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Roulette spin leads cousins to leave jobs, now they run Asia’s largest medical aesthetics chain

Terence and Nelson Loh later founded Dorr Group, which manages over S$5b in assets - and they're shaking up health care with Novena Global Lifecare Group.

The white ball bounced off slot after slot, chasing down the spinning roulette wheel that it had been set upon. It was getting too lively for cousins Terence and Nelson Loh to bear, for at stake were their cushy investment banking positions at JP Morgan.

“Red, and we’d stick to our jobs; black, and we’d strike out on our own,” Nelson, 38, recalls with a chuckle. “It was the wildest idea – inspired by copious alcohol consumption – we’d ever come up with,” Terence, 40, chimes in.

This move wasn’t a mindless gamble on life, albeit one made at a Las Vegas casino. Dorr Group, which they set up in 2008 after the roulette wheel had determined their path, currently has over US$4 billion (S$5.4 billion) in assets under management.

Nelson (far left) and Terence. They named their investment company Dorr after the initials of Danny Ocean and Rusty Ryan, the ringleaders of the heist film Ocean’s 11.

If you know the cousins, they are anything but conventional. Major decisions have been made with a childlike mischief that they don’t seem to have grown out of. Like staking their future on a resin sphere. Like naming their private investment vehicle after the two ringmasters (using their initials) in their favourite movie, Ocean’s 11. Like shocking the aesthetics industry by offering skin laser treatments to the masses at a fraction of the market rate.

“The way Danny Ocean and Rusty Ryan dealt with situations and came up with ingenious plans; the way they improvised and organised a team of oddballs for the job – that is what we relish. In business, you deal with all sorts of people,” explains Terence, whom friends have nicknamed Rusty, regarding the inspiration behind the name Dorr. “Dorr is just a formality; we’ve always been doing something together.”

He’s referring to Novena Global Lifecare Group, which the cousins set up in 2010 and has since grown to become Asia’s largest medical aesthetics chain. Presently, the group has over 100 clinics treating more than 2 million patients across eight countries. They plan to open at least 100 clinics in China and 50 aesthetics clinics in Spain over the next two years, which will be a stepping stone to eventually expanding to Latin America.

And yet, their history of running the world together runs deeper still.

FIRST COUSINS, FIRST FRIENDS

For 15 years, the pair grew up in the same family home in Upper Bukit Timah where they often “got up to no good” together and lorded over their younger siblings. What sort of pranks, we ask. They look at each other and laugh in unison, the glint of yesteryear mischief twinkling in their eyes.

Their sisters and brothers – Terence and Nelson are the eldest in their respective families – became human goalposts during football matches. “I made my brother drink Dettol to ‘cleanse his body’. He ended up in the hospital,” Terence says with a shrug. “We always got in trouble.”

  • COMRADES IN MISCHIEF Only two years apart in age, the boys grew up together in the same compound in Upper Bukit Timah.

Worldliness had been part of their psyche even from a young age, and the Lohs knew that the fear of failure in Singapore would clip their wings and dull their edges. The ecosystem that one is in determines one’s future, Terence says. “If you’re in an ecosystem where you fear, you’re restricted and you can’t think big.”

So at 16, Terence packed his bags for California. A few years later, Nelson enrolled in the University of Cambridge – the UK, because “my dad said Terence was having too much fun in the US”.

“In China or Silicon Valley, you’re a serial entrepreneur if you fail. In our part of the world, you’re almost written off,” says Nelson, who shuttles among Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore. “The ecosystem does not support risk-taking and those who are trying to do things differently. I always tell my staff and kids (his daughter is 11 and son, eight) that failure is their first attempt in learning. You fail only if you stop trying,” he adds.

“Kids in Singapore will tell you that they want to be doctors, lawyers, architects, bankers. Kids in China will tell you that’s boring. One kid in China told me, ‘I can pay someone to do that. I want to be the next Tencent owner. I want to create the next app that the whole world will use.’ That’s amazing. Just yesterday in Shanghai, I bought a dumpling from a street vendor who accepted payment only through Wechat,” says Nelson, showing us his e-wallet to cement the point.


“Kids in Singapore will tell you that they want to be doctors, lawyers, architects, bankers. Kids in China will tell you that’s boring.”

Nelson Loh


Terence – who, along with Nelson, comes from a family that runs one of the largest luxury automotive distributorships in China – pulls out his phone and shows us a Harvard Business Review article that he’d read in the morning before this interview.

Charting the digital evolution of 60 countries, it compared digital competitiveness and grouped nations in four categories: Stand Out, Stall Out, Break Out and Watch Out. Although Singapore was a Stand Out, the article warned that Singapore had to keep up with digital evolution or this status could be easily usurped by Break Out countries like China and Malaysia.

Ironically, it is this rapid digitisation of the world that led them to sink their teeth into an industry that is one of the most resistant to change: health care. Of course, there’s the Loh twist to it.

UPENDING CONVENTION

“Which industry, we wondered, would not be replaced by the Internet in the next 10 years? Health care was identified as one of them,” says Nelson. “We’re not doctors. But we knew, from being investors in a Kosdaq-listed medical equipment manufacturer, that aesthetics was an area that we could scale and make more affordable/accessible for consumers.

“So we focused on no-frills, noninvasive procedures to address what people wanted, which is more accessible and affordable treatment in a safe and friendly environment. We moved away from the traditional way of operating an aesthetics business to one that is more dependent on technology and CRM (customer relationship management) platforms. It’s like Airasia, whose slogan is ‘now everyone can fly’. Everyone deserves to look good.”

KathleenTan Peak Cover1 Landscape (RELATED: How Kathleen Tan, president of AirAsia’s North Asian presences, conquered the China market.)

When beauty treatment chain PPP Laser Clinic came on the scene in 2010, it offered five-minute facial zaps to treat enlarged pores, pimples and pigmentation – hence the name of the chain – at $50, a fraction of the thenprevailing rate of $200 and above. PPP was a hit. In three years, it opened 30 outlets and expanded to Vietnam, Jakarta and Shanghai.

Tasked with growing the business overseas, Terence and Nelson would be in different cities every week to get new operations up and running – until trouble struck paradise. In February 2016, news that the founding doctor had quit and clinics were shutting spread like wildfire. Operating hours were shortened and customers could not redeem their packages. A lawsuit ensued between the partners, which the Lohs eventually won.

The cousins admit to “dropping the ball on home ground” and being “too trusting”. “In the grand scheme of things, we were more focused on the overseas market given the limited size of Singapore. The partnership didn’t work out eventually,” Nelson recounts.

The pair wasted no time in righting the ship. While Nelson implemented more stringent accounting practices, Terence and his team were on the ground every day to reassure customers. The clinics reopened and former staff members were rehired.

  • Novu's newest branch at Bedok Mall.

Says Terence: “Within a month, we started seeing revenue again. We even rolled out new treatments and upgraded equipment. It was nothing short of a miracle.” It was also a lesson learnt. Group revenue last year was US$50 million and the pair are hoping to raise US$150 million through an initial public listing on the Taiwan Stock Exchange. Two months ago, it acquired four eye-care centres, marking its expansion beyond aesthetics and wellness services/products. PPP Laser Clinic is now known as Novu Medical Aesthetic Clinic.

Novena’s current portfolio focuses on three areas: predictive, preventive and revitalising treatments. There are also plans for a maternity care centre and to convert Novena Gardens into a tertiary medical centre offering services such as an anti-age centre and medical serviced apartments for patients.

Therein lies the beauty of this partnership: The strength of working with family has never been more apparent.

THE POWER OF FAMILIARITY

Whereas families have broken apart because of business feuds, the cousins have become closer. Trust has never been an issue and there’s no second-guessing each other, they say, because they’ve known each other for close to 40 years.

The energy between them is apparent; they riff off each other and finish each other’s sentences across various topics, from business and wine, to childhood memories and current affairs. Two strong characters may spell trouble for some outfits, but here, there’s no sign of one-upmanship.

“He’s the heart and I’m the brain. He gives me oxygen and I guide where the blood flows,” Nelson sums it up, describing their functions in the partnership.


“Critique is constructive so we’re always building upon each other’s ideas. The creative process is something I really value.”

Terence Loh, on working with his cousin

 


“I’m more pragmatic and he’s more of a dreamer, more romantic. People always say that working with family is painful because of money. It’s easy for us: We split everything 50-50, right from Day One.”

Says Terence: “We know how each other thinks, which makes the process of ideation easier. Critique is constructive so we’re always building upon each other’s ideas. The creative process is something I really value. You are working with someone you can really open up to.”

And when differences happen, they move on. “We’re both very stubborn. To convince each other would be painful, so we just move on and have some wine,” adds Terence, who chairs the Young Presidents’ Organization Beijing Chapter.

While they could not be more different in character, they are united in their love for wine and extreme sports. Aside from fitting surfing into his business travel schedule and 4am drives to Malaysia to surf and be in the office by 10am, Terence just started training to become a competitive stand up paddler. He picked up the sport three months ago and is preparing for the Hawaiian Maui to Molokai downwind paddle covering 42km.

Nelson, on the other hand, is a competitive Ironman athlete who trains three hours daily, six days a week. Last month, he took part in the Ironman 70.3 Asia-Pacific Championship in Sydney; he clocked five hours and 46 minutes. “It’s a channel to vent frustration and it keeps me focused,” Nelson says.

Nelson trains for three hours daily. The routine helps keep his mind focused.

SPORTS AS AN EQUALISER

More than just a means to calm minds, sports, the cousins believe, builds one’s character and strengthens mental discipline. They hold the view that sports and education can aid in realising one’s potential.

Take Bryan Tee who was from Boys’ Town. He’s now part of the Singapore Muay Thai National Team, which is sponsored by the Lohs, and has gone on to win a silver medal in the Asian Beach Games and IFMA Youth World Championships last year.

“It’s about getting kids off the streets,” Nelson says. “The programme also makes sure that they go to school, so it’s not just about sports alone. We’re sports people ourselves. I believe that those who do sports have the mental discipline to excel in life. If they apply that discipline in education and other aspects of life, they will do okay. They are not limited by ability, but by resources and access, which is not fair.”

  • Terence with professional race car driver Yuey Tan. Novena Global is backing Tan for this year’s Porsche Europe Mobil 1 Supercup.

Last year, they established the Loh Foundation Girton College (University of Cambridge) Scholarship to fully sponsor up to two Singapore undergraduate students annually. The cousins themselves are returning to college – Harvard Business School. They are constantly looking to upgrade themselves because “if you’re not on the move, you become extinct”, says Nelson.

“He who does not grow, grows smaller,” says Terence. “If we don’t reinvent and move fast enough, others will catch up. You have to meet new people, learn new things, get new ideas. To be irrelevant, I might as well not be alive.”

PeakMonogram

PHOTOGRAPHY VERNON WONG ART DIRECTION FAZLIE HASHIM STYLING DOLPHIN YEO

PHOTOGRAPHY ASSISTANT SHERMAN SEE-THO STYLING ASSISTANT KARIN TAN

HAIR EILEEN KOH, USING KEVIN MURPHY MAKEUP RINA SIM, USING DIOR


EXTRA: TERENCE’S ASIA SPECIAL

Surfer, stand-up paddler, businessman extraodinaire – now add another feather to Terence’s cap: gin maker. All it took was one bad drink at a bar and, quite literally, he decided to take matters into his own hands by hiring a chemist to convert a room at his Sentosa Cove home into a lab to experiment with different flavours.

Now, after about six months, he’s got the formula down pat and is ready to go into production. From the ingredients – the juniper is from Bhutan – to the production facility (possibly in Nepal or Thailand), everything about the gin will be sourced from Asia. He says: “The Chinese character ‘zhen’ (real) is our guiding principle. The product will contain only the best of Asia. I want it to represent ‘Asian-ness’.”

“I like to say, are you involved or are you committed? I don’t want involvement – either go all the way or none at all,” Terence says.