Beauty-industry queen Grace Ban on shaping Singapore's retail landscape

Beauty industry veteran Grace Ban, who brought many brands to Singapore, steps down

The Who's Who of the Singapore retail industry gathered at Stellar at 1-Altitude restaurant in Raffles Place a fortnight ago for a swanky farewell luncheon. They were feting "lipstick diva" Grace Ban, 59, a respected insider of the Singapore beauty retail industry.

She retired at the end of last month, after devoting 35 years to the American beauty conglomerate Estee Lauder Companies, where she was general manager of the Singapore affiliate for the last 15 years.

The Estee Lauder Companies, one of the world's largest prestige beauty groups, owns signature brands including its namesake label Estee Lauder, as well as Bobbi Brown, Clinique, La Mer, M.A.C and Tom Ford Beauty.

Ms Ban was the first Singaporean - and first female - managing director of the local affiliate. Succeeding her is

Ms Lisa Chow, formerly brand general manager of Estee Lauder in Hong Kong.

At the farewell luncheon for about 100 guests, the department store head honchos included Ms Yoko Yasuda, managing director of Takashimaya Singapore; Mr Kevin Dyson, chief operating officer of Tangs; Mr David Tang, chief executive officer of Metro; Mr Christophe Cann, managing director of Robinsons; Mr Sosuke Nishiwaki, executive director of BHG; as well as Mr Lim Tien Chun, managing director of Isetan.

Mr Fabrice Weber, president of Estee Lauder Companies Asia Pacific, attests to Ms Ban's influence in retail and beauty circles.She is known in Singapore and Malaysia as "the lipstick diva, the beauty queen, ambassadress of best practices in the beauty industry", he said at the luncheon.

Indeed, she had played an instrumental role in introducing cosmetic brands such as Aveda, Jo Malone, Lab Series, Michael Kors, Tory Burch and Tom Ford Beauty to the Singapore market.

In the last 20 years, she was a spokesman of sorts for the beauty business. For the media, she was the go-to industry expert for make-up and skincare trends, and also consumer forecasts, especially when she was president of the Association of Perfumes and Cosmetics Distributors for six terms spaced between 2007 and 2012.

On the national scene, she had given feedback to the Government on ramping up retail productivity through training, when she served on a Workforce Development Agency steering committee from 2012 till recently.

Life after Estee Lauder is just the beginning of a new chapter. Over banana cake and coffee in her cleared-out office in UE Square two weeks before her last day of work, she tells Life!: "I've given so much to the industry, but I don't think I'm retiring."

She chose to retire early to spend more time with her family, "but this is not the end", she says. "I'm just giving up the job for other things I want to do in my life."

The elder daughter of a health inspector and school teacher, Ms Ban was born in British North Borneo (now Sabah).

Her parents separated when she turned two. Together with her younger brother, she was sent to Singapore to live with her doctor uncle at his bungalow in Bukit Timah. She continued to live there until she married her first husband at 34.

She enjoyed a rather idyllic and privileged childhood with her brother and eight cousins. Playtime was often spent at the Singapore Island Country Club while pig-tailed amahs watched over them.

As a child, she was never into "girly activities and didn't even own a doll". The Raffles Girls' Secondary School student was more interested in puzzles and word games.

Her first job was not remotely connected to the beauty industry. After graduating from then University of Singapore with a degree in business administration, she joined Alliance Engineering Company as a marketing executive in 1978.

Her responsibility was to service and sell cold-room and refrigeration equipmentfor oil tankers.

As the only woman in the sales and marketing team, she learnt how to negotiate and ace the deal with rough-and-tough ship handlers. When she first joined, the men refused to let her on the ships, saying it was bad luck to have a woman on board.

"I was like, I have to because I want to know more about the equipment that I'm servicing," she recalls. "So they had no choice and I went on the very hot and greasy stairs in my heels and skirt."

That experience made her realise she had grit. "Now, when someone says something cannot be done, my eyes light up. I take it as a challenge."

After a year at Alliance, she applied for a job at Estee Lauder and was rejected. She was interviewed by Mrs Sybil Schwencke, the doyenne of the local cosmetics industry then.

"Sybil said she liked me but I was too green," says Ms Ban.

So she answered an advertisement for a merchandising role at Metro. She was hired as a public relations executive instead as the interviewers felt she was better suited for it.

At Metro, she cut her teeth in the retail industry. "I was always away from my desk. I wanted to be on the shopfloor to see my work, be it the merchandising or the public relations. It all comes alive on the shopfloor and you get to see whether you did it right."

But Ms Ban was destined to work at Estee Lauder. Through happenstance,

Mrs Schwencke told Ms Juliet David, then the advertising and promotions director for Metro, about a vacancy for a Clinique brand manager role. And Ms David recommended the sassy Ms Ban.

When she became the brand manager of Clinique in 1980, the Lauder group's Singapore arm was still being represented by Harper Gilfillan, one of South-east Asia's oldest trading houses.

At the time, there were just three Lauder brands in Singapore: the namesake label, Aramis and the smallest label, Clinique.

Six months into the job, Ms Ban had her first opportunity to stir up the Singapore beauty retail industry. Mr Leonard Lauder, owner of the group, arrived in town and tasked her with accelerating Clinique's business.

To give the brand traction, he instructed her to close six of the brand's 12 counters. Then to pick the best store and give it an all-white Clinique identity counter. This was at a time when beauty products were peddled at generic counters in department stores.

Naturally, Ms Ban chose to have the star counter at the then Metro Grand at Lucky Plaza.

"He said the business would double overnight and he was right. The counter hit one million dollars in sales within one year," she says.

"And back in 1980, with those instructions, he changed the complexion of the cosmetics industry here. Now all counters are identity counters. I was so privileged to see this retail genius at work."

After a decade at Clinique, she moved on to brand manager of Estee Lauder in 1991. Tapping her roots in retail, she believed that understanding what customers wanted was the way to go.

She once hired a research company to conduct a consumer survey with all of Estee Lauder Singapore's customers, which numbered 55,000 then. She wanted to know how the brand could improve its service and left her mobilephone number on the questionaire.

"The phone did not stop ringing for three days. And we got back 7,000 replies to the survey - the research company said that kind of response was unheard of," she says.

"That proved to me that the customer wants to be part of the brand-building process. If we are relevant to their lifestyle, we are theirs for life."

Some pointers in the responses continued to guide her for the rest of her career. "The feedback was so genuine and practical. The customers said they wanted acknowledgement when they stepped into the store, they would like to try before they buy and they wanted beauty advisers who listen to their needs and not just sell them the flavour of the day," shares Ms Ban.

By 2000, the Lauder group in Singapore had grown to represent 10 brands, including Origins, M.A.C and Bobbi Brown. That year, Ms Ban was made the affiliate's general manager.

Under her stewardship, the group's Singapore portfolio has grown to 21 cosmetic brands, including seven designer fragrance labels, across more than 250 counters and stores islandwide.

Notably, she helped Tangs to secure the first Tom Ford Beauty store in Asia in 2012. "Tangs wanted Tom Ford Beauty, but Singapore was not even on Mr Ford's radar then," she recalls.

She pushed her team to seal the deal. "An initial 'no' became a 'yes'. Now the brand is on fire. The products are constantly sold out."

The American designer's beauty arm - popular for its bold lipsticks and smoky eyeshadows - is an extension of his glamorous aesthetic.

The Singapore affiliate's year-on-year annual sales figures from 2012 to last year grew at an average of 6 per cent "in a highly crowded market", says Ms Ban.

Managing director of Tiffany & Co. South-east Asia, Ms Chris Lui, in her mid-40s, was Ms Ban's ex-colleague in the late 1990s, when Ms Lui was a retail operations manager at M.A.C.

She says: "Grace sets a high standard but is probably the hardest on herself. I could see that she didn't believe in or would accept half-hearted efforts from her team.

"She is an astute businesswoman and a tough negotiator who speaks her mind. But she is also known to be a very gracious lady and, most importantly, authentic."

While Ms Ban's career was stellar, she had her personal struggles. Her first husband, Mr Wong Hon Fai, an engineer, died of nose cancer in 2010 after a five- year battle with the illness. They have two sons, Matthew, 25, and Mitchell, 22.

"It was tough, but I had two nurses to help out, as well as understanding colleagues when I had to take the day off," she says.

She did not plan to remarry. But in 2013, she met Mr David Khoo, an interior designer and owner of an interiors, architecture and space design firm, at a charity dinner. He was a widower with two children, Rachel, 23, and Nathan, 21.

She was renovating her bungalow at the time, so she asked Mr Khoo for his opinion. It turned out that he had designed the Singapore Airlines Business Class Lounge at Changi Airport and she had wanted a similar concept for her house. So he helped her to oversee the renovation and select furnishings.

They started dating and he proposed on bended knee with a ring three months later. The pair wed on Valentine's Day last year and the solemnisation took place in Ms Ban's renovated home.

Dressed in a chantilly lace and duchess satin gown designed by her friend, Singapore designer Peter Kor, Ms Ban was walked down the aisle by her uncle.

For now, she is looking forward to having some "me time" - poking around her beloved garden, sorting out the finishing details of her home which she now shares with Mr Khoo and maybe enrolling in an art course.

"I feel fitter, stronger and more worldly than at any other time in my life. After being in this role for more than 30 years, I think I have done well.

"I don't think I will goof off and not do anything. I'm just turning one page to go on to the next."

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