The Life Interview with Luxasia founder Patrick Chong: Beauty is this man's world

Luxasia founder and CEO Patrick Chong has spent the last three decades in the beauty industry when all he wanted was to be a pilot

Mr Patrick Chong, founder and chief executive officer of fragrance and cosmetics distributor Luxasia, is everything and nothing you would imagine a beauty industry CEO to be.

As the man behind the regional retail of some of the biggest beauty brands - from Guerlain and La Prairie to Burberry and Bvlgari - it is unsurprising that the diminutive man looks much more youthful than his years, which after some prodding, he reveals to be somewhere "in the 60s".

As someone who has spent the past 30 years building a presence in an industry that promotes youth, glamour and beauty, he undoubtedly walks the talk in his sharp suit and with his crisp speech.

But lest you be worried that he might have the resultant stuffy airs of a head honcho, he quickly proves to be anything but. Right off the bat, there are no formalities. Instead of polite small talk, the conversation kicks off with his love of golf and segues into his recent adventures in Penang, spent hunting down the best durians.

In many ways, it seems that surprising people is Mr Chong's forte. After all, despite being a man in what is usually considered a woman's world, he has built an empire in the beauty industry through Luxasia, which this year celebrates three decades and operates in 11 markets regionally - Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, China, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam and Myanmar.

From its first decade spent just distributing fragrances, the business has evolved in a way that has surprised industry players and customers too.

Today, the company not only distributes cosmetics and professional salon products, but also has a retail arm in the two Escentials stores, has signed joint ventures with the likes of the fragrance and beauty arm of French luxury conglomerate Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton (LVMH) and has invested in beauty technology start-ups such as Vanitee, a local app that finds and books beauty services for users.

But perhaps the most surprising thing about Mr Chong's journey is his "very much accidental" foray into the world of beauty - one he says might have never happened if not for a serendipitous switcheroo during his first day on the job at British trading firm Inchcape.

Mr Chong had not intended to work in perfumes and cosmetics, an area that few men ventured into back in 1977, the year he began working.

In fact, the Anglo-Chinese School boy had not wanted to have a conventional office job at all, having long harboured dreams of becoming a commercial pilot .

"I had so desperately wanted to be a pilot, I used to charter planes from Singapore to Malaysia and Thailand while I was a student at the University of Singapore, where I was studying arts," he recalls. "Back then, all I wanted was to chalk up the flying hours I needed to become a pilot one day."

Much to his dismay, those dreams were shot down when he realised post graduation that the national service policy at the time dictated that it was not possible to become a commercial pilot without completing national service.

Left with no other option, he sent out 150 letters for all manner of jobs in banking, trading and marketing and ended up receiving only two offers. He opted for the one which paid more - a marketing executive position at Inchcape, where he was supposed to cover its portfolio of wines and spirits.

However on his first day, his boss informed him that an incumbent leaving the fragrances and cosmetics arm meant Mr Chong would be assigned there instead.

"Thirty years on and with the benefit of hindsight, I can say that I truly have no regrets," he says with a laugh. "It might have been accidental at the start, but if I had to do things all over again, I would choose the beauty industry as my first option."

His success is likely the result of his infinitely curious nature, a trait he says he had as a child.

The youngest of five brothers and an adopted sister, he had a comfortable childhood, growing up in the spacious quarters of the police station on Beach Road, where his father worked as a senior police officer. His mother was a nursing sister.

"I would describe myself as an average student, probably because I was rather easily distracted," he says. "But even though I wasn't very interested in school, I enjoyed learning as a whole. I was definitely a child who was extremely inquisitive and when something piqued my curiosity, I would keep asking questions until I had learnt everything about it."

It was those qualities that served him well during his 21/2 years at Inchcape, where he made the best of his new posting - constantly shooting questions to his colleagues, bosses and clients to try and learn the inner workings of the beauty distribution trade.

Accidental foray into beauty biz

For the first time in his life, he used beauty products himself, starting with a routine of cleansing, toning and moisturising so he could understand first-hand the benefits of beauty products.

"It was my initiation into the business - besides becoming an advocate for the actual products, I was also never shy to ask questions and reconfirm answers whenever I had doubts. I quickly saw the opportunities the industry had and that was something that excited me from the start."

One of the opportunities the forward-thinker saw in the beauty business early on was regionalisation - the idea that one company could distribute a beauty brand in more than one country at the same time.

He harboured dreams of distributing, launching and marketing brands in not only Singapore, but also Malaysia and Indonesia, which at the time was the biggest market in Asia.

Regional distribution was unheard of back then: There were numerous distributors in each country and brand owners - otherwise known as principals - could pick from among many suitors in any country they wanted to launch a product in.

This is no longer the case as over the years, there has been a lot of consolidation. Now countries barely have distributors and only a few principals are operating on their own.

But unfortunately for Mr Chong, he knew that working in an MNC such as Inchcape would not give him the opportunity to realise his idea of starting a regional beauty business. Furthermore, Inchcape did not have the back-up or infrastructure needed for him to operate in Indonesia, which meant he could not raise his ideas with his bosses.

In a moment of serendipity, Mr Chong bumped into a principal twice at an airport in Indonesia while there on a work trip. As the duo chatted for three hours, he shared his idea of a regional beauty distribution platform - one that would allow brands to launch their products in multiple countries at the same time.

To his surprise, a week after the meeting, the principal got in touch with him and said his bosses in Paris were intrigued by the idea and wanted to meet Mr Chong to discuss the possibility of setting up a regional platform.

Just like that, given the perfect melding of opportunity and desire, he found himself leaving Inchcape to set up Cosmetiques de France in 1980, backed by the principals from France. The company, which later became a joint venture with L'Oreal, distributed the French cosmetics giant's brands such as Lancome, Biotherm and Ralph Lauren in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Six years later, in 1986, Luxasia was born, primarily to carry brands that he was prevented from distributing in his first business. Its name reflects the business he started with a partner from Luxembourg. He later sold his stake in Cosmetiques de France in 1997 to L'Oreal.

The initial $500,000 in capital that the duo pumped into Luxasia paid off handsomely when they managed to court Calvin Klein after two years of persuasion and launched Eternity and Obsession. But their big break came when they launched ck one - touted as the world's first unisex perfume - in Singapore in 1995.

Not only was Singapore the first country besides the United States to launch the perfume, but Mr Chong also persuaded 11 department stores here to launch the fragrance simultaneously, a move that was unheard of at the time.

Before that unprecedented move, fragrances were never sold at exclusive counters and were often launched only at a single store where they were restricted to the cosmetics department. He later launched the fragrance similarly in Malaysia and Indonesia.

That one launch became a game changer - an article in The Business Times from September 1996 reported that Luxasia's turnover for the year hit $36 million.

But for Mr Chong, that early partnership was successful for more reasons than just monetary gain. It became the turning point for Luxasia, one that referenced its ability to synergise three different markets.

And the strength of the partnership shows, given that Luxasia continues to distribute Calvin Klein, 30 years on.

Still, Mr Chong's mantra has always been to change, evolve and surprise. After Luxasia turned 10 and with nearly 40 fragrance brands under his belt, he decided to change things up - this time taking on distribution of cosmetics and haircare products, thus moving Luxasia towards a full-spectrum beauty business.

Twenty years in, he switched things up again - this time turning his attention towards developing long-term joint ventures with brand owners to whom Luxasia can lend market expertise. It inked a joint venture with American beauty products manufacturer Coty Inc in 2005 and another in 2011 with the LVMH group covering South-east Asia.

It also started the Escentials retail concept in 2001. The two stores located at Tangs Orchard and Paragon offer exclusive premium brands of cult skincare and fragrances such as Eve Lom, Diptyque, Serge Lutens and Byredo, which are not as readily available in mass market department stores.

This constant transition and evolution is something Mr Chong seems particularly proud of, when asked about what he thinks of the last 30 years in the trade.

"These past three decades have been a constant learning curve for us, especially because brand owners give you one chance and you really have to earn their trust and create value for their products," he says.

"We've gone from being a distributor of choice to a market maker, so for us, it's important to maintain exclusivity and competitive differences among our brands. It's essential that we never misuse any information they provide us with."

Today, the business that started with eight staff in three countries has become a regional beauty brand empire, with more than 2,000 staff in 11 countries and a six-storey, 200,000 sq ft warehouse space in Tai Seng in the Paya Lebar area.

The company also continues to remain privately held, a decision Mr Chong is confident about as it has allowed him to grow the business at his own pace - even when entering more volatile markets such as China and India.

And even though two of his three children work in the business alongside him - his son Alwyn, 37, manages Escentials and oversees their Philippine, China and Thai operations and his daughter, Sabrina, 34, is the head of corporate development - the open-minded man who is married to an opthamologist, Swee Heng, says that the business will always be left to the best man for the job. His youngest daughter is a doctor and is uninvolved in the business.

His meritocratic direction for the company is something his daughter Sabrina agrees with. The lawyer, who joined the family business four years ago, says of her father: "He is a fantastic boss and I'm proud to say that our business is family-owned, but professionally run.

"As someone who teaches through actions and not words, I consider myself very lucky to be able to work with my dad. Not many people get a chance to see an entrepreneurial spirit at work, so I consider myself very lucky to experience that first-hand."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 08, 2016, with the headline The Life Interview with Luxasia founder Patrick Chong: Beauty is this man's world. Subscribe