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It Changed My Life: Founder of One.99 Shop back with fizz after the fizzle

Founder of One.99, which went from boom to bust, stays upbeat

Nanz Chong-Komo's eyes widen in mock shock before she lets out a suppressed giggle.

"Did you see that? They went in there together," she says with a gasp, tilting her head sideways to indicate the toilet cubicle which a couple had just entered.

We are sitting at the back of a cafe in Bishan Park when our conversation about her triumphs and misadventures is interrupted by the saucy interlude.

The 48-year-old has three phones on the table. One is for her friends. One is to field sales inquiries for her 78-year-old father, a retired jeweller who gets a kick peddling jade and gemstones online. The last she uses for her new business.

Last month, Mrs Chong-Komo became the Singapore distributor for sodastream, the world's largest manufacturer, distributor and marketer of home sparkling water machines. Listed on Nasdaq, the company's shares nearly tripled in price to more than US$50 in the last 12 months.

"I've also been given the go-ahead to sell in Malaysia and I'd love to get the rights for other Asean countries too," she says.


Above: Mrs Nanz Chong-Komo became the Singapore distributor for sodastream last month. PHOTOS: KEVIN LIM, COURTESY OF NANZ CHONG-KOMO, TNP FILE

It is the latest reinvention for Mrs Chong-Komo who was one of Singapore's top models before she founded the first One.99 Shop at The Heeren in Orchard Road in 1997. Within six years, she opened 13 more stores, all selling a range of merchandise at the flat price of $1.99.

She was lauded with honours and accolades, including The Woman Entrepreneur Of The Year in 2000. At the height of her success in 2001, her turnover hit $14 million.

If her rise was meteoric, her fall was even more spectacular. Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) struck in 2003 and affected her business so badly that she soon owed $3 million to her bank and creditors, and was declared a bankrupt a few months later.


Above:Mrs Chong-Komo at a fashion show in the 1990s. She was a top model before she founded the One.99 chain of shops in 1997.  PHOTOS: KEVIN LIM, COURTESY OF NANZ CHONG-KOMO, TNP FILE

But she did not lie low. Instead, she became a business coach, motivational speaker, counsellor and author while raising three children, now aged between 10 and 13.

Married to an American-Japanese business strategic adviser, she also started two other ventures - a barbecued chicken business and an online portal for women - which did not quite take off.

The setbacks, she says, are good lessons.

"I'd rather we tried and didn't do well instead of not trying at all. At least I know what I do and don't do well," says Mrs Chong-Komo, who gives more than a dozen talks a year, commanding fees of about $5,000 for each engagement.


Above: Mrs Chong-Komo in one of her One.99 outlets in 1999. PHOTOS: KEVIN LIM, COURTESY OF NANZ CHONG-KOMO, TNP FILE

Trim and leggy, she has a personality as effervescent as the sparkling water produced by the machines she now distributes.

Her mother is a Singaporean and her father is from Hong Kong. The younger of two children, she was born in the former British colony and lived there until she was 10.

Home was a tiny 300 sq ft apartment in Tsim Sha Tsui's infamous Chungking Mansions, which started out as a residential complex in the 1960s but soon became a magnet for traders, backpackers and an assortment of colourful characters.

Much of her time after school was spent with her parents who peddled jade at the Jade Market in Kowloon's Canton Street.

"I heard a lot of adult conversations. Who bought, who sold, what went wrong, why customers went to neighbouring stalls. I realised early on that life was hard."

When she was 10, the family came to Singapore, where Mrs Chong-Komo lived with her maternal grandmother in a rented shop- house in Middle Road.

"Old women would come and play si sek," she says, referring to an old gambling game using cards in four colours. "My grandmother made money by serving tea and coffee, and getting a cut of the winnings."

Her father became one of the first tenants of Lucky Plaza when he set up a jewellery store there in 1978.

Because lessons were conducted in Cantonese in Hong Kong, Mrs Chong-Komo did not speak any English when she got into Stamford Girls' Primary where her mother was an alumna. But barely six months later, she was among the top pupils in her class. After completing her O levels at Crescent Girls' School, she enrolled for a business diploma at Ngee Ann Polytechnic but dropped out after eight months to become a model. She was popular, scoring shoots in all the fashion magazines and ads for Nescafe, Sony, Tangs and Takashimaya.

After she emerged second runner-up in a Look Of The Year contest organised by modelling agency Elite in Hong Kong, Asia Television (ATV) offered her a job co-hosting the 1988 Olympics in Seoul.

"I was given a book and had to memorise names like Carl Lewis in Cantonese. The anchor was solid so all I had to do was look interested and agree with everything that was being said," she says with a giggle.

ATV next asked if she was keen to try acting.

"I said no. I know I couldn't do it. I can be very decisive," she says.

And feisty and gutsy as well. When she found out that a modelling agency was underpaying her and her colleagues, she made them sign a complaint letter and confronted the management.

"Someone has to do it, right? What's the point of complaining in the locker room? We weren't asking for more. We just wanted to be paid what was due to us," she says.

At 23, she plonked down $9,000 of her savings to open a boutique, Klis (silk spelt backwards), in Expo Gateway where VivoCity mall now stands.

"I spent a lot of time talking to customers. I'd kneel and fold hems. I built up a database of 400 customers. I went on merchandising trips to Hong Kong and Thailand. I swept the floor and ironed like crazy," she says. Nine months later, she sold the business for $80,000.

The experience gave her a lot of confidence, so when a Japanese friend asked if she would be keen on a business selling good-quality merchandise at low prices, she jumped at the opportunity.

"I knew that I had to reinvent myself. If the world moves on, and you don't, you're dead," she says.

She had "a great ride" with One.99, raking in $3.5 million in revenue in the first year. "It was $9 million in the second and $12 million in the third. I doubled the figures every year."

When she is asked if she became overconfident, her face turns pensive. "A person's strength is both a blessing and a curse. I had a big risk-taking appetite. When you're growing and expanding so much, you don't step back and review what is good and what is bad. And that is bad," she says.

When Sars hit in 2003, sales halved.

"Half was not enough to pay staff or cover rental. I was over-leveraged, my risk management was poor, my reaction time was too slow," she says, adding that it was game over in a matter of months.

She reconciled herself to the loss but Mrs Chong-Komo, who got married in 1998, still feels bad that her husband and her father had to pour in hundreds of thousands to help save the business.

Nearly 4,000 people, she says, were declared bankrupt in 2003. But only she stepped forward to talk about it. The way she sees it, one way to manage failure is to help people.

Her willingness to talk about her bankruptcy ironically opened many doors. Besides speaking engagements in schools and companies, she also received invitations to share her experiences at high-profile events such as the 2010 Apec Women Entrepreneur Summit, founded by US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, in Japan.

A mentor with the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, Mrs Chong-Komo, who was discharged from bankruptcy in 2009, has also published three books: One Business. 99 lessons (2006), Bringing Out The Entrepreneur In You (2012) and Overcome (2012).

It was not all smooth sailing. She and her husband lost $150,000 on Smokey's, a barbecued chicken business which hired elderly workers.

There was also an e-zine for working women which she started in 2009 but closed 18 months later when her business partner had health issues.

There were several offers to start businesses, ranging from childcare centres to cafes. But none interested her until sodastream came along.

A friend told her that the Israeli drinks company was keen on a new distributor for Singapore and was looking for someone who was savvy in marketing and branding.

She spent almost a year researching the company - whose products are sold in 75,000 stores in 45 countries - and flew to Israel to meet the management.

Candidly, she lets on that the thought of starting a business again unnerved her.

"It's harder when you're older. I asked myself, 'Why do this when you could retire in Hawaii?'" says Mrs Chong-Komo, whose husband is from Hawaii. "But they're a global company and they believe in us. I'll regret it if I didn't do it. I see so much potential in Singapore and the region."

In fact, sodastream honchos have so much faith that she can raise the brand's profile that she did not have to pay for the distributorship.

She reels off facts she has committed to memory: How making one's own sparkling water eliminates the use of cans and plastic bottles, and saves one tons of money.

"This bottle costs $6," she says, pointing to the bottle of Perrier on the table. "But one sodastream cylinder costs only $26 and can give you 200 bottles of sparkling water."

The last few months have been spent finding an office, hiring staff, getting retail outlets such as ToTT and Home-Fix on board as partners, setting up an online shop (www.Sodastream.sg) and handling transitional woes.

She hopes to avoid the mistakes she made with One.99. "I outsource what I don't do well. I don't run my own warehouse. I don't open retail stores. I work with partners. Everybody makes a profit."

There have been other changes in her life.

Once a high-profile member, Mrs Chong-Komo left City Harvest Church five years ago. The church has been in the news because six of its leaders were convicted of misappropriating church funds to launch the pop career of founder Kong Hee's wife Ho Yeow Sun.

She and her family now attend a smaller church which "focuses more on God, and less on leaders".

She says: "The last few years have been great for reflection. I thought I was so experienced because I've gone through so much. But I've learnt that sometimes things are not what they appear to be."


WATCH VIDEO ONLINE

Nanz Chong-Komo on taking charge of her life http://str.sg/4BmM

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 23, 2017, with the headline 'Back with fizz after the fizzle'. Print Edition | Subscribe