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IF BEE Choo Origin founder and CEO Cheah Bee Chew were to sum up how her company managed to grow from a small outfit in Ang Mo Kio 10 years ago into a regional company with a franchise network spanning 11 countries, it would be the power of testimonies. New markets like Malaysia, Taiwan and Indonesia were entered into mainly because satisfied customers wanted to bring these herbal hair products back to their hometowns, Mdm Cheah recalls. As such, there was not even a need for publicity efforts to draw potential partners or franchisees.
"There is only so much we can say about how good our products are," says Mdm Cheah. "When we have testimony of clients that our products are effective in solving their hair problems, there is no need to keep advertising." And because those leading these franchisees have personally experienced the effectiveness of the hair products, they are better able to share their own testimonies with others.
Bee Choo Origin now distributes its products to 137 stores in 11 territories, namely Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Myanmar, Thailand, China, Cambodia, Taiwan, Hong Kong and India. The company is also in talks to open outlets in Korea and Brunei. Twenty stores are located in Singapore and 117 stores are overseas. As a ballpark estimate, these outlets provide hair treatments to some eight million customers a year.
Mdm Cheah says the group plans to bring these products into the US this year, particularly in cities with a large Chinese population, given the products' popularity with the Chinese. Australia is another market where it hopes to enter this year. Even as it ventures into new markets, Bee Choo Origin is mindful of cultural differences and is studying different herbal concoctions to tailor-make products to suit different demographics.
Despite having at least two awards for entrepreneurship under her belt, Mdm Cheah calls herself an accidental businesswoman. It all started with a humble hairdressing business with just two chairs and one steamer in an HDB flat in 2000. Her customers' hair problems stoked Mdm Cheah into experimenting with herbal hair products at home with a simple aim of helping her customers. These satisfied customers soon spread the word on the products.
From opening a shop in Ang Mo Kio, she went on to open a second one in Clementi in 2008 and then a third in Bedok in 2009. Soon, some customers from Malaysia decided to bring these products back to Malaysia under a franchise model.
This marked the beginning of the group's overseas expansion through franchises. Now, there are 54 franchise outlets in Malaysia that carry Bee Choo Origin products; the group also owns a manufacturing facility in Johor.
Soon, the group entered the Taiwan market, thanks to the success of solving a Taiwanese customer's hair problem - this customer no longer has to wear a wig any more to cover her hair loss. From winning this one customer, there are now over 20 shops in Taiwan carrying Bee Choo Origin products. This common thread of growing through testimonies is evident in many of the group's expansion trails overseas.
The company's expansion has sped up in the past seven years after it acquired a manufacturing facility in Singapore and Malaysia and expanded the capacity by 10 times. Revenue and profit increased by 24 per cent and 44 per cent respectively over the past five years.
To keep up with its expansion, Bee Choo Origin is planning to expand its current team of over 40 full-timers and actively hire more Singaporeans, Mdm Cheah says. The group is looking to spend an estimated S$500,000 to innovate its current product range.
The 56-year-old entrepreneur has also roped in her daughter Lim Xue Ting as general manager since January 2015 in a bid to prepare and groom the next generation of leaders in the group. Ms Lim, a trained optometrist, has become instrumental in public communication efforts and staff training.
When it comes to continual learning, Mdm Cheah sets the example by obtaining three certificates in the past two years, despite her busy schedule. These include two WSQ certifications - Professional Diploma in Human Resources and Specialist Diploma in Human Capital Management - as well as the Global Business Leadership and International Relations certification from Georgetown University.
No doubt, the current economic landscape has become challenging for many businesses, with customers tightening their purse strings and competitors often choosing to undercut prices or imitate the products and the established brand image of the group.
But Mdm Cheah notes that Bee Choo Origin has the competitive advantage, going by its products' effectiveness and the affordability of its products and services. "Now, people are also more health conscious. As long as they are determined, they still want to receive hair treatment, regardless of the economic climate," she says.
The coveted "Singapore Service Class" Award that the group received from Spring Singapore last year attests to the business and service excellence of the group, she says. Mdm Cheah notes that the many awards that Bee Choo Origin has clinched over the years have raised its branding and put it in good stead for further overseas expansion.
Mdm Cheah's personal awards
2015 The Established Entrepreneur of The Year from the Asme and the Rotary Club of Singapore
2014 The Established Entrepreneur of The Year from the Asme and the Rotary Club of Singapore