SIIA Advisor and Corporate Member Olivia Lum has been ranked number 35 in the Financial Times’ Women at the Top annual ranking of the top 50 women in world business in 2011.
The story of Olivia Lum’s journey from her childhood home – an illegally built house with a leaky tin roof in Malaysia – to the modern offices of Hyflux is both long and inspiring. She won the Ernst & Young World Entrepreneur of the Year award this year – the first woman to do so in its 11-year history – and the company she founded with just $15,000 is now a world leader in membrane-based water treatment.
Lum was raised in poverty, but with a mix of talent and determination she managed to stay at school, avoiding a destiny as a child labourer. She attended the National University of Singapore where she studied chemistry “because it’s unpredictable”.
Employed by GlaxoSmithKline, the pharmaceutical company, as a chemist in their waste water treatment division, Lum saw an opportunity: “I had a very naive vision: I wanted to save the world. I could see that with so much waste being discharged into natural rivers, one day we would not have clean water to drink.”
She recognised the commercial potential in waste water, but adds that she “would not want to do a casino business or cigarettes or anything that doesn’t have a [social purpose]”.
Hyflux’s roots were in selling water treatment services, but Lum knew that being a broker was never going to fulfil the dreams she had for the company. Collaborating with colleagues at her alma mater, she began to innovate the use of fine membranes in water treatment.
Lum began the transformation of the business into a designer and manufacturer of bespoke systems. A Singapore government contract to build and operate the country’s first desalination plant raised the company’s profile.
In 1994, Lum took her business into China, then still a difficult environment in which to operate. “For three years, there were zero deals. We almost bankrupted the company,” she recalls. By 2010, China accounted for 26 per cent of Hyflux’s total revenue.
Seven years ago, Hyflux started to diversify out of south-east Asia and China and develop business in India, the Middle East and north Africa.
In 2001, Hyflux floated in Singapore. Profits rose by 67 per cent to S$12.3m ($9.7m) in the following year. The number of employees has increased from 30 to 2,300 in the past 10 years.
Lum says women are “socially trapped” and circumstances make it harder for a woman to start a company, although growth is equally challenging whatever your gender.
Lum is typical of entrepreneurs in her absolute drive and commitment. “My PA would say I’m a pressure cooker,” she says.
She does not read business biographies. “I do not want to compare myself with others. There will always be [those] who are better than me and worse than me. I just want to be myself.”