Ten years ago, Singapore entrepreneur Cheryl Gan, 40, dived into the aromatherapy business - despite it being already dominated by players from Australia, Thailand, UK and the like. In fact, for the longest time, no one knew that Mt Sapola was a Singapore brand, thinking that its lemongrass and other spa scents were freshly imported from the land of a thousand smiles.
For her, it was a natural progression after starting the Mt Sapola brand with a Thai partner, with shops in both countries. They operated independently of each other, but business in Singapore grew exponentially. By 2013, at least 60 per cent of Mt Sapola Singapore's products were made and packed here, and the range was bigger than what was available in Thailand.
With franchise operations beckoning, Ms Gan knew she had to create a new brand identity if she wanted to grow internationally. And so, she had to form a new brand identity, hence the launch of HYSSES (pronounced as 'High-ses')
Mt Sapola Singapore has over 25,000 consumers in its database. Isn't it risky to just rebrand with a new name out of the blue?
"We had customers, even our VIPs, who stood in front of the stores and wondered where Mt Sapola went. But thankfully, I have staff who have been with me for a long time, so customers recognised them and knew they were in the right place, even with the new name.
They're also familiar with the signature lemongrass scent which we've used in the stores from Day One. The packaging may have changed but once they try the products, they know they're ours. Our products are made in Singapore, and our customers really like that. They tell me, all the more, they want to support a totally local brand.
HYSSES didn't come overnight. I've been planning for the new brand since 2014, and now it is ready.
HYSSES came about because you are looking into expanding overseas. Where have you set your sights on?
I'm confident of HYSSES's products and quality, and I want to pit ourselves against the world's best in aromatherapy products. So it was either in the United Kingdom or Australia, as both countries have their own producers too.
I'm going to London soon to visit some landlords. I'm not in an urgent rush to open there, but hopefully by 2018. London will be our entry into the European market.
HYSSES is only in Singapore and Malaysia now, and I do want a European presence for the brand.
Your husband, Low Cheong Yew, is the founder of Home-Fix. Does he give you business advice? Do you discuss work at home?
When Mt Sapola started, Home-Fix had already been around for more than 10 years. With Cheong Yew's help and advice, my journey to grow Mt Sapola and now HYSSES was shortened by half. He is my mentor.
He does advise me a lot, but the best advice is to look at things from the bigger perspective and to relax. I'm very hands-on and want things to be done yesterday, but sometimes it is necessary to take a step back, and chill, especially when it comes to relationships.
Cheong Yew draws a clear line between work and home. I am the one who may suddenly come up with a business idea in the middle of the night and want to discuss it with him. He usually tells me to wait till morning to discuss it.
You once said that "good decisions will never be made unless you step out of your comfort zone". What's the most difficult thing you had to do?
I was a former civil servant, and didn't need to start Mt Sapola. But a chance encounter with aromatherapy and massages got me interested in this business, and a career switch. I did not have to work in the civil service if I chose not to, but I wanted to be independent and I like learning a lot. I'm the sort who takes a bull by the horn. I do have a daily checklist of what needs to be done. But the most challenging thing in my life is having to juggle business and motherhood.
You're a mum to four kids, aged three to 15. So how do you do it?
I try to divide my time and I have a schedule. Weekends are for the children. My third son isn't so great in his school work, so I have to spend more time with him.
But when works calls for it, I do go back to the office on the weekend. I have 100 mouths to feed at work, and they have their families too, so, sometimes work takes priority over family.
However, when there are emergencies at home, the kids get taken care of. It is hard to tear myself away from my kids, especially my toddler, every morning. But I don't have a choice.
Is it possible to be both a successful businesswoman and a good mother?
I'm trying to be that. I don't define success by numbers. My business is successful when I have garnered what I like to call a team of generals who can run the company without me, but that is still a work in progress.
For my kids, I only want them to be happy. Even though they are not great academically, it is more important for me that they have the right values. That they be independent and self-sufficient.
Would you want your kids to take over the business?
I would never force them. I'd rather they do something that they love to do.
I make my two older sons, who are 15 and 14, work in the factory, during the school holidays, so that they have a taste of working life, and not expect everything to be handed to them on a silver platter. It is an opportunity for them to work with adults, and also with the less privileged children that the company works with.
But this year, I'm making the two boys find their own work, so that they can be more independent.
This article was first published on Business Times