Life, as Forrest Gump said, is like a box of chocolate. And didn’t four-year-old Olivia Lum know it too. Where the average child would have wolfed down each nugget, she’d sell them to her kakis for pure profit.

Similarly, every toy was inventory. Play was luxury for this serious-minded child, who spent her days staking out the tiny village provision store in Kampar, Perak, watching stuff being bought and sold. Taking a cue from that, she peddled goods in her free time. And they always sold out. “If my kakis didn’t buy, I threatened not to be friends any more,” she laughs at her trade secret.

Today, at 42, Olivia is the founder-president of local water treatment conglomerate Hyflux Ltd. The company has been making a splash in the news, even as the water issue was being debated on both sides of the Causeway.

These days, Hyflux has come to symbolise Singapore’s hopes for water-sufficiency, thanks to its building and operating of NEWater and desalination plants all over the island.

By 2005, we’ll be drinking desalinated water that Olivia’s company has helped process. But before that, she’ll be introducing her plug-and-suck technology that produces water from thin air. Called Aquosus, it’s expected to make its way into our homes and offices at just $2,000 a pop.

Her impressive list of achievements as a scientist-cum-entrepreneur has made her a poster child of sorts for technopreneurs. And that was way before the dot-com boom made tech-entrepreneurs fashionable.

It goes all the way back to an impoverished childhood.

An orphan, Olivia was adopted by an elderly woman she called Grandma. A compulsive gambler who lost more often than she won, Grandma frittered away her inheritance and property on mahjong and ended up in a wooden hut without electricity or water.

Young Olivia watched the woman pawn her dwindling stash of jewellery each day, and lived in fear that she and Grandma would end up completely broke one day. “I didn’t want to wake up a pauper,” she says.

As a primary school student, she discovered selling. When she ran out of toys and sweets, she made sugared ice cubes and kaya toast and sold them to her friends. Her kaya toast became so popular, her teachers set up a stall for her in the school canteen.

She even tutored her peers for a fee. Profits from her money-making ventures not only saw her through school, but also allowed Grandma and her to shift into a new home, this time with electricity and water. Not bad for a kid in primary school.

Grandma wasn’t too keen on her schooling. After all, girls should just get married and make babies. But the independent-minded Olivia had other plans. “I told her, ‘I want to make it big one day’. So I have to continue with my studies.” Fortunately, she was a good student; her numerous bursaries and prizes gave Grandma plenty to boast about so she no longer nagged her to stopped school. Her teachers were so impressed that they talked the straight A student into heading to the big cities—like Singapore.

At 15, the youngster joined her construction worker friends in Singapore. Holed up in a tiny Chinatown bedroom with them, Olivia refused to lose sight of her vision. “Many times, I would run to People’s Park Complex and stare at it. In Kampar, the tallest building in the neighbourhood was only four storeys high. I knew I had come to the right place to succeed,” she recalls.

But the best schools turned up their noses at her education certificate from an obscure village school. Only Tiong Bahru Secondary gave her a chance—which she is still thankful for.

Her next task? To top the class and still pay the rent. She also had to support Grandma back in Malaysia. She juggled as many as three jobs at a time. She was a waitress, a salesgirl and she tutored three groups of students every day. She even worked with her friends as a coolie at a construction site during her school holidays.

She got a motorbike licence (she was the only one in her class of 41 to pass the first time) and bought a bike just so she did not have to rely on the erratic public transport system to shuttle her between jobs.

Despite all that, Olivia was a straight A student. Says a former science teacher, “Olivia grasped concepts quickly and didn’t rely on rote learning. We always expected her to excel.”

She scored six As and a B in her O-levels, which gave her a place in Hwa Chong Junior College. “I wanted to go to the best JC.”

Unfortunately, Grandma fell sick and had to be hospitalised in Kuala Lumpur. The dutiful grandchild rode the potholed coastal roads (these were the days before the North-South highway) in her 150cc Suzuki to pay her weekly visits.

Later, Olivia moved Grandma to Johor so that she could be nearer to her. But the old woman died shortly after, on the day of Olivia’s Biology A-level paper. Only 18, Olivia was now truly alone. “I guess I didn’t realise she missed me so much when I came to live in Singapore. Maybe she would have died later if I’d left Malaysia later …” she says quietly.

By the time Olivia scored a place in NUS to read Chemistry, she’d already knocked on doors in HDB blocks, hawking everything from insurance to cosmetics. She also set up and ran canteens at construction sites in Katong and Bukit Timah, where she had to dish out food after lectures.

When she graduated with honours, however, the economy had plunged into recession. So she joined Glaxo Pharmaceuticals as a chemist with a starting salary of $2,000.

It was at Glaxo that Olivia spun her business dreams. Seeing the amount of money the company forked out to treat industrial water, she realised that this was the way to go as Singapore became more and more industrialised. She identified water treatment as a sunrise industry and set her sights on it.

By 1989, after three years in the job, the economy had picked up. Olivia was drawing a $5,000 pay packet, and also owned an apartment in Bayshore and a car. She decided not to wait any longer and cashed in her home and wheels to invest in her company.

“I’m conservative, so I only take calculated risks. But the timing was right and I was also afraid of getting too comfortable in my job. If I had let the opportunity slip, I knew I would lose my dream.”

She resigned and set up Hydrochem Pte Ltd, and began selling water treatment systems. With a start-up capital of $20,000, she could only employ a technician and a clerk. Meanwhile, she handled everything from cold-calling to plumbing and welding.

“When we began, we ranked near the bottom, perhaps 20th, among local companies. Nobody gave us jobs because we didn’t have any track record,” she says. Rejected by local companies, never-say-die Olivia scoured Malaysia and Indonesia for clients.

At 5am every day, she would ride up to Muar on her Suzuki. The companies there didn’t realise Hydrochem was new in the business. But they were surprised by and admired her determination and courage, and gave her jobs.

Olivia’s client base grew steadily and she channelled money back into research and development. “I didn’t want to just buy and sell. To break through and grow bigger, we had to develop our own products.”

Fourteen years on Hyflux has evolved into a water-treatment conglomerate operating in Singapore, Malaysia and China—supplying water treatment equipment and systems as well as membranes for water-testing, among others.

Hyflux not only ranks first among local water treatment companies, but also emerged from the recent economic crisis unscathed. In fact, the company made more money than ever during the crisis, she discloses. “I like to save for rainy days, and I never borrow money. Maybe that’s why, while other companies struggled with cashflow problems, we were okay.”

In fact, as her competitors fought to keep their businesses, she listed Hyflux at the start of 2001. “Before Hyflux got listed, we concentrated on building up a good track record,” she says. “We also tried to capture as many opportunities as possible. Listing meant I gave up a certain amount of control—I’m now accountable to shareholders. But more importantly, it acts as a guideline in formulating new directions for the company.”

A higher profile meant bigger jobs and harder work. She clocks 16-hour workdays, beginning 10am at the office, Mondays to Saturdays. “My management meetings begin only at 8pm!”

“My work is my interest,” she states simply. And she expects the same dedication from her managers with whom she spends a lot of quality time. “Get them to understand what you need, then give them a free hand to execute what you would have done.”

The only area she “micromanages” is the research and development department, which reports directly to her. While most CEOs would have entrusted such a job to yet another manager, Olivia likes working in the lab. Her reason: She’s a scientist first and will always be one. Olivia works closely with her team to design new systems, test products and work out new processes to clean water better. This also helps her understand the business better.

But don’t mistake this entrepreneur, who is estimated to be worth over $1m, as being married to her work. She also chills out occasionally. “I dream alot, basically about new directions for my business. There’s no way I can dream in the office because there are too many things to do. I usually do it on Sundays. Maybe that’s why I stopped going to the office on Sundays.”

And when she really wants to get away from the hustle and bustle, she jets off to holiday resorts in Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Australia.

Though her lifestyle is a far cry from those poverty-stricken days in Kampar, Olivia has learnt to appreciate the finer things in life. Her bag is Gucci and her pumps, Prada.

Currently single, she stays in a semi-detached in Thomson with a maid, two dogs, two parrots and a rabbit. Life revolves around her old school chums, including her construction worker friends (now Perak housewives).

Although she zips around in a Mercedes-Benz E240, she still keeps her Suzuki bike as a reminder of her tougher days. But she’s no longer allowed to ride it.

“My staff and shareholders say it’s too risky for the company,” she chuckles. To get a rush, she makes do with 30-minute runs on the treadmill every day, or a game of squash.

And that’s a must for this self-proclaimed foodie. She dines out often, and loves red wine. “I can’t resist stuff like laksa, nasi lemak and curry.”

Olivia’s as much a cook as a foodie. “I like cooking because it’s like chemistry; both are about mixing things together,” she enthuses. Her best dish? Lemon chicken. She doesn’t stick to recipes, and gives free rein to her creativity.

It is this “just-do-it” mentality that has helped Olivia excel. “I don’t want to spend too much time self-examining. As soon as I realised I wanted to do business, I went ahead and did it,” she says. “I didn’t want to focus on failure, because that would only intimidate me.”

When will she call it a day, then?

“When there’s someone else better around,” she asserts. “When that day comes, I’ll return to the R&D department.”

1986-1989: Worked as a chemist in Glaxo Pharmaceuticals after graduating from NUS with a Bachelor of Science (Hons) degree
1989: Set up Hydrochem Pte Ltd with the $20,000 she got selling her flat and car
1987: Listed Hyflux Ltd, the first for a local water treatment company. Together with French firm Ondeo, Hyflux builds Singapore’s first seawater desalination plant. The project, 70 per cent owned by Hyflux, is set to become our nation’s newest water source. At $250 million, it is the Group’s biggest contract ever
1988: Hyflux awarded the contract to supply equipment to the Bedok NEWater plant. To be completed in 2004, the plant will have the capacity to produce 24,000 cubic metres of NEWater per day. Hyflux made its debut in Forbes’ Global World’s 200 Best Small Companies. Ten Singapore companies were named in that list
2002: Nominated Member of Parliament; Member, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Business Advisory Council (ABAC); Director, SPRING Singapore; Independent Director, Yeo Hiap Seng Limited; Committee Member, Focus Group of Internationalisation, Economic Review Sub-Committee on Entrepreneurship and Internationalisation Committee; Member, Beyond Careers, Remaking Singapore; Member, Steering Committee to Review Junior College/Upper Secondary Education