Hyflux CEO Olivia Lum: From selling kaya toast to helming water treatment firm

Ms Olivia Lum became the first woman to win the Ernst & Young World Entrepreneur of the Year award in 2011.
Ms Olivia Lum became the first woman to win the Ernst & Young World Entrepreneur of the Year award in 2011.ST FILE PHOTO

Early life was difficult for Olivia Lum, growing up in Perak in Malaysia. An orphan, she was adopted by an elderly woman she called Grandma.

Not being financially well-off, the founder and chief executive of Hyflux sold kaya toast at school canteens to help support herself.

But teachers saw the straight-A student's potential and encouraged her to further her studies.

She moved to Singapore and earned an honours degree in chemistry from the National University of Singapore in 1986, before landing a plum job at Glaxo Pharmaceuticals, where she took charge of wastewater treatment.

But she wanted to build her own business. She saw that rising urbanisation and industrialisation would result in higher demand for wastewater treatment services.

In 1989, she set up Hydrochem, the precursor to Hyflux, with only two staff members and a paid-capital of just $20,000, raised from selling her car and apartment. She was only 28.

During the early days, Ms Lum knocked on countless factory doors in Singapore and Malaysia to sell water treatment products and systems using traditional technologies. In 1992, Hydrochem obtained the exclusive rights from a supplier to distribute membranes and membrane filtration plants to industrial customers. In 1999, a research and development team was set up with the aim of manufacturing its own range of membranes. Having proprietary technology would set Hydrochem apart from its competitors in the growing water industry.

 

A key milestone came in 2001, when it became the first water treatment company to be listed in Singapore. In 2003, it moved to the mainboard.

The subsequent years were good for Hyflux. In 2001, it was awarded its first municipal water treatment project in Singapore to supply and install the process equipment for the Bedok Newater Plant, Singapore's first such plant. The next year, it secured another project from national water agency PUB to design, build and commission the country's third Newater plant in Seletar. It also landed a contract to build, own and operate Singapore's first seawater reverse osmosis desalination plant, called the SingSpring Desalination Plant.

Hyflux became a global player, winning projects in China and the Middle East, including Oman and Saudi Arabia, as well as in Algeria.

In 2011, Ms Lum became the first Singaporean and the first woman to win the prestigious Ernst & Young World Entrepreneur of the Year award.

However, the firm has been hit hard in the last few years. Its Tuaspring desalination and power plant was affected by Singapore's depressed electricity prices.

Despite seeking buyers, Hyflux was unable to divest Tuaspring and its plant in Tianjin.

In recent weeks, there has been a liquidity crunch.

It was made worse by restrictions affecting the repatriation of monies into Singapore from projects overseas.

The problems culminated in last night's announcement of the application for a court-supervised reorganisation process.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 23, 2018, with the headline 'From selling kaya toast to helming water treatment firm'. Print Edition | Subscribe