Abandoned kid crafts own success

PHOTO: Abandoned kid crafts own success

Calsia Lee has a gentle voice, lilting and well modulated, and a fluid command of the English language.

It is not a long stretch to assume that she was educated in a top-tier school.

But that, she will have you know, could not be further from the truth.

She was a foul-mouthed, trouble-making teenage delinquent, and barely scraped through her O levels in a neighbourhood school.

Her vocabulary of Hokkien vulgarities, she assures you, is truly impressive.

"Just get me mad on a worksite," says the founder and managing director of Mudian, a company which specialises in custom-made kitchens and wardrobes.

The polished diction is the result of two years spent in a girls' home run by Catholic nuns during her teens, and a two-year relationship with an older Englishman when she was barely 20.

Articulate and self-deprecating, Ms Lee, 44, has the calm and expansive personality often possessed by individuals who have gone through turbulence, tamed their wild side and found their bearings.

And hers has been a colourful life: she was an abandoned baby who grew into a rebellious teen and later a gutsy entrepreneur in the male-dominated industry of furniture manufacturing. Besides Mudian which has an annual turnover of $4 million, she is also a partner in several other businesses, from interior design to outdoor furniture and renovations.

She was born out of wedlock and her mother entrusted her to the care of a babysitter.

"After a month, money for milk powder ran out so my babysitter took me to see my mother, who said: 'I don't want the child. Why don't you go and look for her father?'"

And so the babysitter did. But the infant's father - who already had a family - did not want her either.

The babysitter decided to adopt the baby herself. A hawker, she was a single parent with a son who was then 10 years old.

"She got my father to sign a transfer paper. I still have it, it says, 'Transfer of child from this person to this other person.' It's rather sad."

She grew up in a kampung in the East Coast with her adoptive mother, brother, grandmother, uncle and aunt.

She attended the former Bedok Primary School and was a happy but unruly kid who forged her mother's signature on report cards which had more red marks than blue.

"I was a handful. I wouldn't go home because I was busy catching spiders, playing marbles and beating up boys," she says.

She was a savvy little money maker as well, often peddling kueh her mother could not sell at her Siglap stall.

"When opera troupes performed at the kampung during the Hungry Ghost month, I'd ask my grandmother for a couple of dollars to buy a few tins of canned pineapples. I'd add water, sugar and ice to make drinks, and could earn about $20."

Then there were the tikam scams she ran. Popular in the 1960s and 1970s, tikam was a game where children bought slips of numbered paper hoping to win prizes, ranging from sweets to toys.

"I charged five cents a ticket. There were no prizes, but nobody knew," she says with a grin.

That she was adopted was no secret. She had to drop in regularly at a social service centre in Pearl's Centre.

"The social workers would ask me the same thing over and over again. Basically it was to ensure that I was not being tortured by the family although in my case, it was probably the other way around," she says, breaking into a guffaw.

Her adoptive mother would also threaten to send her back to her natural parents whenever she became too much to handle.

"When you're a nine- or 10-year-old, it doesn't mean anything. I was thinking: 'What are you talking about, you're my real mum.' It wasn't something which bothered me."

Things changed when her adoptive mother died. She was 13 and all hell broke loose - nobody could control her.

She started stealing from provision shops and relatives. She skipped school often to play mahjong.

"I was defiant and there were just no outlets for me to release that aggression," she says.

Fortunately, she did not succumb to the more insidious temptations around her.

"There were a lot of drugs in our kampung. It was common to see addicts shooting up, sniffing glue in alleys, but that didn't interest me."

It got to a point when teachers from Siglap Secondary School started calling her neighbour's home.

"We didn't have a phone at home. They told my grandmother that I'd not been going to school. I was given a terrible caning by my uncle," she says.

When her uncle and his wife decided she was too much to handle, they sent her to a girls' home.

"I was not their child and they didn't want to deal with it. I understand it now although it was an issue then," says Ms Lee, who ended up in the Marymount Vocational Centre, a home for juvenile delinquents and girls with family problems.

The two-year stint did her good.

"We were looked after by nuns. For once, I learnt discipline. I had to do chores, like chop vegetables and fry fish and eggs for 40 people. I did all my own washing. I became a lot milder and calmer. It was probably one of the best things my adoptive family did for me," says Ms Lee, who was transferred to Whitley Secondary School where she completed her O levels.

Her English improved as she was forced to speak it at the home. She also made several good friends she sees regularly even today.

After two years, she went back to live with her uncle and his family. By then, the family had moved to a Housing Board flat in Hougang.

Her O level results were nothing to shout about. Her grandmother tried to persuade her to continue her studies but she had already made up her mind to start working because she was desperate to move out of her uncle's home.

"I was not in control of my life. I could bear not having food but I could not bear not having the freedom to do the things I wanted to do," she says.

Hankering to travel for free, she applied to become an air stewardess but at 1.59m, she failed to meet the height requirement of 1.6m.

"I went for the interview and the first thing that they did was to measure my height. I remember the person telling me, 'Miss, can you relax and not stretch your neck?'"

She became a receptionist in a construction firm instead, a job she held for two years.

Her next job was selling ad space in an advertising agency. She worked hard, and could pull in a handsome $3,000 each month.

"After a couple of years, I managed to save $10,000 which I thought was big money so I told myself, 'Hey, I'll stop working and take a year off and lepak,'" she says, using the Malay word that means idling.

By that time she was sharing an apartment in Grange Road with some friends. She ended up mostly staying indoors, watching television.

But a few months later, a friend asked her to help out at her interior design company.

She started as a receptionist but ended up a partner in the business. In 1997, the two started Mudian with less than $80,000.

"She came out with the bulk of it," Ms Lee says. "But over the years, both of us pumped in money."

The idea was to start a woodwork business, making everything from shelves to doors and cupboards, to complement the interior design company.

They hired six carpenters, and began operations with a couple of tables in a small space in Toa Payoh.

The first few years were a steep learning curve for Ms Lee, who was a novice at managing a manufacturing business.

Among other things, she was ripped off by suppliers and given the run-around by carpenters who told her certain designs could not be executed.

"It was frustrating. I could tell them how to construct a piece of furniture but I couldn't physically do it so I had workers and carpenters and contractors twirling me around their little fingers and telling me things could not be done. Clients would then say: 'You designed this and now you're telling me it cannot be done?'" recalls Ms Lee.

One client almost turned her away when she arrived at his home to take measurements for a renovation job.

"He asked where my boss was and why he'd sent a girl. I told him I was the boss," she says.

There were contractors who even told her and her partner to pack up, stay home and wash and cook instead.

Adding to her woes was the fact that she ran ahead of herself and expanded the business faster than she should.

"It got to a point where I'd be crying every end of the month worrying where I would get money to pay workers and suppliers," says Ms Lee, remembering a time when the company was more than $600,000 in debt.

To cope, she did not draw any salary for a few months and also took credit lines from banks to settle payments.

"I didn't tell my business partner because it was like admitting that I was not managing the business well. Anyway, it was not fair on her because she was busy making money from her interior design business to cover this company," she says.

The turning point came when she decided to scale down the business and took a loan to invest in some sophisticated equipment to cut down her reliance on labour.

"One of the workers, who is still working with us, said: 'You're stupid to be investing in this. This is going to be a white elephant.' I said it would cut man hours and increase production time."

It did.

Over time, things got better and the business turned profitable. Today, Mudian - which has a factory in Sungei Kadut and a brand new showroom in Ubi - has a staff strength of 32, and an annual turnover of more than $4 million.

Meanwhile, staff, clients and contractors no longer give her short shrift.

"We proved ourselves after a year or two. I could sit down, draw designs, tell them how wide or how thick the wood should be and how it should be constructed. And I know how to operate all our machines," she says.

Production manager Raymond Tay, 41, started work as a carpenter at Mudian 12 years ago.

"I was quite surprised to find a woman boss when I first started. But she can do everything. She rolls up her sleeves and drives lorries to make deliveries when she needs to. When she sees a problem, she takes care of it. She is very straight, and means what she says. She has a lot of courage."

Asked how she runs her business, Ms Lee, who lives in a beautifully furnished detached house in Mimosa Crescent, in Yio Chu Kang, says: "There are two things I drill into any staff we hire. First, no politics. Second, nobody is indispensable, including me.

"I tell them that if I drop dead tomorrow, the company will still go on."

The single woman is proud that all her employees kept their jobs despite the company's troubles.

Three of the six carpenters who started out with her are still in her employ; the others have retired.

Human resource and finance manager Kiang Tan, 46, became friends with Ms Lee 30 years ago when both were at Marymount Vocational Centre. "It was obvious even then that she was not a quitter. She is a very strong woman. Look at her now. She is an expert at what she does, and she learnt everything from scratch."

kimhoh@sph.com.sg


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