Olivia Lum is the founder and CEO of the Hyflux Group. The company, based in Singapore, has a total revenue of S$569.7 million in 2010. It employs over 2,300 staff in China, India, the Middle East and North Africa as well as Singapore and Southeast Asia. This is the story of Olivia Lum, who founded the company in 1989 and led it over the past two decades.

Lum grew up in a palm-leaf hut with no running water in a village in Perak, Malaysia. Abandoned at birth, she was one of five orphans raised by an impoverished and illiterate widow, whom she called "grandmother". Lum never knew who her parents were. When Lum was only three, her grandmother gambled away her savings, causing them to lose the very house that which they were living in. Hence, they had to move to an attap hut, which had only bare earth for its floor and a zinc top for a roof, and no running water.

At the age of four, in order to support the household income, Lum began selling her toys to other children in the neighbourhood. When she was nine years old, after her grandmother became too old to work, she became the sole breadwinner for the family. She made money from odd jobs such as selling mangoes, sandwiches, ice cream and jeans in school, weaving rattan bags, and playing the clarinet in funeral processions. By the time she was twelve, she has earned enough money to move the family into better housing.

When she was 15, Lum, with only $10 in her hands, came to Singapore and applied for entry to several secondary schools. Despite rejections by several schools, she eventually managed to get into one. To support herself in Singapore, she gave tuition and took up various sales jobs. Lum went on to study chemistry at the Faculty of Science of the National University of Singapore, where she graduated in 1986 with an Honours degree. During her college years, Lum supported herself by selling insurance, cosmetics, flower pots and souvenirs. She also re-invested her profits in a successful partnership venture to run canteens at several construction sites.

Olivia Lum

After graduation, Lum went to work as a chemist with Glaxo Pharmaceutical for three years. During her tenure there, she learnt about environmental issues and saw the potential of starting a business in the water treatment field.  In 1989, at the age of 28, Lum, armed with the belief that there was great business potential in water filtration and recycling, decided to leave the company to start her own company, called Hydrochem. With S$20,000 as start-up capital (raised from selling her apartment and car), Lum opened a small office at an industrial park with two other staff members. Lum subsequently described her move as a "leap of faith", as she had no clear business plan, product or funding.

At first, Hydrochem dealt mainly in water treatment equipment like water filters and softeners in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. Lum would travel frequently between Malaysia and Singapore to market her products. After four years, in 1993, Lum decided to invest in membrane technology for water treatment, as she felt that the only way to grow her company was to go into manufacturing. It turned out to be a wise move as this pioneer technology subsequently enabled the company to secure orders from many small light industries. As the company gradually grew, it soon got its biggest contract ever from Siemens Matsushita Components, which helped to consolidate its reputation in the water treatment industry. In 2000, the company was renamed as Hyflux. 

Hyflux logo

In January 2001, Hyflux became the first water treatment company to be listed on SESDAQ (the second board for Singapore stocks) before moving to the mainboard in 2003. After listing in Singapore in 2001, Hyflux's profit rose 67% to S$12.3m in 2002. It also secured a S$250m contract to build and operate Singapore's first seawater desalination plant. Since then, Hyflux has also successfully expanded its business operations to China, the Middle East, India and North Africa, particularly in areas where clean and treated water is scarce.

Hyflux was one of the first entrants into the Chinese market. In 1991, Lum went to Shanghai, having no network or any obusiness association or government body to help her, but she managed to establish her own business links there and created a foothold in the Chinese market. (Lum once shared that she was often ignored by potential business partners in China because of her young age. To overcome that, she roped in a 60-year old business associate to head the operations there, a move which helped to pave her way in China.) Hyflux currently has more than 40 water treatment plans in 26 provinces in China. It also holds the record for building the largest desalination plants in China and Algeria.

The company's current corporate strategy is to focus on the development and commercialization of the membrane technology. Given its first mover advantage in this sunrise industry, it has successfully carved out a niche in water-treatment technology. Hyflux has also developed a special ultra-fine membrane filter that sets the industry benchmark. 

Hyflux now has a market capitalization of S$1.8 billion, not bad for a S$20,000 start-up established about two decades ago. 

At an entrepreneurial forum in 2010,  Lum attributed her success to having the passion to run her own business; finding the right partners and employees who shared the same vision; perseverance, patience (as she did not expect immediate results in business ventures), performance and the value that her company offers to the customers.

Summing up her own story, Lum told the would-be entrepreneurs that "having passion is not enough. A successful entrepreneur also requires tenacity, hard work, and perseverance to turn dreams into reality."

In recognition of her success in building up an innovative company from scratch, in June 2011, Lum beat 48 other prominent business innovators from around the world to clinch this year's Ernst & Young World Entrepreneur Of The Year (WEOY) award. She is also the first woman to win the prestigious award.

Hyflux in Tianjin