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The Peak Interview: The Social Networker

For Quintessentially Lifestyle’s top woman, it is both about what you know and who you know. The well-connected Anastasia Ling reveals her networking strategy, her die-die-must-try attitude and her greatest fear.

It is clear that to reach where entrepreneur Anastasia Ling has, you need three things: people skills, a desire to succeed and, most of all, a bulging black book.

The 38-year-old head of the Singapore office of members-only luxury lifestyle concierge club Quintessentially Lifestyle is the first to admit that the size and quality of her network is what really counts in her business. In an interview at the company’s office in Shenton House, she says: “I was always very kaypoh (busybody). I like to introduce one person to another. I knew all these people prior to setting up the business, so it does anchor some stuff.”

Frank and unafraid to speak her mind, Ling is a pleasure to interview. A former student of Methodist Girls’ School and Raffles Junior College, she says that school and family contacts have helped in her work too, from servicing the company’s well-heeled members to maintaining ties with suppliers.

Ling, whom family and friends call Ana, says: “When you know what (your classmate’s) family does or owns, it’s quite useful. When friends are from the same circle and they go on to establish businesses, or take over the family business, or take up interesting careers, you are in a position to connect the dots.”

It helps too, she adds, that her three younger siblings are in different lifestyle- related fields. Her sister, Amanda, is an electronic musician, DJ and Yoja instructor, while brother Adrian is a chef who owns fusion restaurant Pidgin. Another sister, Annabel, trained as a play therapist and is a stay-at-home mum.

Six-year-old Anastasia Ling (far left) in Hong Kong with her brother. It was the first time she took a plane.
Six-year-old Anastasia Ling (far left) in Hong Kong with her brother. It was the first time she took a plane.

HYPER DRIVE
One suspects, however, that it’s Ling’s “hyper” personality – “I’m a Gemini,” she declares – that has reaped her the most fulfilment. It is to this trait that she attributes the fast set-up of the brands under her wing.

Besides Quintessentially Lifestyle, for which she got the franchise in 2007, she has three businesses within the lifestyle sphere: Quintessentially Travel, Molten Chocolatier and short-term assistance service Asqe (pronounced “ask”), which started in April and is aimed at those flying into Singapore for health-care and corporate events and conferences.

Molten Chocolatier imports handmade Belgian and French chocolate for corporate gifts and special occasions, and was launched in March.

Another three business concepts – Asqe Travel for corporate travel, a training arm and an e-commerce business – are slated to open by the end of the year.

As she talks about her hyper behaviour, she pauses, then adds a surprising point that seems more suitable coming from a corporate titan, instead of someone from the so-called slacker generation, Gen X. Ling says: ”Actually, I have the greatest fear of being idle. I don’t like wasting time. That’s my biggest fear and has been the greatest push, giving me the kind of energy and the desire to do business.

“I’m asked a lot about how I started Quintessentially, whether my other companies will work. Honestly, I don’t know whether they will work. But I know that if I keep doing the planning, I will never do it.”

Quintessentially Lifestyle was a “perfect opportunity at the perfect time” and starting it was pretty quick, she says. In June 2007, a friend asked Ling, who was then organising events, if she wanted to take on the Singapore franchise; by September, they had signed off on the deal and the company went live in December.

Referring to Molten, which was set up in three weeks, she said: “From that experience, I realised that if I want to do something,I should take the leap of faith and keep in mind that business is a calculated risk. Trying out different business ideas allows me to build the foundation and platform to explore new avenues.

“This business opens many doors, so it creates opportunities to meet people and network. Maybe the other half of the world that I didn’t know, I will start to discover. So even locally, you can build your contacts through friends and other operators, via word of mouth, and it starts to mushroom.”

Asqe, for instance, was an extension of her customer-service portfolio. “We saw a need and gap in the marketplace. With the team already well-trained in dealing with visitors, we were able to keep resources at a minimum. Essentially, all we had to do was develop the branding and website.

“With all these factors in place, we can start the business. But to say it will definitely work – I don’t know, but I know that if we don’t try, it will definitely not work.”

‘HOME AFFAIRS MINISTER’
Ling probably has her genes to thank for her active, entrepreneurial streak. Her father owns a commodities business, while her mother once held five part-time jobs at the same time: model, makeup trainer, book- keeper, Chinese interpreter on an airline and hair-salon owner. Her two grandfathers and a great-grandfather were merchants and traders.

In school, Ling was a runner, netball captain and sang in the choir. At home, she grew up with her three younger siblings and two cousins, whose family lived with the Lings in a condominium off Orchard Road. (One of these cousins is Caroline Lam, 35, executive director of Quintessentially Lifestyle, who takes care of operations.) Their high jinks included charging family friends for borrowing their books and creating a disco in one of the rooms in the house.

Ling also threw soft-drinks-only parties – or “functions”, as the teen-only get-togethers were called in the ’80s and ’90s in Singapore – and charged guests entrance fees.

The who’s who of top schools would attend the disco parties in the multifunctional room of Ling’s condominium, and she made about $1,000 each time, she recalls. When they got older, Ling, her siblings and their cousins held “legendary Chinese New Year parties” for 200 people at home, which ran from dusk till dawn. She says: “I guess from young, we threw parties, coordinated them and made money. My brother has loved cooking since young. It’s quite funny. We are forever entertaining ourselves.”

In Qinghai, on her way to a Tibetan monastery that her friends were helping to rebuild. Ling (left) toughed it out in spartan conditions.
In Qinghai, on her way to a Tibetan monastery that her friends were helping to rebuild. Ling (left) toughed it out in spartan conditions.

With a laugh, Ling, who is married to a 36-year-old Singaporean oil and gas consultant, adds that she is also the “solution provider for the family”, from knowing who’s travelling where, to organising frequent family get-togethers – about 40 gatherings a year, she reckons – via Whatsapp group chats. Friends have even nicknamed her “the minister of home affairs”.

WEIRD STUFF
It was almost inevitable that Ling would choose to set up businesses focusing on luxury lifestyle services. But this was not immediately clear to her, after graduating with a business-administration degree from the University of South Florida.

She says: “Everything that I’ve done would not be considered conventional, unlike a lot of my friends who have become bankers and lawyers. I’ve worked in customer service, hotels, events, property, with my dad’s company. I’ve done all sorts of weird stuff.”

That includes experiences as varied as travelling in a wooden boat in West Papua with business associates of her father’s company and negotiating with tribesmen with parangs, as well as packing hundreds of goodie bags and sleeping overnight on the floor at Ngee Ann City after setting up for an event.

Having a hands-on attitude has always been important, she says. “Otherwise, you become dependent on what people tell you. You can’t verify information, if you have not experienced the situation, and this may in turn allow people to take advantage of you. That’s the general lesson.

“You need to know and have a sense of what’s happening in the marketplace. When you’re sitting in your ivory tower, you never know what’s going on, on the ground.” She adds: “I like to be that boss on the ground, so I can connect with people. We all want to be respected; we all need to be equal. I’m not better than (my staff ) so, every day, I’m learning from them as well.”

Her main challenge has been juggling her multiple businesses. She explains: “I’m not so focused on Quintessentially, which is the most stable of the lot and there’s a good team running it. It’s more about expanding businesses, not just running one. How do I split that, and how much do I delegate?” Although she doesn’t think work is stressful, she recognises the need for downtime to perform at work more efficiently. So she steals moments during the day to zone out.

Ling (second from right) celebrating Quintessentially Singapore’s first anniversary at KPO in May 2009 with her cousins and sisters. (From left) Elisa Lam, Amanda Ling, Annabel Ling and Caroline Lam
Ling (second from right) celebrating Quintessentially Singapore’s first anniversary at KPO in May 2009 with her cousins and sisters. (From left) Elisa Lam, Amanda Ling, Annabel Ling and Caroline Lam

She is also interested in wellness experiences but, like her business, prefers them more hands-on. No two-hour massages for her. Instead, Ling prefers to de-stress by taking courses in sports massage and reiki, a form of alternative therapy (she says she can do distant healing).

She also enjoys yoga and is an avid foodie, who prefers to spend her money on dining experiences.

“I don’t like shopping”, she says, admitting that her cousin, Caroline, sometimes has to buy clothes for her. (Her goal is to pare her wardrobe down to just 50 pieces, to “streamline the stuff in my life”.)

Still, the trouble for Ling, as with most entrepreneurs, is knowing when to switch off. For this news junkie, who reads The Straits Times, The Business Times and Lianhe Zaobao every morning before she gets into work, it means inspiration can hit any time. Ling, who admits she has a bad habit of e-mailing staff with ideas in the middle of the night, says: “You can’t tune off, because the fear of idling is a problem…

“As much as I think making money is important, one thing I’ve learnt recently is that as long as you keep things in motion, things will happen. What I’m afraid of is actually inertia.”