Founder of one of the world’s leading water treatment companies
Hers is the classic rags-to-riches story – abandoned at birth and raised in poverty, she overcame all the odds and founded a very successful business.
Olivia Lum is the Founder, Executive Chairman & Group CEO of Hyflux Ltd., a leading Singapore-based water treatment company in Asia. Abandoned at birth in Malaysia, she was adopted by an illiterate widow whom she called ‘grandmother’. As a child, Olivia lived in an attap hut with bare earth for its floor. When she was just four, she began selling her toys to other village children to help make ends meet. When she was nine, she became the sole breadwinner because her grandmother was too old to work.
Despite this difficult life, Olivia did very well in school. One of her teachers suggested that she move to Singapore where there would be more opportunities. She did so when she was 15, with just $10 in her pocket. She managed to get into a school, did very well, and graduated from the National University of Singapore in 1986 with an Honours degree in Chemistry. She supported herself through school and university by taking on various part-time jobs and working during vacations.
Olivia first worked in Glaxo Pharmaceuticals as a chemist in their waste water treatment unit before resigning in 1989 to start Hydrochem, as Hyflux was initially known. She had an idea for a business – providing the world with clean water. She sold her condominium and car to raise the start-up capital of S$20,000. Olivia initially employed only two people - a technician and a clerk. She would travel up to Malaysia on a motorbike to sell her products.
In 2001, Hyflux became the first water treatment company to be listed on SESDAQ, and in 2003 the company moved over to the mainboard. The company has since sealed several major deals, including the building of Singapore's first seawater desalination project. Hyflux’s business has expanded beyond Singapore to China, the Middle East, North Africa and India. By 2012, the company’s revenue was some S$680 million and its products were installed in more than 400 locations around the world.
Olivia has served and continues to serve on a variety of boards, and she was a Nominated Member of Parliament from 2002 to 2004.
In 2004, Olivia was the first woman to be honoured at the Singapore Business Awards. In 2010, Olivia was conferred the Public Service Medal. In 2011, she was named the prestigious Ernst & Young World Entrepreneur of the Year, making her the first woman and first Singaporean to win the award.
Olivia was Her World magazine’s “Woman of the Year” in 2002.
"Don’t think too hard and plan too much. If you wait for everything to be in place, you might miss the boat. Someone else could have the same idea and turn it into roaring success."