How Cynthia Chua built lifestyle empire Spa Esprit Group, helming 17 brands across 9 countries

How Cynthia Chua built lifestyle empire Spa Esprit Group, helming 17 brands across 9 countries
PHOTO: The Straits Times

A quick search on Google for the name Cynthia Chua immediately brings up about 441,000 results - the fourth result showing a Wikipedia entry of Singapore's lifestyle magnate who is the founder and CEO of the Spa Esprit Group.

On top of being a #girlboss, she is named "lifestyle maven" by The Honeycombers, "Singapore's undisputed Lifestyle Queen" by the Peak Magazine, and Nylon declares her as "an inspiring individual" - all fitting accounts for the Beaumont-educated aromatherapist and Bronx-educated massage therapist.

The list of her skills and expertise can go on like Daenerys Targaryen's titles.

That's not surprising with the number of beauty and lifestyle establishments under her belt.

In the interview with Nylon, she named all the 17 brands that the Group handles locally, including notable names such as Spa Esprit, STRIP, Browhaus, Tippling Club, and Open Farm Community.

She has also expanded her empire across Asia, and to London and even New York.

In a 2014 interview, Ms Chua said the Group's annual turnover was at $70 million, and the "total business… [was] worth between $200 million and $300 million".

It grew from one spa with eight staff, to a corporation with a manpower count of over 800 now.

Brands under the Group's umbrella may be in F&B and beauty only, but they serve different demographics and cater to diverse needs.

I think it's impressive for a woman - and even better, a Singaporean woman - to be at the top of the game or specialisations, all while keeping the passion burning to keep improving in her work.

So what drives Cynthia Chua and her aspirations behind each of her fruits of labour? Let's find out.

A Supporter Of All Things Local

Photo: Spa Espirit

She is undoubtedly Singapore's daughter.

As a frequent traveller, she observed that on Singapore Airlines' flights, passengers were provided French body, skincare, and fragrances brand, L'Occitane en Provence instead of a local brand.

So, she aimed to develop a "range of toiletries for Singapore Airlines."

She also knows facts about Dempsey that regular people would not take the time to find out.

She revealed that Dempsey Hill - a lush, green spot between Tanglin and Bukit Timah - is her "soft spot". Chua easily explained the hill's historic significance; where the area Open Farm Community is, used to be a nutmeg plantation before it was ruined by blight.

It had gone through some military transformations since World War II and is now a hidden gem for modern urban dwellers in the '90s.

A project that she started working on last year in collaboration with Raffles City and Edible Garden City sees her growing her own herbs, harvesting them by hand, and producing soothing creams in a Singapore lab.

When she could have easily outsourced these herbs in higher quantity, using less effort, and worked with an overseas lab that could produce the creams with lower costs.

She could have easily set up a waxing salon anywhere else in the world that would see more profits, with clientele who were more accepting to spread their legs and the word. Yet, she chose to start up STRIP: Ministry of Waxing right here on our little, sunny island.

Breaking Boundaries For Beauty Everywhere

Ms Chua attributes her inspiration to starting STRIP when she was overseas, when people she had met mocked Asian women for having poor grooming standards.

In an interview, she said, "I want women to celebrate and love their bodies, that they do it for themselves."

Female empowerment at its best.

The Beauty Block, her multimillion-dollar lifestyle concept retail space in Chelsea, London, is a 2,300 square-foot premise consisting of a Browhaus store, Strip (known as Ministry of Wax in London) store; and an A Wanted Man cafe.

She combines both beauty and food under one roof, serving both women and men.

With this, she wants to make beauty more acceptable to men too. Her clients in London sees 95 per cent women and 5 per cent men, whereas in Singapore, there are 20 per cent male patrons and 80 per cent female patrons.

The Beauty Block's comfortable and earthy interior, and the "one-stop-shop" convenience makes it less intimidating for both genders to get beauty treatments.

When she was at the store, she noticed that there were three wives "in the cafe waiting for their husbands, who were upstairs getting their eyebrows trimmed."

She's Just Like Any Common Man

Cynthia Chua at Open Farm Community, her farm-to-table restaurant and urban farm business.Photo: The Business Times

Ms Chua credits her successes and the longevity of her businesses to working hard and getting down and dirty with staff.

She helped in the kitchen at Common Man Coffee Roasters when it opened, and worked the 6pm to 2am shift for the first three years of HOUSE at Dempsey.

Even after being complimented as "Singapore's biggest lifestyle entrepreneur", Ms Chua's reaction was down-to-earth, saying that the group will not take its successes for granted and will continue to "break new grounds".

Despite learning about aromatherapy and massage therapy - enjoyments that help people to relax - Ms Chua can't seem to slow down, but instead uses what she learnt to innovate for her businesses.

For 40 Hands, she came up with a citrus blend.

With Farm To Beauty, her agricultural affair with Raffles City's 10,000 square-foot rooftop garden has given her a new playground for her to hand-harvest and experiment homegrown herbs that can be made into creams.

She worked with Edible Garden City's founder on a number of occasions and learned about the benefits of urban farming, planning to make use of the under-utilised rooftop spaces of Singapore.

Since starting out on her entrepreneurial journey in 1996, at the tender age of 24, this ever-evolving and awe-inspiring lady does not seem she will stop here anytime soon.

We look forward to hearing more from this successful woman as she makes waves locally and overseas.

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