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The Peak Interview: Cynthia Chua Gets Bored Easily

For a woman who owns one of Singapore’s largest lifestyle businesses, Cynthia Chua is remarkably sanguine about taking time out to relax. She tells us why she gets bored easily, where she gets her inspiration from and how she’s good at connecting the dots.

Entrepreneur Cynthia Chua may say she’s a dreamer but that would be selling herself short. Sure, she may have New Age hankerings. The founder and CEO of beauty, lifestyle and F&B conglomerate The Spa Esprit Group keeps a bottle of lavender essential oil in her bag at all times, talks enthusiastically about body chakras, and is a proponent of raw food. She is also a trained massage therapist who learnt hot-stone therapy in the Bronx, as well as aromatherapy in London.

But make no mistake. She is today one of Singapore’s top entrepreneurs and a household name. The group, started nearly 20 years ago, has become a fine national example of how to run a business, with many awards under its belt. In 2012, for example, Chua was Singapore Tourism Board’s Tourism Entrepreneur of the Year.

(Update: Chua has recently ventured overseas, with a 2016 foray into Chelsea, London, combining several of her concepts into one space. The outpost has been christened “The Beauty Block”.)

Keen concepts, top-tier execution. Swipe /click to peek into why the Spa Esprit Group is succeeding.

  • A laden plate at Common Man Coffee Roasters.

You could say the 42-year-old’s growing empire really started with a woman looking out for women’s interests. It started with the opening of Spa Esprit in 1996 in Holland Village, and especially with Strip, Singapore’s first dedicated waxing salon, in 2002. It brought the nation’s attention to an area that hadn’t seen much attention.

Says Chua: “Brazilian waxing was a Western concept, and nobody had heard of it in Singapore. I wanted to help Asian women. I met people overseas who used to laugh at how badly groomed Asian women were, and I wanted to change that.” The message, she says, was in “empowering women”.

Cynthia (WF)

She adds: “I want women to celebrate and love their bodies, that they do it for themselves.” Today, Strip has 37 outlets worldwide, including in Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Jakarta, Shanghai, Bangkok, Hong Kong, New York and London, and has garnered much international attention. The group’s plan is to open 100 more Strip and Browhaus stores around the world within the next five years.

The group’s total business today is worth “between $200 million and $300 million”, says Chua, with an annual turnover of $70 million. It has grown from one small spa with a staff of eight to 18 different brands under the group’s umbrella, 800 staff members (700 full-time and 100 part-time) and 94 F&B outlets and beauty stores that span the globe. Its brands include waxing studio Strip, brow-grooming salon Browhaus, men’s grooming store We Need A Hero, speciality coffee joint 40 Hands, Tiong Bahru Bakery and Argentine small plates restaurant Bochinche,which opened last August.

HARD WORK
It’s no wonder that Chua has been proclaimed to have the Midas touch, a point she brushes off by saying it’s all hard work. She is no stranger to getting her hands dirty and readily chips in with front-line staff if times get tough.

For the first three years of House at Dempsey, for instance, she helped to serve food, working from 6pm to 2am. She also helped out in the kitchen at speciality-coffee outlet Common Man Coffee Roasters, when it opened last year.

Yet, she is also in talks with French luxury giant Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy (LVMH), whose subsidiary L Capital Asia bought 20 per cent of homegrown shoe and accessory brand Charles & Keith in 2011. She declines to reveal more except to say that it “came and made me an offer”.

(RELATED: Singapore’s creatives are coming to the fore with world-class labels.)

She says with a laugh: “The business is constantly growing! Yes, I’ve done well for myself. I’m blessed and cannot complain. If I want to retire now, it’s not a problem. But my brain will go to mush if I retire!”

The irony isn’t lost on her that she – Singapore’s undisputed Lifestyle Queen – does not quite know how to relax for long. Sure, she may enjoy dreamy pursuits such as aromatherapy, but she’s more keen on using them in her business.

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She’s personally whipped up several different aromatherapy blends for her different brands, including a citrus blend for 40 Hands and a peppery mint version for the Spa Esprit spa chain.

Over a generous lunch spread of gourmet pizza, kong bak pau (braised pork buns from an uncle’s recipe, she tells us), wagyu beef spring rolls and truffle fries at House in Dempsey, she adds that she “cannot stay still” and loves how her life is “progressive, not stagnant”.

Ideas for improving the business run “non-stop in my mind”, she says.

“If it’s not fun, I don’t want to do it. And, to me, work is play. I never regret what I do. I like the idea of how a life should be lived and that I’m able to play a part in influencing that; that I can bring a concept here like Tiong Bahru Bakery or 40 Hands, and change the way people drink coffee and eat.”

It’s a far cry from when she was starting out. Naysayers and pessimists were commonplace. A frequent reaction she received, she tells us, was this: “You’re crazy, it’s not going to happen here.” She adds: “When I wanted to open Strip in 2002, my dad said, ‘you’re crazy’; now he says I’m a genius. It was the same with Browhaus.

“I’m too used to people saying these are bad ideas at first, then changing their minds to say they are good ideas. But I dare to dream, even if they think it’s just a fantasy of mine. I’ve proven them wrong. I’m here to effect a change and to create a movement.”

She is drawn to bookish accoutrements like old typewriters, notebooks and stationery.
She is drawn to bookish accoutrements like old typewriters, notebooks and stationery.

INSPIRATION EVERYWHERE
To Chua, inspiration is everywhere, which is why it’s important for her to travel frequently. “Everything you see can be adapted or adopted.” An economics and statistics graduate from the National University of Singapore, she says that her forte is in business development, in connecting the dots.

“I can’t draw or paint, but I can express my creativity in business. I’m good at seeing opportunities, putting things together, and getting people together. And I move very quickly.”

Her favourite destinations include London and New York, as well as other parts of Europe, such as Lisbon and Berlin. She spent two weeks in the Nordic region recently, falling in love with its way of life.

Stockholm, she says, has “the countryside in the city”, while Copenhagen, where she was lucky enough to have dined at one of the world’s best restaurants, Noma, has an understated quality. “It’s not over the top, like in America. I’m interested right now in the farm-to table concept, and foraging and being connected to nature.”

Chua generously lets us in on some of her other ideas, including curating another street in Singapore, similar to what she’s done in buzzing Tiong Bahru – with 40 Hands and modern bistro Open Door Policy in Yong Siak Street, and We Need A Hero and Tiong Bahru Bakery in Eng Hoon Street. She’s been largely credited for helping to revitalise the once-sleepy neighbourhood. The group was one of the first to set up shop there, with 40 Hands in 2010 and Open Door Policy in 2011.

Now, Martin Road – where Bochinche and Common Man Coffee Roasters are – is a possibility, as is Little India. She owns the Rowell Road shophouse, where the now-defunct restaurant and club Broadcast HQ – which closed down last year after a year because it could not get a Category 1 (entertainment) licence – was situated.

Says Chua, whom property agents still cold-call because of her success with Tiong Bahru: “Tiong Bahru showed us the ability to curate a street, especially with strong branding. With 40 Hands, it showed us that from one small shop you can create one big change.”

These days, after nearly 20 years as a successful entrepreneur, she thinks it’s time the business makes another change, by giving back to society. For instance, she is keen on helping underprivileged girls who are “very creative”, by mentoring them or awarding them scholarships. “We need to see what we can do. I don’t just want to open another shop, I’ve done that. So what’s next? I want to be able to influence in a bigger way that’s different and more meaningful.” One way she tries to give back is by sitting on Temasek Polytechnic School of Design’s School Advisory Committee.

The only time I get stressed is when I have to scold people. I can’t choose another life. I just think that I’m so lucky. The work is not that tough, but it is always on my mind.
Cynthia Chua, founder and CEO of The Spa Esprit Group

CHANGES
So how has Chua, a former marketing executive at a bank and property agent, changed? She says: “As the years go by, and I gain more experience, my acumen becomes sharper. I’m able to do things quicker and be more efficient. What I used to do in two years, I can now do in two months. I’ve learnt a lot. My thinking has become more exact, and it’s no longer about trial and error.”

She points to how, in the past, she would have just impulsively said yes to opening a shoe or stationery boutique, because she loves those items. She is obsessed with notebooks, for example, and changes them every three weeks. Her current favourites are the luxury gold-trimmed notebooks from French brand Astier De Villatte.

She also admits to having quirky fashion tastes – no staid corporate styles for her, thank you. For the interview, she’s dressed in a whimsical blouse and trendy silk shorts, with plaid stockings and red platform heels. She loves stockings, owning 300 pairs and even helping to buy them for some of her staff . She says: “Just because I love something doesn’t mean I want to start a business in it. It’s easy to start something, but you must remember that your resources are finite.”

Along the way, she’s had to make some sacrifices. Asked for examples, Chua pauses, then says: “Relationships. With so many things going on and the amount of time you put in, you need to prioritise and it can be difficult to spend enough quality time with your loved ones.”

She is frank about her past failures, namely, her vintage boutique Potion at Paragon and 12 x 12, a health-food concept at Suntec City. For Potion, she learnt that fashion retail is very difficult to get into. The store, which lasted three years and shut in 2006, sold deconstructed vintage clothing, which, at the time, was still seen as “dead men’s clothes and people couldn’t get over that”.

She says: “We had to travel all over to source for these clothes, then reconstruct them by hand to make these interesting dresses that sold for $250 a dress. Can you imagine the cost involved? And, of course, the rent at Paragon was very high. So we had to shut it down.”

For 12 x 12, which lasted from March to October 2008, “the location was wrong, as it was away from the office crowd”. “Plus, the rental was high, and it was ahead of the curve so we had to cut our losses.”

She adds: “Today, I consider more factors. Do I really feel passionately about it? And what are the practical aspects involved, such as getting the right target market? Yes, you might like to educate people about new concepts, but can your store squat there through that period, with the rent, and become commercially viable?”

Instead, Chua says her key strength has been finding the right staff and partners. Today, her partners include Harry Grover (40 Hands), French baker Gontran Cherrier (Tiong Bahru Bakery), chefs Ryan Clift (Tippling Club and Ding Dong) and Diego Jacquet (Bochinche). Her long-time friend Jerry de Souza is brand director of the group.

She learnt about business partnerships the hard way, saying she was burnt when business ties with the original Spa Esprit partners soured. Declining to go into details, all she says is that it was an “ugly and stressful time”. Her father, a private investor and businessman, eventually bought over the partners’ shares for $1.5 million.

Chua jokes: “My father likes to say that it’s the best investment my family has ever made.”

Family ties are strong at the group too. Along with Chua’s father, her brother is a director at Spa Esprit, in charge of its IT, human-resource and finance departments. But to Chua, her staff are most important. “I’m realistic about things. You need people to run the business for you, because, at any one time, there could be a hundred problems that come with it. So you have to take stock, and find the right people.”

It’s easy to see the friendship between Chua and her PR minder, Janet, for example, who laughs when Chua talks about how she is a “demanding boss”.

“My standards are very high, and I will always push you to do better. But I’m not Alexander the Great. I love my staff and should not need to kill them! I have a good team, and the business’s success is due to the teamwork. I can no longer do it myself.”

In some ways, it’s a reflection of how she chooses to live her life. Have faith, pick the right elements, and the rest will fall into place. More importantly, she says: “You just have to enjoy every moment in life. I feel many people don’t. But you need to live your life in that moment, and not be fearful, and continue to be excited.”

REST AND RELAX
Cynthia Chua gives us a peek into her daily chill-out moments, in her own words.

“I work very hard, but it’s also very fun. I wake up at about 8am, then go for a yoga class. I have a lot of time to myself– if I want to do cocktails at 3pm, I can. I sometimes meet Jerry (Spa Esprit’s brand director) and chit-chat. Or I may have tea on my balcony at home. I burn essential oils, listen to music and do a little tea ritual – tea pot, wooden spoons, honey, little things like that.”

One of the ways Chua destresses is to settle down with a book about calming the spirit.
One of the ways Chua destresses is to settle down with a book about calming the spirit.

“The tea session makes me feel like I’m in control, and not that I work nine-to-five and have to battle, for example, peak traffic. Then I head to work for meetings, which tend to start at 12pm and go on till about 7pm. I meet up with family or friends for dinner and drinks.“

“I have a massage once a week. Talking to people like my staff or creative types also relaxes me. I like to read books on developing and calming the spirit, as well as poetry.”

3 BUSINESS INSPIRATIONS
Cynthia Chua lets us have a peek into some other lifestyle concepts that she may – or may not – put into action.

1. OPENING A BOUTIQUE HOTEL OVERSEAS
This would be “difficult to do in Singapore, as prices are very high”. “But my team said if you do it, we will quit because nobody knows how to run a hotel! We’ll all be chambermaids.”

2. CREATIVE HOT DESKING
She envisions a hip office space, along with a cafe or boutique, for creative types like freelance designers and writers to work together.

3. CURATED DINNER PARTIES
Similar to secret suppers but with a more stringently enforced guest list, and good conversation, “something which is very hard to find in Singapore”, with the chef pocketing the proceeds.

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For more riveting stories about homegrown entrepreneurs, check out  The Peak Power List 2014.