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Olivia Lum: From orphan to entrepreneur

Asia has plenty of hurdles to clear if it wants to sustain growth. In this section, we profile people seeking to break away from social, traditional and other constraints and barriers in politics, business, sports and other fields. They offer clues about how to open up the future of Asia.

SINGAPORE   Singapore's Hyflux is taking on French beverage giant Danone in Indonesia's bottled water market, and the gloves are off.

     Leading the water treatment company's charge is CEO Olivia Lum, who sees strong growth potential in the archipelago nation. Hyflux entered the Indonesian bottled water market in 2015, eager to take on Danone, which controls about half the market. Having already established a presence in the market for corporate customers, Hyflux is now looking to make inroads in the consumer product segment. "Bottling water ... for health will allow us to venture into this consumer space," Lum said.

Olivia Lum (Photo by Shinya Sawai)

     A quarter century has passed since Lum quit her old job to launch her own company. Hyflux has since grown into a major company with 2,400 employees and a market capitalization of around 500 million Singapore dollars ($367 million). Government-linked enterprises wield outsize clout in corporate Singapore, with six such entities accounting for about 20% of the local market's capitalization. In such an environment, "it is highly exceptional that Hyflux, a company which started from scratch, has achieved such great success," said Toru Yoshikawa, a professor of strategic management at Singapore Management University.

     Lum landed a job at U.K.-based drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline after graduating from the prestigious National University of Singapore. As a chemist, she was assigned to the section engaged in the disposal of wastewater produced in the drugmaking process. After seeing the huge sums the company was spending on in-house water treatment, "I told myself that this must be a sunrise business," she said. The entrepreneurial seed had been planted. The timing was right, too: In the 1980s, public consciousness about water pollution was beginning to grow in Asian countries.

     Orphaned as an infant, Lum spent her childhood in a small Malaysian town, living in a shabby house with no electricity or running water. For water, she had to go to a well every day, but half of it always seemed to spill out of her buckets on the way home. "I hated [going to a well to get drinking water] very much," she said.

     Although Lum had been told from an early age that she would have to quit school and start working when she turned 13, she was such a gifted student that she was allowed to continue her studies. At 15, she left her town and moved to Singapore alone to attend school there. She paid her way through college using money she earned as a waitress and private tutor.

     When she first started doing business on her own, Lum had to overcome the disadvantage of having no business connections in Singapore. As a start, she won contracts to sell equipment made by multinational water treatment companies. Once she had a sales network in place, she decided to transform Hyflux into a manufacturer with the highest technological capabilities. Lum paid a visit to her former teachers at the National University of Singapore, who agreed to help develop technology for the company.

     The company's constant efforts to give its customers what they want -- from delivering better technology and lower prices to providing engineering services and operating facilities -- have led to the development of innovative water treatment systems. Today, orders for its equipment and services come from not just within Asia but also from the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere.

     State-owned enterprises and industrial conglomerates have long dominated industries in Asia, leaving newcomers little room to carve out footholds and develop innovative products and services. But that is changing fast in emerging economies, where the entrepreneurial spirit -- so well embodied by Lum -- is an increasingly crucial ingredient for success in this new era.

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