SME Spotlight

They make customised skincare for your needs

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but helping people look and feel good is still a big business. In the last of a four-part series, Annabeth Leow speaks to married couple Mah Mei Hui and Lau Min-tsek, the pharmacists who founded The Skin Pharmacy chain of stores.

Married pharmacists and founders of The Skin Pharmacy chain of stores Mah Mei Hui (left) and Lau Min-tsek believe in a prudent business strategy, and hope to expand their skincare business overseas to places like Australia, as well as South-east Asia
Married pharmacists and founders of The Skin Pharmacy chain of stores Mah Mei Hui (left) and Lau Min-tsek believe in a prudent business strategy, and hope to expand their skincare business overseas to places like Australia, as well as South-east Asia and even China.PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Q What does your business do?

Mei Hui: One of the things pharmacists can do is to make medication. So here, we make skincare products. We use that same knowledge of how to make a cream, but instead of using medicated drugs, we use skincare ingredients.

Min-tsek: Our training actually enables us to make customised products. Let's say you have a cream that you want to be less moisturising or more moisturising - we can do it for you. We can make a brand-new product for you from scratch, using raw materials.

Q Where did the idea for The Skin Pharmacy come from?

MH: We're both pharmacists by training, and we actually have our own (family) manufacturing plant as well. I left my previous job in a pharmaceutical multinational, where my salary was in the five-figure - more than $10,000 - range. We wanted to start up our own business apart from the manufacturing. It's always a pharmacist's dream to have a little retail pharmacy of your own.

MT: When we wanted to do our own brand and everything, we wanted to be a pharmacy brand. And we wanted it to be a pharmacy specific to skincare products developed by pharmacists.

Q What was it like starting your own company?

MH: The funding came from our savings. A lot of our investment for our first shop - about $150,000 to $200,000 - went into rental deposits. For me, it was a very new thing because I was always an employee in a very big company. There were a lot of things to learn. I thought I knew everything when I was working for someone else. When I came out, I realised, wow, I don't really know very much. But Min-tsek has been doing this for about 15 years, so a lot of things I also learnt from him - and for him, I guess a lot of things were learnt on the job.

Q How big has The Skin Pharmacy grown?

MH: Right now, we've got three outlets; we also distribute to John Little. Our headcount altogether is about 20 - and that's just the retail side. Of course, our manufacturing also has another set of staff. Revenue-wise, we won't be so keen to share, but our growth year-on-year has been double-digit for the past few years. Last year, we ended up with about 12 per cent growth, and the year before that, about 15 per cent.

Q What is your business strategy?

MH: We chose our very first outlet because of the lower risks involved, and even till today, we are very careful owners. Our expansion has been slow and steady. We open a shop once a year, so I guess compared to other brands, they'd probably find this very conservative. But you know, we are careful; we observe and we're quite strategic.

Q How do you think you stand out as a brand?

MH: Every one of my shops has a pharmacy-trained individual. All my key staff have degrees in pharmacy. So the professionalism you get when you come to our shop is very different from when you walk into a typical skincare shop.

MT: Professionalism is very important for us, because the skincare industry as a whole lacks professionalism - that's something you notice.

Q And what about expansion?

MH: In terms of products, we focus a lot on skincare, which is our mainstay. But one of the areas we are going to go into is cosmetics. By the end of this year, we aim to launch our own range, which will suit our needs - skincare cosmetics, things like foundations, powders, concealers. These are the basics we are going with first.

The other big area that I see is online. We are a newcomer to that, but now we have reached a stage where people know about us and are even willing to try a product online without coming down to the shop.

Q Are you planning on expanding overseas?

MT: We do have dreams of expanding overseas.

MH: We're looking at places like Australia - both of us were actually educated there for our degrees, so we're familiar with it and also we've got a lot of customers from there who come to tell us, hey, your concept can do well. There is this demand for it - they like our "no this, no that", no petroleum, no parabens.

We're also looking at other big markets around South-east Asia and even China. We talk to people every few months about China.

Q Do you have any advice for anyone looking to be their own boss?

MT: If you really want to start your own business, you must have an entrepreneurial mentality. It cannot be that you want to be safe and cushioned. You must also be prepared to fail, and in your first few years, you will suffer.

You won't earn as much as you used to, and you'll have to work very long hours. You have to be mentally prepared for that.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 14, 2015, with the headline 'They make customised skincare for your needs'. Print Edition | Subscribe