Ms Olivia Lum is the founder of Hyflux – a leading water treatment company listed on the mainboard of the Singapore Stock Exchange. Where the names of Sim Wong Hoo of Creative Technology and Ron Sim of Osim were often heard, Olivia Lum is Singapore’s very own true-blue female entrepreneur. To her belt of titles are the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award 2003, Singapore’s Most Creative Entrepreneur 2003 and Her World’s Woman of the Year 2002.
Olivia was born in Perak, Malaysia, in the neighbourhood of Kampar.
She is an orphan and was brought up by a kind elderly lady whom she called ‘grandma’. It was in this poverty-stricken village that she subtly learnt values from Grandma, values which would later helped shaped her as an entrepreneur. Grandma had an unwavering faith in Olivia’s abilities to compete and win. At every sports day of Olivia’s, grandma would bring along with her a big box. When asked why, grandma explained that it was meant to be filled up with the prizes that Olivia would win that day.
Once, Olivia was bullied and when she came home scratched and bruised, grandma taught her a lesson of survival. She told Olivia that if she could put her mind to beat the bully, she could do it. Olivia confronted the bully again and did exactly what grandma believed she could. In another instance, Olivia was in an art competition where she had only colour pencils. Disheartened by the other children who had colour paintboxes, brushes and other art materials, Olivia almost wanted to give up.
However, grandma assured Olivia by telling her she had the talent. Olivia, inspired and spurred on by grandma’s confidence and faith in her, won the second prize. 1 From a tender age, Olivia was inculcated with self-confidence, determination and perseverance – characteristics innate of an entrepreneur which served to become her bedrock of success. 2
Living amid poverty, Olivia realized that year after year, there were no improvements to the life of the people in the village. The thought of living in constant poverty propelled Olivia’s desire to achieve higher things in life and improve her standard of living. When Olivia was older, on the advice of her headmaster, Olivia came to Singapore to study. She supported herself through college and university by taking on a host of odd jobs like selling insurance and working in the retail and F&B industries. It was through taking all these jobs that Olivia discovered her gift for sales.3 Deep down, Olivia was convinced of her personal potential and with her passion for business, she knew she could succeed in the business world.
After Olivia graduated from the National University of Singapore with an honours degree in Chemistry, she was employed by Glaxo, a multinational company. While working as a chemist in charge of environmental treatment in Glaxo, she realized that if more and more small firms cannot afford to treat and discharge waste in a proper manner into the water bodies, in time, there would not be anymore fresh water for consumption. Olivia identified the need to purify water in an affordable manner. With her years of experience with water treatment systems and membrane technology, and more importantly, her strong conviction that she could be a successful entrepreneur, Olivia made a bold move to quit her stable job at Glaxo and founded Hyflux with $20,000.
As of any other startup phase, Olivia did not have an easy time selling her products. Because Singapore companies required proof of track record of her product which Olivia did not have, she went to Johore Bahru to sell her products instead. At Johore Bahru, Olivia would work from as early as 5am to promote her products and would refuse to rest until her targets were met. With her hard work and perseverance, the company finally began to take off.
While many startups failed because of a lack of focus, Olivia has kept a clear direction for Hyflux. It continued to research on developing cutting-edge membrane technology and strived to become a leading water-treatment company. Also, what had distinguished Hyflux from other water treatment industry in Asia was its ability to provide integrated solutions for customers. Hyflux was able to customize membrane structures to suit individual customer’s requirements.4 ‘Turnkey’ was a term coined to in Hyflux for total project management of its filtration system. In this way, Hyflux offered the convenience and cost-efficiencies of a one-stop solution provider.5 Hyflux’s success was recognized by been awarded the World’s 200 Best Small Companies for 2002 by the Forbes Magazine and winning the Enterprise Award at the Singapore Business Awards 2004. Indeed, a clear focus for Hyflux has been one of pillar of success for Hyflux.
As the company is making waves and entering the bigger league of the industry, Olivia’s entrepreneur spirit continues to propel the company forward. To quote Olivia, “… there’s all that space, all that potential, why not fly higher”, “if you don’t keep on improving, people will overtake you.” 6 Olivia’s sense of survival nurtured since childhood is still part of her modus operandi as an entrepreneur. Hopefully, she will continue to bring Hyflux greater heights and help the world to conserve on its increasingly scare resource.