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Sincerity before profit

Cheah Bee Choo, an accidental herbal hair treatment entrepreneur, discusses her formula for success

'The market is immense. The Chinese are more receptive to our products, and they have confidence in the Singapore brand name.' - Cheah Bee Choo, founder of Bee Choo Origin.

ASK Cheah Bee Choo for precise numbers about her business, and she will happily tell you she doesn't know. The unassuming and chatty founder of homegrown herbal hair care firm Bee Choo Origin is not driven by dollars and cents. And thus she turns away potential distributors who are more interested in profits than in understanding her products and working hard, she says.

"If you put money first, it is very tiring. If you don't earn what you want, you might lose the spirit to strive," she says in Mandarin. "But if you do something well, money will come to find you."

Mdm Cheah has come a long way ever since she arrived in Singapore in 1979 at the age of 19 with just S$30 in her pocket. Today, her business spans more than 150 distributors across markets like Singapore, Malaysia, China, Taiwan, Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Hong Kong and India.

The core business of Bee Choo Origin revolves around manufacturing a herbal paste, which promotes hair growth and a healthier scalp. In its hair treatment salons, the paste is applied along with tonic, before a customer's hair and scalp undergo a steaming process. Today, annual revenues are around S$8 million - big numbers for a housewife who began her entrepreneurial career offering haircuts for S$4 or S$5 in her Pasir Ris HDB flat.

But Mdm Cheah plays down her achievements, noting her business is still small and there is much for her to learn. "Because my educational level isn't very high, I have to continue improving myself: Whether learning how to maintain a business, build a team, control costs and product quality, or offer the right services," she says. "In building a business, I often tell myself not to hurry. As long as I focus on managing it well, and set clear goals, I don't need to worry about other competitors."

Organic growth

Arriving at Singapore in 1979 from Malaysia, Mdm Cheah originally wanted to be a hairdresser but couldn't afford the course fees. So she ended up working at a hair salon, got married three years later, and had three children.

It was not until 1999, when her youngest child had started primary school, that she found the time to learn hairdressing. Soon after, she started a small business in her Pasir Ris HDB flat, initially catering to housewives she met in the neighbourhood park. She then moved on to experimenting with treatments for her customers' hair problems.

"I had learnt about traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) while studying hairdressing. Then I met a TCM doctor, and he told me, why don't I try using Chinese herbs to help?"

Her business grew as word spread about her skills and the effectiveness of her treatments. Yet rapid growth also attracted the attention of town council authorities, who told her she couldn't operate her business from home. "I never thought of opening a shop, but my customers didn't want me to stop," she says.

In 2006, she sank in S$50,000 to open a hair salon in Ang Mo Kio. A second shop in Clementi followed in 2007, and a third in Bedok in 2008. Mdm Cheah soon found herself facing challenges in managing the accounting and finances for her growing business.

In the meantime, she set up a Singapore factory in 2009 and a Malaysian one in 2011. Distributors knocked on her door, keen to expand her business to their respective territories. She was happy to let them do so, as long as she retained control over the manufacturing process of her products. "We want to maximise the opportunities we have to help more people. A brand needs to have many users before people can see its effectiveness," she says.

China, Asean potential

Today, Malaysia is Bee Choo Origin's biggest market with over 60 distributors. But it is in China that Mdm Cheah sees the biggest potential. "The market is immense. The Chinese are more receptive to our products, and they have confidence in the Singapore brand name," she says.

In South-east Asia, which currently accounts for half the company's business, there are also many opportunities to expand. Bee Choo Origin first needs to understand a country's culture, the standards of living of its people, and their understanding of, and demand for, herbal treatments, she says. "We need to find suitable locations and sincere distributors," she adds.

She continues to fly abroad every month to maintain relationships with her distributors. The company also hosts discussions with them once a quarter. It is currently working on a franchising project. "We want to provide our distributors a comprehensive system that will help them to start a business," she says.

To reach out to the younger generation, it has also started using tech. For one of its specialised retail stores, Origin Ladies, the company is setting up an online platform to let customers schedule appointments using a smartphone.

The biggest challenge faced by the firm is to find and retain talented staff. "We send those with potential for management training. We also give them more responsibilities, and let them feel our company is one big family," says Mdm Cheah, who regularly cooks for her team.

Ultimately, a business must always put integrity first, and have a heart to serve. It must use its profits to satisfy customers while managing its processes effectively, she says.

Staff must possess sincerity, supervisors and workers should have mutual trust and understanding, respecting each other as colleagues. "It's been a tough journey, but I have a very good team who is willing to go the extra mile."

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