Sporting sky-high wedges and with wisps of long auburn hair gathered into a loose bun, Dato' Elaine Teh could well be mistaken for someone more accustomed to a life of leisure. But here we are on an early Monday morning at her new five-story office cum state-of-the-art warehousing facility in far-from-glamorous Ubi and she's firing (in rapid succession) sparkling bon mots such as “I'm a survivor”, “I'll manage it” and “I don't believe in wasting time”.
Clearly, those round anime eyes and porcelain complexion belies a feisty, go-getter personality of a savvy business woman who heads premium liquor distribution and supply chain company, Octopus Group Holdings, as its group executive director.
Founded in 2002 with her business partner and husband Andy Lim, the business is named after one of the most intelligent and hardy creatures in the ocean. “The octopus is aggressive, which is what we have been doing — aggressively expanding,” Teh says.
In just slightly over a decade, six brands have been added to the portfolio, operating under a holistic working model that encompass various aspects of the trade: Retail and distribution are handled by Liquorland, Cellarbration and Okeanos; liquor storage facilities are provided by LC Warehousing; a global industrial property portfolio is managed by Octopus Properties; and brand-building services for international alcoholic beverage brands are offered by Brand Connect.
As a result of her innovative spirit, the firm has grown to become one of Singapore's largest companies in the liquor industry with plans to go global, beginning with neighbouring Malaysia and Indonesia in the coming years. For her achievements, the Malaysian-born Teh was conferred the state award of Darjah Indera Mahkota Pahang — which carries the title of Dato' — by the Sultan of Pahang earlier this year.
Ask what got the 44-year-old this far and she states without skipping a beat: “Passion and the desire to learn.”
“When you love what you do, you inevitably work hard. Getting tired or bored is out of the question. You always have to take things to the next level. I also love to learn — the more, the better,” she adds.
One might describe Teh's entrepreneurial story, in fact, as a sort of Bildungsroman marked by talent, incessant hunger to learn and to, perhaps crucially, experience the world through different trades. All this, before finding her velvet glove with Octopus.
Educated in Australia, it was during the early 1990s that a 23-year-old Teh set up her first company in Sydney selling mobile phones. Within a year, she single-handedly expanded one retail outlet to eight. Apart from selling phones, she also exported the devices to countries such as the UK, Germany and Singapore. On receiving her largest order ever — for 10,000 mobile phones from Singapore — and sniffing out further opportunity outside of Australia, she relocated to the city-state.
“I was always on the lookout for trends or ways to enter new markets. Mobile phones were novel during that period of time and the demand was high. There was no time for hesitation and I jumped in,” she recalls.
But finding the mobile phone market in Singapore saturated by early 2000, Teh knew it was time to exit.
Barely taking a breather, she hurtled into the world of information technology, investing in an engineer friend's intelligent business systems for banks and schools. Despite recognising the potential of the ground-breaking technology, she left the venture after two years.
Drawn to the start-up psyche of constant innovation and yearning for a new industry to sink her teeth into, she decided to tag-team with Lim, who had at the time founded a pub management business (the precursor to what is now the Octopus Group). By 2005, the duo managed a portfolio of over 80 bars, pubs and clubs, many of which were located in the vicinities of Boat Quay and Circular Road. They also pioneered innovative bar concepts such as the Eski Bar (Singapore's first ice bar) and microbreweries Archipelago and Bavaria Haus. Just this year, they liquidated their bar and restaurant holdings to focus on the Group's current model of liquor retail, wholesale and distribution.
“To be honest, I never expected myself to be in this industry. I don't even drink much! But I went where the wind blew and followed my instincts, which thankfully proved right,” Teh tells us.
It is, perhaps, because she and Lim are so different in personality — he is shy and she is outgoing — that they make such formidable business (and life) partners. Lim, who made his first million by age 24, supervises operations while Teh oversees the “softer side” of the business. “In the overall scheme of things, we make a good pair. I'm the one who handles people relations, while my husband is more of the behind-the-scenes guy,” she shares.
The two first met as neighbours in the same condominium building; she lived on the ninth floor and he, on the 15th. “To this day, we still argue over who eyed each other first in the lift!” she says, with a laugh.
Born the youngest of seven in Ipoh, Perak, Teh flourished under the influence and guidance of her father, who owned Happy Theatre, a chain of independent cinemas, after having set up his first theatrette at age 18. Rather than growing up spoilt, being the youngest in the family taught Teh independence. “My sister (the sixth child) was five years older than me and I had a 15-year age gap with my eldest brother. They pampered me but I was often left to play by myself. So I created my own games, which, in a sense, aided my creative growth; I developed new ideas all the time” she muses.
At 17, Teh, along with her by then-retired parents, migrated to Sydney where she enrolled at the University of New South Wales to begin a double degree in Economics and Japanese. On an elder sister's insistence that she learns to stand on her own feet (rather than be coddled as the family's youngest), Teh worked her way through university.
“I wanted to work and learn, and I wasted no time in doing so,” Teh recalls.
By 20, she was so accustomed to and effective at juggling work with studies that for two years running, she was named top sales assistant at duty-free shop Angus & Coote. She had also learned the ropes of customer service at the State Bank of Australia and was being groomed for a managerial position at Sydney's largest Chinese-run furniture retailer Beetomba, when she was scouted by a Chinese official — a certain Mr Wu who oversaw a science and technology development in Guangdong — to act as a liaison for Chinese government officials looking to link up with Australian mining, agricultural and transportation companies.
Won over by her approachable and down-to-earth personality, it was these visiting officials who were the first to mentor Teh in the finer points of commerce. “Mentors are very important in business; they can tell you what to pursue and what to avoid. A lot of people learn the hard way because they do not have the privilege of advice or warning. Of course, I never took them for granted,” she says.
Today, Teh herself has been called upon by the Singapore Council of Women's Organisation, the International Business Women Association and Spring Singapore to mentor aspiring entrepreneurs. One advice she regularly dishes out is: Network well but remain genuine. “Be true to yourself and to others. Lose any motives; get to know the other person genuinely and they will help you.”
Despite the successes, Teh, a creature of change, found herself trapped in the never-ending cycle of empire building and for a period of time, teetered on the brink of depression. “I started to question: Why I was working so hard. For who? My family? Yes, but as much as I love them very much, I felt that there was something missing,” reveals the loving mother of two daughters aged 10 and 18.
All this changed in 2009, when she was introduced to the Rotary Club of Singapore. “Charity work renewed my perspective on life. It was something new and gave me a sense of purpose. More importantly, it reminded me that the best things in life are simple and fuss-free — and the people I helped embraced that philosophy.”
Now president of the Rotary Club of Sentosa, Teh and her fellow members are hands-on in community projects such as the cleaning and painting of one-room rental flats occupied by the elderly. Another endeavour she is particular proud of is the club's tie-up with an organisation in Cambodia to provide basic necessities and medical services (rendered by surgeons from Tan Tock Seng Hospital) to remote villages. Early 2015 will see her make a trip to Cambodia to deliver 1,000 bicycles (up from this year's 450) to villagers.
On home ground, she has set aside space in the Octopus Group's cavernous new office for a charity kitchen, a venue where fundraising dinners by celebrity chefs could be held, as well as free cooking classes for terminally ill patients and their family members to teach them to prepare healthy meals. “I enjoy putting smiles on people's faces. My hobby is to make everyone happy,” says the amateur home cook and baker, who has, on more than one occasion, sold her cupcakes to raise funds for the elderly.
These days, Teh sets aside her lunch hour to pick her daughters up from school, or to eat with them. She has also freed up her weekends to spend time with the family. “I'm not a stay-at-home mum and my daughters understand that. Still, it does not stop me from wishing that I have 25 hours in a day for them.”
She is also very clear about her life's direction: “When you reach a certain status, you have the responsibility to help others, be it in the family, at work or by charitable efforts. Do not give in to stress; be strong and balance everything out by taking each day as it comes.”
FASHION DIRECTOR/ EDDIE HALIM
PHOTOGRAPHER/ BRENDAN ZHANG
HAIR & MAKE-UP ARTIST/ RICK YANG @ ATELIER USING SEBASTIAN AND CLÉ DE PEAU BEAUTÉ
PRODUCER/ LAUREN TAN
FASHION ASSISTANT/ JOLIE GOH
PHOTOGRAPHY ASSISTANT/ HUE JUN YANG
GROOMING ASSISTANT/ JOANNE ONG