Times were very tough when Madam Teh Siew Inn started her own stationery business way back in 1973.

With just $7,000, she set up shop in Shaw Centre, the first of what would become a ubiquitous name in the stationery world: Evergreen.

In an interview at her Tagore Lane office, the 69-year-old chief executive, who has two daughters, said: "The walk-in crowd was very small. I wanted to cater to the offices in the vicinity, but most of them also had existing arrangements with other suppliers."

But Mrs Wee, as she is known to her staff, eventually won clients over with her dedicated service.

"We didn't get the big contracts at first, but sometimes they would need refills, or some miscellaneous items. No matter what they bought, be it one ruler, two pens, or an eraser, I would deliver it to them. I was the only person manning the shop, so I had to close it for a while, rush out and (come) back," she said, in Mandarin.

Eventually, she got her first big break when an American oil company - whose name she cannot recall - started to use her company as its main office stationery supplier.

She said: "We made losses in the first three years of business. Even now I wonder why I never thought of giving up. But I guess that is me. I believe that if you put in enough effort, and keep trying, you will eventually succeed."

Evergreen Stationery now has nine retail outlets islandwide, including shops at Parkway Parade and Square 2 in Novena. Still a major office supplier, its turnover last year was about $12 million.

She believes that the stationery business will be challenging in the future, and has now diversified into selling alkaline water ionisers, filtration systems and dispensers.

"It was quite a mindset shift for me. I am used to dealing with things that cost only a dollar or two, and now one ioniser is about $2,000," she added with a laugh.

Q: Are you a spender or saver?

I am definitely a saver. Even when I go shopping with free vouchers that I receive, I find it difficult to spend. Often, I end up coming back empty-handed and passing the vouchers to my children instead.

I also cannot bring myself to take taxis, I don't feel good about it at all. I just feel like I am spending unnecessarily.

Most of my monthly income goes into repaying my mortgages, and the rest I save. My next biggest expenses would be going for tuina massages. That is one thing I really enjoy, and I do it twice a month.

As for eating, I am a simple eater too; hawker centres are fine by me. Young people these days prefer restaurants, but that is okay too.

My children always nag at me to spend more money. They say that if I don't spend, I cannot help the economy.

Q: How much do you charge to your credit card every month?

I almost don't charge anything for my personal use to my credit cards, except for my spa or massage packages.

However, I do use them for my company's bills, such as utility bills and all that, to accumulate reward points. These points can add up, and sometimes can be worth a few hundred dollars worth of cash or vouchers.

Q: What financial planning have you done?

The range of insurance options when I was younger was very limited, nothing like the variety that you see today.

I had some term life insurance, which can no longer be renewed, but there is still one policy left, which will stop when I am 80.

Insurance is a very good product, and I have always encouraged my children to buy while they still can.

As for my investment portfolio, I invest only in property. I own four residential properties at the moment. I do not have time to research stock and bonds, which is why I do not own any of them. My business keeps me busy, and I will not invest in anything that I do not understand.

Q: Money-wise, what were your growing-up years like?

My family was actually quite well off when I was a young girl, and my parents owned a coffee shop.

But my father had a gambling addiction, and squandered away a large part of the wealth, so I learnt to be thrifty from a very young age.

I remember my father would give me 30 cents as pocket money when I was in school, and the bus fare each way was 10 cents.

To save 20 cents a day, I walked... from my home near Bugis to my school, which is near the Istana. I only spent 10 cents a day on food.

There is also an incident that I will never forget, which was the one time I actually wanted to take a bus but had only five cents on me. I never forgot the feeling of being only five cents short, and being unable to take the bus.

This is why I believe so much in saving for a rainy day.

Q: How did you get interested in investing?

It was the idea that Singapore is land-scarce, and that if you buy at a low price and sell at a high price, you will make money.

My first landed property was a small terraced house in Jalan Pemimpin. Then, when my children were studying at the National University of Singapore, we moved to a bigger property in Sixth Avenue so that it would be more convenient for them.

But the public transport network in that area wasn't too good.

We moved back to another bungalow in Jalan Pemimpin, before moving to my current house in Highland Road.

Every time I shifted, I made money from my property transactions.

Q: What property do you own?

Just recently, I bought a penthouse in Clover By The Park in Bishan. It cost about $1,100 per sq ft, and the apartment is more than 2,000 sq ft with five bedrooms.

I will be moving there next year, and I will be living with one of my daughters and grandchildren.

I also own a seven-bedroom semi-detached house in Telok Kurau, which I rent out for more than $7,000 each month.

There are also two condominiums that I bought for about $600,000 each, that are yet to be completed. One is The Tannery near Bukit Panjang, and the other is Rangoon 88. These two units are slightly smaller, but my children and I thought that the smaller units would be easier to rent out.

Q: What's the most extravagant thing you have bought?

I don't think I am very extravagant, but the most expensive thing that I have bought would be my properties. My parents always taught me not to attract attention. If you wear too much jewellery on you, then people know that you are rich, which may make you a target for crime.

Q: What's your retirement plan?

I don't plan to retire actually. I am worried that I will be like my mother, who started to become senile after she stopped working.

Working prevents dementia, I think, because there is a structured schedule that you work around every day.

My day starts at 5am and ends at 11pm, so I may take it a little slower in a few years, especially since I am truly financially free now.

Even though I still have mortgages, I actually have enough to pay off my loans at one go if necessary.

I enjoy singing and dancing, so when my work is less busy, I will start to look for my old friends again.

Q: Home is now...

My three-storey house in Highland Road, but I recently sold it.

I will move into my condominium apartment next year.

Q: I drive...

I do not drive.