FOR a woman who has built a multi-million dollar business around pampering the body or satisfying picky taste buds, Cynthia Chua rarely has time to relax. Singapore's leading lifestyle entrepreneur is built for motion; ideas swirl in her head constantly, even as she gets her hands dirty making sure her latest enterprise gets smoothly off the ground.
This flurry of activity gives her a sense of progress, a chance to indulge in new experiences or take on new challenges. The alternative would be "stagnation", a word she spits out like a mouthful of sour coffee.
"I feel fearful of stagnation. I need to progress, it's like an artist's need to express. I love what I do because it's my way of expression, and it rejuvenates me," said Ms Chua in an interview with The Business Times at The Beauty Emporium, her one-stop beauty and grooming supermarket at Dempsey Hill.
The 42-year-old has done more than her fair share of expression since she started the first Spa Esprit outlet in 1996, after a short stint working at a bank. With its strong focus on aromatherapy oils and customised treatments, it brought the local spa scene to a new level of sophistication.
In just under two decades, her business has grown from one small spa to a sprawling empire featuring 16 different brands with 91 F&B outlets and lifestyle stores spread across the planet. Today, the 800-strong Spa Esprit group enjoys a turnover of roughly $80 million.
Its brands include waxing studio Strip, brow grooming salon Browhaus, men's grooming store We Need A Hero, specialty cafe Common Man Coffee Roasters, Skinny Pizza and her latest, Argentine small plates restaurant Bochinche, which opened in August last year. In 2012, Ms Chua was named the Singapore Tourism Board's Tourism Entrepreneur of the Year.
She has time and again demonstrated an uncanny knack for spotting opportunities ahead of anyone else, or identifying trends way before they become fashionable. One prime example is her role in transforming Tiong Bahru from a sleepy neighbourhood on the fringe of downtown Singapore into one of the city's buzziest districts.
At a time when the hawker food at Tiong Bahru Market was the area's biggest draw, she opened cafe 40 Hands in 2010, betting that offering a trendy coffee joint in the midst of a heritage neighbourhood would draw a certain kind of crowd. To build that vibe, she even convinced specialty bookstore Books Actually to move in next door.
"Tiong Bahru taught me a lot of things. It's not just about operating a business but also urban planning. We wanted to develop a street where we could curate what kind of vendors would go in," she explained.
When the hipsters started to come - causing a parking squeeze in the process - she opened more outlets; modern bistro Open Door Policy in 2011, French bakery Tiong Bahru Bakery in 2012, and upscale men's barbershop We Need a Hero last year.
Ms Chua displays the classic characteristics of highly successful entrepreneurs: visionary ideas, the courage to take risks, and an affinity for hard work.
All three were on display when she decided to expand into the F&B business in 2007 with the opening of the 35,000 square feet House at Dempsey Hill. At a time when she was enjoying tremendous success with her beauty brands, many saw it as an unnecessarily risky move. She dismissed the detractors, and listened to her inner voice - one that had served her very well thus far.
Venturing into F&B
"I dissected myself and realised that it's not about just beauty or food, but about being passionate in life. A lot of people said that I was crazy taking 35,000 square feet space with no F&B experience, but I was not afraid, I just thought about how I was going to do it," she said.
Making House a success involved her working almost every night for the first three years, waiting tables and helping out with the rest of her staff.
"People say you need to spend about 10,000 hours to master a subject. I literally did that at House, spending my nights there up to 2am. We were thinking of different types of parties to hold from Monday to Saturday. It was hard work but we made it fun for ourselves," she said.
Making it fun is also important in explaining her success. Without that sense of passion and sense of adventure when she wakes up in the morning, burning essential oils as she prepares for the work day ahead, she readily admits that she would walk away from it all.
She's also managed to overcome her lack of experience by picking the right partners - including Harry Grover (40 Hands), celebrity French baker Gontran Cherrier for Tiong Bahru Bakery, chefs Ryan Clift (Tippling Club and Ding Dong) and Diego Jacquet (Bochinche).
Not all of her concepts have been a success, though the failures have been few and far between. She admits to being particularly disappointed by the closure of Broadcast HQ in Little India, which opened in June 2012 and housed a cafe and record store on the ground floor, and a bar and dance floor on the second. It closed late last year because it could not obtain a licence to play live music.
"When Broadcast HQ closed I was quite devastated. I fought very hard to get the licence," she reveals.
The avid traveller gets her ideas from all corners of the globe, which she then puts through the filter of a born and bred Singaporean who understands the nuances of local consumers.
Now she is turning that process around, and launching her brands in global cities such as London and New York. She currently has 38 overseas outlets under the Strip and Browhaus brands.
She is determined to turn the Spa Esprit Group into a global phenomenon, a challenge that befits someone as seemingly fearless as her. The timing of her overseas forays is also appropriate, as she believes that Singapore may have become too expensive a place to launch some of her concepts.
"There will always be gaps to fill in Singapore, but costs and labour become a push factor. If I have a concept but don't have the manpower to do it right then I won't do it. I have to be careful with how I use my energy," she said.
With the business growing at breakneck speed, it's no surprise that she was approached by the investment arm of French luxury giant Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy with an offer to invest. L Capital Asia had bought a 20 per cent stake in home-grown shoe and accessory brand Charles & Keith in 2011. She declined to give further details.
By going head-to-head with global players in some of the world's competitive cities, has she finally bitten off more than she can chew? It is too early to tell, but the vivacious lady is relishing the challenge and spoiling for a fight.
"I want to create an international brand. If you want to be really good you have to compete with the best, and that means going to places like London, New York, Hong Kong and Shanghai. I have a stubborn streak, if people tell me I can't do it, I will want to prove them wrong."
CYNTHIA CHUA ON BALANCING THE CREATIVE WITH THE COMMERCIAL
'A lot of people like to talk about indie. What is indie? It's about the story, the little details. But you can still have 500 people in your operations and still have those little touches. It's a delicate balance between creativity and a massive demand in operations, but to be able to achieve that is something amazing.'
ON SPA ESPRIT'S INTERNATIONAL EXPANSION
'I want to create an international brand. If you want to be really good you have to compete with the best, and that means going to places like London, New York, Hong Kong and Shanghai. I have a stubborn streak, if people tell me I can't do it, I will want to prove them wrong.'