Home-grown beauty brand going places

Dr Georgia Lee and Patsy Ong-Hahl are the women behind A DrBrand, whose skin and haircare products are expanding overseas this year Ankita

Rose petals, organically grown and procured from France, settle in a tea cup at A DrBrand offices in Pasir Panjang.

Dr Georgia Lee, co-founder of A DrBrand line of products - which encompasses DrGL skincare products, DrHair hair products and the DrSpa chain - personally came up with the recipes to complement the treatments offered at her spas.

After six months of research and two weeks working with a Chinese physician to test everything, from the taste to the colour of the tea, she settled on three recipes.

The 49-year-old, known for her statuesque frame and signature blunt-cut bangs, says she can be focused to the point of being "obsessive". She is the sort to research things for months and go to extreme lengths to produce a product exactly the way she dreamt it.

Throughout the 1½-hour interview with The Straits Times, what is apparent is her relentless diligence - which means not even the smallest things go unnoticed.

It is no wonder then that her home-grown, science-driven line of skincare is becoming the talk of the town. What started with a handful of skincare products in 2009 has evolved into a 40-product line, which this year will make its foray overseas.

Since 2016, A DrBrand's revenue has grown 500 per cent year on year.

In 2011, Dr Lee opened DrSpa, a spa business offering treatments for the face, body and scalp. There are four DrSpa outlets at Tangs at Tangs Plaza, OrchardGateway, Palais Renaissance and residential development TQL Suites in Bugis.

With her long-time friend, Ms Patsy Ong-Hahl, 52, who is co-founder and chief executive of A DrBrand, the mother of two is taking the brand to new heights. The DrGL and DrHair lines will expand overseas, entering London, France, Germany, the United States and China, including Hong Kong, progressively from the second quarter.

The team has secured big-name distributors - the companies were disclosed to The Straits Times confidentially - for these markets and is finalising the contracts and go-to-market strategies, which it says will be a mix of e-commerce and brick and mortar.

From April, DrGL products will also be sold on Hong Kong-based airlines Cathay Pacific and Cathay Dragon, allowing the brand to reach more than 150 million passengers annually. Products, such as cleansers, serums and sunblock, have been available on Singapore Airlines since 2016.

Hair and skincare products from A DrBrand on display at a trade show in Hong Kong last year. PHOTO: A DRBRAND

Given Dr Lee's long list of celebrity clientele and penchant for high-society events, where she rubs shoulders with the movers and shakers of Singapore, one might expect a diva on his hands.

But in person, the doyenne of the aesthetics industry is warm and welcoming - the sort to skip the handshake in lieu of a hug when she meets someone for the first time.

When she gets down to discussing her business, she is attentive, thoughtful and well-informed.

For her, taking the brand overseas had always been a long-term goal as she grew the brand locally.

"But we really took our time with it," she says, adding that it took six years to develop the initial products and another eight to grow the brand in Singapore. "I didn't want to make the move overseas until I felt that we were ready."

Despite the success of her brand today, starting a skincare line was never a dream of hers to begin with. It all started rather unceremoniously in 2004 with an unsightly rash on the right side of her face.

She was suffering from fixed-drug eruption - which meant a rash flared up whenever she took a particular antibiotic. As this was unbeknownst to her, she continued to take the medication until the entire right side of her face was sore and covered in blisters.

"By the time the root cause was diagnosed, my skin was in a bad state and, later, I developed bad hyper pigmentation as a result of the inflammation, which is quite common in Asian skin," she recalls.

"Back then, I felt everything on the market was either too gentle or too harsh for me, which is why I ended up investing some of my savings in a small company to create products that I could customise for the needs of my skin."

The healing process, though long and tedious, piqued her interest in the skincare industry and she became fastidious about studying everything from ingredients to processes to packaging.

Dr Georgia Lee (left), co-founder of A DrBrand line of products, and Ms Patsy Ong-Hahl, also a co-founder and the brand's chief executive. ST PHOTO: ALVIN HO

Despite her 12-to 14-hour workdays, she toiled over her product line after work hours, taking personal leave to travel to factories in Japan, South Korea and the US to find the best manufacturers.

She started out with the basics, such as moisturisers and cleansers, but became fixated on the impact of ingredients on the skin and the quality of the raw materials. For her, grade A was not good enough and she would seek AAA medical-grade products, much to the dismay and surprise of her suppliers, who found procuring such products in small amounts difficult and costly.

Still, she stuck to her guns. Everything from the mineral content of water used to make the products to how the plastic packaging eroded over time became a consideration - resulting in her working with different factories, based on the ingredients and specifications of each product.

"Once, I travelled six hours one-way by road in the middle of winter to a specific factory in South Korea, just because I heard it would be able to produce the kind of packaging I had imagined in my head," she says, pointing out the design of one of her sleek forest-green bottles.

"When I got there, they refused to do it, saying it was too complicated. But I refused to leave and zeroed in on convincing the supervisor, who eventually got tired and agreed to make it for me."

Her stringent checklists mean even the smallest things are accounted for. Factories that she works with must drain their pipes multiple times each weekend to ensure the raw materials pumped into the products are fresh. If a product is not up to scratch, she has no qualms throwing away the entire batch.

It is this unfailing eye for quality and detail that her partner, Ms Ong-Hahl, sees as one of the strongest suites of the brand. She came on board the company in 2016. Prior to that, she and Dr Lee had been friends and confidantes for a decade.

Ms Ong-Hahl, who is an angel investor with years of experience growing businesses in various industries, including fashion and tourism, decided to join the company partly because she had seen "the amount of blood, sweat and tears" that Dr Lee had put into formulating the products.

The mother of one says: "Plus, I saw both of our strengths as very complementary - she has a focus on the science and development of each product while I brought a more big-picture, business perspective to the table."

Her connections saw her marketing the brand in a big way - with global trade shows in Hong Kong in 2016 and in Las Vegas last year, where the brand was part of a curated floor and snagged meetings with international buyers.

For the duo, the challenge now is to grow their team of 138 and find the right people who can keep up with them.

Both of them admit to being sticklers for details and are workaholics who frequently e-mail each other in the wee hours.

"We are very similar in that regard, we expect quality work and work very hard to set that example," says Dr Lee. "For me, it is a matter of doing something to the best of my ability - otherwise, I won't do it at all."

For Ms Ong-Hahl, it is taking a home-grown brand to the next level that she feels has been her biggest reward.

"This is a brand from Singapore and people often say we are such a small market. But that is why we need to think bigger," she says.

"So many local brands are, in fact, of world-class standard and on a par with the bigger players. I don't see why local brands like DrGL shouldn't be out there in the international marketplace, competing with the big boys."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 26, 2018, with the headline Home-grown beauty brand going places. Subscribe