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From private banker to wedding planner: Lelian Chew

The founder of The Atelier & Co shares how she went from working at Goldman Sachs to planning multi-million dollar events.

Serendipity and hard work  are perhaps the words to define Lelian Chew’s dizzying rise from young private banker to wedding planner for the rich and famous.

Ms Chew is the founder of The Atelier & Co – the parent company of two of her biggest businesses, The Wedding Atelier and The Floral Atelier, which she started in Hong Kong but has just launched her global headquarters here in the form of a 7000 sq ft retail and event space at the top of industrial building Delta House.

  • Atelier & Co

    The Atelier & Co's global headquarters in Delta House.

A huge cold room takes centre stage, housing air-flown exotic blooms to be used in upcoming wedding events or bouquets for her florist business. There’s a long table good for workshops that she plans to hold regularly in collaboration with local artisans. A bar and a kitchen services clients or luxury companies wanting to hold a private event. It’s also a non-transactional place where people can just walk in for a look, and take away ideas and chat over a coffee.

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Holding court is the quietly glamorous Ms Chew, 37, whose petite size belies her ability to juggle a client list of 10 to 12 weddings a year for tycoons mainly from China, Hong Kong and Indonesia.

Her story unfolds like a fairy-tale of sorts for the hopeless but determined romantic who worked her way up as a private banker with Goldman Sachs for seven years – surviving on three hours’ sleep a night doing trades on the US and Japan markets for her billionaire clients. When she was around 31, she fell very ill and was hospitalised – “crazy enough, it was just fatigue” – which led her to stop and re-assess her life.

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When it happened, the Singaporean had been in Hong Kong for a year, where she had asked to be posted to join her then-fiance, and was assigned to an A-team to penetrate the China market (she is fluent in Mandarin).

“I realised that I had spent all those years trying to prove myself – I didn’t study finance so getting into a bank was a real feat – to the extent that I didn’t care about anything including my health,” says Ms Chew. “So I asked myself if this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.” She decided to quit, and plan her own wedding while deciding what to do.

Before she could even start, one of her ex-clients called her, asking her which bank she was moving to so he could move his assets to follow her.

“When I told him I was taking a break to plan my wedding, he said, ‘what – you’re planning weddings? My son is getting married, why don’t you come up and take a look since you’ve been taking care of our family all this while’.”

Since she was free, she flew up to Indonesia and what she saw blew her mind. In a room were six wedding planners. Not being interviewed for the job, but rather that was how many planners were needed for that one wedding. Ms Chew was the seventh planner.

“I helped out with the bride and groom, and I learned the ins and outs of doing a multi-million dollar wedding – the emotions involved and what the expectations are of a 3000 guest wedding.”

At the wedding itself, she ran into another ex-client – who was a guest – who asked her what she was doing. “I said, oh I’m planning this wedding and he too said, ‘oh, my daughter is getting married’.” One thing led to another and Ms Chew, who says, “I’m very commercial-minded thanks to my training at Goldman Sachs, and I knew there was something viable here.”

Leveraging on her contacts, her years of experience dealing with the quirks of the super-rich and being able to navigate tricky areas about privacy and Chinese etiquette, she was soon jetting around the world creating fairy-tale weddings on private islands, European vineyards and obscure hotels – to the tune of S$1 million and much more than her non-disclosure agreements will allow her to reveal.

In a sense, she had first mover advantage those six years ago as wedding planning was not a big thing in Asia at the time. Even big tycoons were more used to holding weddings in top hotels and letting their banquet managers do the planning. But a wedding planner does more than that – handling the bridal fashion, the food, the location, the guests – “and there was no one serving that segment of the market”. After two years, she branched out into flowers – a logical move since her team was doing the styling and conceptualising but outsourcing the flowers which could cost as much as S$1million.

She created The Floral Atelier after taking three months off to study flowers intensively in New York, so that she knew what she was talking about when pitching ideas to her clients.

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Pitching to wedding clients is no different from pitching multi-million dollar deals, she says, apart from the flowers and the dresses and the connections to top French couture houses. Interestingly, she says that Singapore tycoons spend just one-tenth of what their Asian counterparts too due to a fear of flaunting, and if they really want to spend more, Ms Chew is likely to organise an overseas wedding for them.

Now that she’s set up her global office in Singapore, her plans are to add more companies to the Atelier & Co stable, including an events atelier and one on education to set quantifiable standards for the floral and wedding industry. And expansion to Shanghai is on the cards too, since that is proving to be her biggest market.

Ms Chew is also the subject of an upcoming BBC documentary aiming to get more insight into the lives of the hyper-rich in China, for which a film crew shadowed her over five months as she visited clients and scouted for locations, flowers and everything that goes into a fairy tale wedding.

Things may have fallen magically into place for her, but she’ll have you know that nothing is served to you on a silver platter. She attributes her success to the wise words a banking senior once told her: “If you can bring value to a client, he will ignore how you look, your gender and ignore everyone else who cannot give it to him.”

If she was doing this for money, she wouldn’t do it, she says. “There are faster, easier ways to make it. This is something very close to my heart. I’m a great romantic.”

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This article was originally published in The Business Times.