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Managing Complex Situations in Emerging Economies and More Challenging Markets

9th Lecture of the IEL Distinguished Speaker Series
Speaker: Ms Olivia Lum, Executive Chairman and Group Chief Executive Officer, Hyflux Ltd

By Ellora Chua, Student Reporter


On Staying Competitive

In an age of rapid transformation, it is imperative for businesses to be competent in “Managing Complex Situations in Emerging Economies and More Challenging Markets” in order to stay competitive, and on April 15, Ms. Olivia Lum shared just that.

The Executive Chairman and Group Chief Executive Officer of Hyflux Ltd inspired and invigorated many as she imparted her experiences on how she managed complicated business environments of emerging and challenging markets, such as China in the early 90s and today, the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region.

Hyflux Ltd – a one-woman startup turned multinational firm – provides sustainable solutions in the areas of water and energy, and is one of Singapore’s most uplifting success stories. But anecdotes straight from the horse’s mouth revealed that Hyflux’s success was hard fought.


In 1993, four years after Hyflux’s (then known as Hydrochem) induction, Ms. Lum felt that Singapore was too small a market; her young, growing company would have to venture out into international markets to stay afloat. However, Ms. Lum’s competitors were already well-established in the South-east Asian region and as much as Hyflux needed to evolve, she knew that competing head on with her rivals was a detrimental move.

Ms. Lum eventually decided on China, believing that she could gain a foothold in the market as she possessed not only the necessary language skills but pioneering technology that the Chinese market could potentially desire as well. At the time, not many businesses dared to venture into China due to the economical opacity as well as political instability caused by the Tiananmen Square protests. But Ms. Lum saw others’ apprehension as her opportunity and seized it.

“I took the plunge because… Well, how could I go wrong with 1.3 billion people?” she quipped. Her instincts turned out to be right on the money, even though Ms. Lum did experience her fair share of hardship.

“In the first two years of being in China, I had a very tough time. I almost bankrupted the company because China was not keen on water treatment, let alone waste water treatment” she recalled. “Suddenly, there was an influx of MNCs in China and to make sure that they were meeting environmental regulation standards, these MNCs would look to set up infrastructure for waste water treatment,” “And that established my presence in China” Ms. Lum said.

Soon after, in 1997, a financial crisis befell South-east Asia and many of Ms. Lum’s competitors suffered heavy losses or had to be shut down altogether.

“The financial crisis set my competitors back but my footing in the Chinese market gave me a competitive advantage,” Ms Lum said.

“Eventually, my company was the biggest water treatment company left standing.”

Moving to MENA

When the Singapore Government decided to launch a tender to build the country’s first saltwater desalination plant, Hyflux competed for the bid and won. It was the largest membrane-based seawater desalination plant in the world at the time of its completion and this achievement propelled Hyflux to success on home ground.

Eight years ago, Ms. Lum realized that the economic landscape in China had changed drastically and she found herself contemplating on the idea of continuing to grow in China. She decided that she needed a better strategy.

“Who needs my services most?” was the question Ms. Lum would ask herself.

The MENA region came to Ms. Lum as a very “natural” target market for Hyflux’s growth and expansion. Even though countries in the MENA region possess the resources needed to run energy-intensive desalination plants, they do not have the infrastructure enabling them to desalinate three million meter
cubes of saltwater per day. Thus, plants have been built in Algeria, with two more currently in development in Oman and in Egypt.

Although China has a more competitive economic environment, Ms. Lum admits that the MENA region presents its own obstacles in the form of language and cultural barriers, political disputes as well as the extrinsic motivation of her Engineers.

7 Ps of A Successful Entrepreneur

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A living testament that persistence, fearlessness and the ability to take calculated risks can reach milestones, Ms. Lum passed on valuable advice, collated from her own experiences, which she calls ‘The “7 Ps” of A Successful Entrepreneur.’

Closing the 9th lecture of the IEL Distinguished Speaker Series with a QnA session, Ms. Lum answered some of the attendees’ burning questions, giving them a glimpse of the inner workings of a successful entrepreneur’s mind.

“The most important thing is aspiration and you have to be daring enough to see that your vision will be fulfilled one day.”


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The 9th Lecture of the IEL Distinguished Speakers Series, which took place on 15 April 2016 at the Engineering Auditorium, drew over 330 registered participants; with over half coming from industry, government agencies and professional sectors. NUS was also well represented by its staff and students from across various Faculties.

More information on the IEL DSS including the list of past speakers and their presentations may be found at http://www.eng.nus.edu.sg/IEL/distinguished-speakers/index.html Should you wish to be informed of upcoming lectures please email iel_info@nus.edu.sg (subject: DSS Subscribe)