had initially given up her a comfortable life as a chemist in a pharmaceutical multinational company to pursue her passion in her own business and had endured tough times. She recalled the episode of getting locked out of her rented apartment when a loanshark sprayed red paint on the main door; and the period when she rode a motorcycle up to Malacca every morning to pursue business opportunities. That was how passionate and motivated she was, and still is.

Take this matter-of-fact repartee with a member of the audience for example:

Attendee: After being in China for so long (17 years) and still working, what is your advice for me?

Olivia: Go with your passion. Do not try to go against that passion.

Attendee: I have passion to work.

Olivia: Then continue working.

Olivia's can-do attitude and fiery fervour for her vocation were palpable and infectious. Despite all the uphill and long-winding roads that Olivia has taken to get this far, it seems that there is no stopping Olivia from working to fulfil her dream of providing clean, affordable water to the world: “I am still passionate about this business. I should still be hanging in there a little longer,” Olivia beamed.

As the evening stretched on, guests continued their mingling and discussions over a buffet dinner and well into the late evening, during which many of the attendees approached me to express their gratitude to OSU organising the event. From my conversations with them, it was evident that Olivia had successfully sold her koyok.

Attendees continue the mingling and networking after dinner.

By Tan Meng Chuan

Read our exclusive interview with Ms Olivia Lum before the DBL event, view the pictures from the evening available on our Facebook, or watch the video excerpts on our YouTube channel.