THE LIFE INTERVIEW

Entrepreneur Tjin Lee: Day-dreamer comes through

Ms Tjin Lee, who is expecting her second child, describes herself as very much the daydreamer who would spend her time doodling in her textbooks.
Ms Tjin Lee, who is expecting her second child, describes herself as very much the daydreamer who would spend her time doodling in her textbooks.PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
Based on her past experiences, Ms Tjin Lee pushes for every business to have combinations of people – angel investors, business managers and creatives.
Based on her past experiences, Ms Tjin Lee pushes for every business to have combinations of people – angel investors, business managers and creatives.
Tjin Lee, managing director of the Mercury Marketing and Communications and the woman behind Singapore Fashion Week 2015.
Tjin Lee, managing director of the Mercury Marketing and Communications and the woman behind Singapore Fashion Week 2015.PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
Ms Lee with her husband John Lim on their wedding day held in Bali in 2008.
Ms Lee with her husband John Lim on their wedding day held in Bali in 2008.PHOTO: TJIN LEE
Entrepreneur Tjin Lee with her two-year-old son, Tyler.
Entrepreneur Tjin Lee with her two-year-old son, Tyler.PHOTO: ST FILE

Entrepreneur Tjin Lee says hard work and having the right combination of people are important for success

Looking at Ms Tjin Lee's long list of accolades, it is easy to conclude that she was born a go-getter.

The 41-year-old owns nine businesses, the jewel of which is the Mercury group of companies, which she founded and grew from a three-person outfit in 2002 to a boutique agency that now employs 60 people for its separate creative, events, public relations and marketing and communications arms.

Besides her diverse enterprises - which include Wolfgang Violin Studio, fashion accessories business Curated Editions and online baby clothing store Baby Style Icon - she is also behind the successful Audi Fashion Festivals of the past and chairman of this year's Singapore Fashion Week, which showcased collections such as Diane von Furstenberg and Victoria Beckham.

But she brushes off these successes, saying frankly that she was not an overachiever.

"Let me tell you, ambition has had very little to do with what I've achieved," she quips with a laugh.

I get some of my best ideas late at night and often find the need to call someone to tell him about it, no matter the time. But that’s the thing about dreaming big – if you’re able to turn what you love into what you do, then your job no longer feels like work.

MSTJIN LEE on dreaming big and finding work-life balance

The mother of a two-year-old boy is 34 weeks pregnant with her second child. She turned up for this photo shoot in a tailored white cape jacket and fuchsia Donna Karan dress, with full hair and make-up.

  • My Life So Far

  • Ms Tjin Lee, aged one, with her sister, Dr Lee Huei Yen, who is two years older than her.
  • Ms Lee (middle) with her parents, older sister Dr Lee Huei Yen and youngest sister Lee Huei Sheen. 
  • Ms Lee with her parents and older sister, Dr Lee Huei Yen.
  • Ms Lee on her fifth birthday with her parents, 
  • Ms Lee and her older sister Dr Lee Huei Yen. 
  • Ms Lee with her husband John Lim on their wedding day held in Bali in 2008.
  • Ms Lee with her son Tyler, now two years old. -- PHOTOS: COURTESY OF TJIN LEE
  •  

She sits comfortably cross-legged at her 7,000 sq ft conservation shophouse home in Neil Road, which she shares with her parents, son Tyler, and husband John Lim, 34, who works in the oil and gas industry.

She adds: "I might have built up a name for myself over the years but it's hardly because I was a perfectionist from the get-go."

Instead, she describes herself as a daydreamer who would doodle in her textbooks and take home report cards in which the teachers lamented her lack of motivation and drive.

Born Lee Huei Tjin, the second of four daughters grew up wedged between a perfectionist older sister and a melancholic younger sister. Her youngest sister is violin prodigy and Cultural Medallion recipient Min Lee, who is the reason their tiger mum sometimes refers to her three older daughters as "mediocre".

"We were mum's failed experi- ments when it came to musical talent," Ms Lee says with a smile. "Turns out the secret is starting them in music as early as 2½ years old."

Her doctor father and remisier mother raised their daughters to be strong and vocal, often switching their Barbie dolls for Lego to encourage more imaginative play. But it was more her siblings than her childhood in a strict, authoritarian household that shaped Ms Lee's character.

She recalls: "Being around three sisters inherently impacted my personality. I became more fiercely independent and rebellious than my older sister but overcompensated for my younger sister with cheerfulness and curiosity."

But at Nanyang Primary School and Methodist Girls' School where she studied, those traits translated to her feeling completely out of place.

Although she excelled at drawing and writing, teachers would get exasperated by her many questions and even assumed that she got an adult to do her creative writing assignments for her. It did not help that mathematics and Chinese were not her forte.

Her mother, Mrs Annie Lee, says: "She was like Maria from The Sound Of Music, full of ideas but unfortunately, not the sort that the school system was looking for. Looking back now, I feel that her creativity was lost on them, it was a real pity."

Knowing she would not pass her A-level Chinese, Ms Lee decided to leave for Canada at the age of 17 and later graduated from the University of Western Ontario with a degree in English Literature.

But despite having studied something she loved, she came back to Singapore at 23 without a clue about what she would do for a career.

When her application to local luxury retail company Club 21 returned with a job offer, she took it up on a whim. There, she learnt everything from advertising to public relations and events management under the tutelage of her boss Christina Ong.

But despite the challenging work, she longed for more diversity in her career than offered by the cyclical nature of the fashion industry, which became mundane to her.

Her lack of savings at the time did not help, either. “Unlike my peers who were buying homes and cars, I was blowing my entire paycheck on designer clothes and bags, with no assets to call my own,” she recalls.

But she did have an asset – her junior membership at the Singapore Island Country Club, which she sold to start Mercury in 2000 with two ex-Club 21 colleagues, each of them pumping in $10,000 to launch the business.

Without crippling debt or mortgages tying her down, she decided that she had nothing to lose and took the plunge to start her own public relations agency as a way to get more creative ownership over her work.

Unfortunately, it was hardly a rosy tale for the trio of first-time entrepreneurs. Despite their work experience and media contacts, she says they did not have a clue about how to run a business and quickly found themselves in over their heads.

The hours were long, often with little to no pay, and mounting overheads meant they were depleting the initial investment fast. A year in, one partner called it quits and the second a year later.

To make matters worse, Ms Lee inherited sole proprietorship of the firm just as she found out Mercury had landed the contract to organise the 2004 Singapore Fashion Festival, which at the time was owned by the Singapore Tourism Board.

“When we bid, I had business partners and we were so excited to be a tiny business up against the organiser of the Australian Fashion Week,” she recalls. “But when we won the contract, I was alone and had to plan a mammoth event by myself in under eight months.”

She rolled up her sleeves and, with two assistants, worked herself to the bone – starting every day at 8am and not hitting the sack till the wee hours of the morning.

When the festival started, a rollercoaster of emotions swept over her – veering from exhilaration while watching the steel beams for the tents go up at 2am to sheer panic as the tents began to leak with rainwater mere hours before Chanel’s opening show.

“I remember sitting in the tents and crying alongside the skies for a good five minutes before pulling myself together and getting back to work,” she says.

“It was one of those do-or-die moments when I realised I was stronger than I gave myself credit for.”

Thankfully, the two-week festival proceeded without a hitch and Mercury was lauded by the press for taking the event to Orchard Roadfor the first time.

Over the next three years, the company made up to eight figures in revenue. Yet she found herself making only enough to clear her overheads and pay her staff of 12.

“I was really allergic to spreadsheets and numbers so I couldn’t see where I was going wrong, even though on paper I was running such a successful business,” she says.

Perhaps it was serendipitous then that through work she met Mr Jeremy Tan, who owned a small events company.

She says: “I was taken by his style of working and how he managed to have much higher profit margins than me despite operating a smaller business.”

She shared her books with him to get help to improve her money situation but ended up with more than just his financial advice.

“He proposed that I sell him half my business with a promise that he would quadruple my profits in five years,” she says.

Though her previous history with business partners made her initially averse to the idea, sheknewshe had to get someone on board who could help her manage the areas she did not understand.

The decision turned out to be a winner. With Mr Tan, 34, handling logistics, operations and finance for the company, she was able to whole heartedly invest her time in strategic and creative pursuits.

So much so that when the Singapore Tourism Board decided to can the fashion festival in 2009, she was able to garner enough support to hold the Audi Fashion Festival – Singapore’s first privately funded consumer fashion event. Her success in managing the ongoing festival, which ran from 2009 to 2014 with Audi as the title sponsor, helped the company nab clients such as Chopard, Tiffany and Co and Cartier.

Today, Mercury is located at a 4,000 sq ft office in Telok Ayer and makes more than $13 million in annual revenue. And though her annual fashion festivals may seem very glitzy, Ms Lee says the event has never been a lucrative one from a business perspective.

“We get little to no funding from the Government and have to push so hard to fund the entire event through the private sector. But despite its challenges, I refuse to give up on it because it’s what I built Mercury on,” she says earnestly. “It’s my way of shining a spotlight on talented local and regional designers.”

Over the years, the festival has seen the likes of Carolina Herrera and Roberto Cavalli bringing collections to Singapore – in turn thrusting local designers such as Ong Shanmugam and Dzojchen into the international spotlight.

While Singapore Fashion Week will always be the feather in Mercury’s cap, Ms Lee’s lifestyle and business incubator CRIB, which she started last year with three close friends, is her proudest achievement to date.

“I realised after having my first child how difficult it can be for women and stay-at-home mums to get back into the workforce or have that work-life balance you can get as an entrepreneur,” she says, admitting that she never saw herself as the maternal sort until she had her son.

“This is why I wanted to create an opportunity for women to get the mentorship and guidance they need to start their own ventures, while juggling the demands of raising a family.”

CRIB aims to matchmake women with different skills so they can kickstart their own businesses. In under two years, it already has 140 members and has matchmade two successful partnerships.

She has also created a proprietary model based on her past experiences – pushing for every business to have combinations of A, B and C kinds of people – otherwise known as angel investors, business managersand creatives.

“I learnt that lesson the hard way by starting Mercury with two other creatives. Without a business mind or solid investor, it was always going to be a recipe for disaster,” she says.

CRIB co-founder Marilyn Lum, 34, a lecturer and curriculum planner for a hospitality and management school, says she could not help but be inspired for Ms Lee’s vision for the outfit.

“I remember watching Tjin speak to some of our members and seeing the impact her advice had on them. That’s the amazing thing about her. She manages to stay grounded and relatable despite the successes she’s achieved,” she says of her friend.

And it is true. Even after 15 years in the industry, Ms Lee admits that she is still very much the same daydreamer who would spend her time doodling in her textbooks. Except there is one small difference.

“I’ve learnt that while dreaming is important and has brought me to where Iam today, it’s not enough to just dream big,” she says.

“You’ve got to keep your feet on the ground and work harder than everyone else. That’s the only way to turn your dreams into reality.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 13, 2015, with the headline 'DAY- DREAMER COMES THROUGH The Life Interview'. Print Edition | Subscribe