By Rachel Au-Yong
At 22, Wendy Ho traded ivory keys for ivory skin.
Today, the Mary Chia Holdings chief executive - who once harboured dreams of becoming a piano teacher - helms a multi-million-dollar beauty empire that celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.
Ms Ho took over the reins from her mother - the eponymous Mary Chia - in 2009, the same year the company listed on the stock exchange.
The 40-year-old seems most at ease speaking in Hokkien and strikes you as down-to-earth even if she's dressed to the nines, as she is when she meets BT at her swanky spa in Ngee Ann City.
The well-maintained mother of three jokingly says: "At my age, you don't really have a choice but to maintain yourself. I go to my own spas quite a bit."
Ms Ho has been credited with spicing up the brand's image, taking it out of the heartland and into the realm of the exotic, with safari- themed family spas and boutiques with an Oriental atmosphere.
Consideration is key to innovating new ideas, Ms Ho says. "We started our men's boutiques because my female customers told me their boyfriends and husbands don't feel as comfortable in all our all-women spas."
The men's spa brand, Urban Homme, was launched in 2003 and has about 22.5 per cent market share.
The women's sector, meanwhile, has cornered about 55 per cent.
While some may pat themselves on the back for having the lion's share of the market, Ms Ho is not resting on her laurels.
Up next is a spa targeted at younger PMEBs to be opened by mid-July.
All treatments are priced at $60, hence its name: GoSixty.
This will be the company's 16th outlet in Singapore.
The company's turnover fell 5 per cent to $13.4 million in 2011, from the previous year's $14.1 million.
This was a post-tax loss before minority interests of around $2.6 million, no thanks to intensive competition and "bad publicity for the spa industry". Ms Ho is thus looking across the Causeway for more business opportunities as well.
The first Malaysian spa opened in 2008, and there are now eight in the country, primarily in Johor and Selangor.
And while Mary Chia in Singapore unabashedly serves both the heartlander and upmarket crowds, Ms Ho jokes that her Malaysian clientele are predominantly "datuks and datins".
Services there are priced from RM168 (S$66) at the Mary Chia spas, while treatments at its aesthetic clinic start at RM800.
Ms Ho also wants to take the brand further, to other Southeast Asian countries by the end of the year.
Myanmar and Vietnam, for example, are good locations to sell the spa's range of beauty products in the immediate future.
But most of Mary Chia's efforts this year will be concentrated on the Malaysian market.
"We have about 30 per cent market share there at the moment - it's at the infancy stage," Ms Ho says, adding that Mary Chia positions itself as a prestigious overseas company.