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Hectic life of a mumpreneur

VLV chief executive Dolores Au says her past experience working with lifestyle venue Ku De Ta showed her that there would always be a demand for premium dining and entertainment.
VLV chief executive Dolores Au says her past experience working with lifestyle venue Ku De Ta showed her that there would always be a demand for premium dining and entertainment.ST PHOTO: DAVE LIM

She's got a lot on her plate - running F&B venue, website for mums and raising five girls

Bouncing off the walls. That is how VLV chief executive Dolores Au describes her hectic life.

She's got to be. How else could you turn a 20,000 sq ft heritage mansion into a modern Chinese dining venue with four different concepts while raising five daughters and bootstrapping a website for mothers - all at the same time?

Ms Au, 42, opened VLV in Clarke Quay last September, after two years of meticulous planning and $8 million spent on redevelopment. VLV combines a restaurant, club lounge, open courtyard and most recently added a new riverside casual dining section in July, which serves up "premium zi char".

"It's been very buzzy," said Ms Au, and the number of regulars has grown.

She previously headed public relations (PR) and marketing for lifestyle venues Ku De Ta and Catalunya. Those experiences, and her own entrepreneurial streak, led to VLV.

She is married to former Ku De Ta boss Chris Au. She has five daughters aged one to 18. Four are her own and she has a five-year-old stepdaughter.

"Being in Ku De Ta, which is now Ce La Vie, shocked me that there will always be demand for premium dining and entertainment, always. The market can soften, fine, we tweak the offerings we have, we work within a certain budget. But there'll always be demand for that. You just have to ride the waves when things are slower but it never really dies down," she said.

LEARNING THE ROPES HANDS-ON

It was just me and my girls doing this on our own. Knocking on doors, making cold pitches. And hoping that you just get it, get the job and just do it really really well, hands-on. That's how I learnt. Hands-on. I didn't have a mentor then.

MS DOLORES AU, VLV chief executive.

Premium Spanish restaurant Catalunya was closed in June last year, when it became unviable amid the oil industry downturn.

Ms Au said: "It was a business decision. But that's what business is about. You open, if it's not working, you close."

And you learn from that.

"With VLV it's premium but don't forget, it's modern Chinese. How many days a week can you eat Spanish food? We were brought up on Chinese food, whereas certain cuisines belong to the special occasions (category). It's a different model," she explained.

Ms Au's first enterprise was a PR agency she started with two partners in 2001. Today, she runs the VLV team in the same nimble, entrepreneurial style.

"Running a business is not just about following a blueprint. Keeping the company in the black - that's the first benchmark."

She sleeps just five hours a day but says she is no longer as dogged as she used to be. Back then, failing was not an option.

She recalled: "When I first started my own PR agency I was a single mother. I'd just been recently divorced. All my savings went towards the company. My parents were helping me with the child and I hardly saw my first daughter, Elizabeth. It was not easy.

"It was just me and my girls doing this on our own. Knocking on doors, making cold pitches. And hoping that you just get it, get the job and just do it really really well, hands-on. That's how I learnt. Hands-on. I didn't have a mentor then."

That has changed.

Ms Au draws inspiration from "self-made people", and the one who has made the biggest impression is her husband Chris.

"My husband is very supportive. He helps grow the business and does everything that I don't like to do. He's like a mentor to me as well. He has to be. It takes a strong man to manage a strong woman, right?"

Now, the team is making preparations to take VLV overseas. VLV will open on a rooftop near Kuala Lumpur City Centre next year, Ms Au promised.

The former lifestyle reporter at The New Paper has also been working on a new project - Mummyfique.

Mummyfique began in December 2015 as a website providing curated editorial for mothers, from pregnancy to early childhood.

"I did this because when I was going to have Laura, it would have been my fourth caesarean. And I found out I was pregnant with Laura when Charlotte was four months old. Which meant the two caesareans were very close.

"I was worried and when I was trying to find information, there was nothing relevant to the local context. So there was a space there," Ms Au said.

"I'm not just going to let it be a little pet project, masak-masak," she added, referring to the children's game of play-cooking.

"I was writing two hours after I gave birth, about what the cesarean was like."

Ms Au plans to launch a Mummyfique mobile app next month. The eventual plan is for mothers to be able to buy services and products from vendors using the app.

She likes to see things grow, and when you are running your own business, it is not something you can easily step away from, she said.

"Most importantly when you do something, do it with your heart so that when you step back from it, you don't feel that you haven't given your best."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 18, 2017, with the headline 'Hectic life of a mumpreneur'. Print Edition | Subscribe