Girl power

Ms Tjin Lee, 41, with her two-year-old son Tyler.

Good looks. An impeccable dress sense and a to-die-for wardrobe. A handsome husband and a two-year-old son who is as cute as a button. And eight businesses, including Mercury Marketing & Communications (Mercury MC), the boutique agency organising some of the most sought-after lifestyle events in town, including the Audi Fashion Festival.

Ms Tjin Lee, few will argue, seems to have it all.

It was not always like this, says the 41-year-old. "Just five years ago, I was seriously rethinking the whole entrepreneur thing. I was discouraged, depressed and very exhausted."

Mind you, Mercury's annual revenue then was very respectable, hitting several million dollars. Her profits, however, were a lot less impressive. "It seemed like a lot of hard work for very little money. I was asking myself why I was doing this when I could easily get a job outside and be paid three times what I was paying myself."

Fortunately, Serendipidity stepped in and introduced her to Mr Jeremy Tan, the owner of an events company who asked to look at her books.

"He could not understand why I was not making money when I was organising most of the big events in town. He didn't know whether to laugh or cry after he saw my books," she recalls.

Ms Lee was told she was in a dire situation because she had no clue how to manage supplier costs, overheads and manpower bills.

Mr Tan made her an unusual proposition. "He said, 'Tjin, give me your faith and give me half your company. I will take over your overheads and all your worries'."

Her first instinct was to say no. After all, it took her nine years, and many trials and tribulations, to build the company. "But the proposal made sense. He and his company had the production expertise; I had the clientele. He said, 'I will at least double your profits'. "

So, after a lot of soul-searching, she agreed to set up Mercury Events, merging her company's events division with his.

Mr Tan more than kept his word. In three years, he helped to increase Mercury Events' profits fivefold.

Today, Mercury MC - which also includes Mercury PR and Mercury Creative - has more than 50 staff on its payroll and an annual turnover of about $13.5 million.

"It is really all about manpower management, overheads management and just knowing how much things really cost. Because he took care of all those, it freed me up to do the things I was really good at to grow the business - public relations, networking, coming up with creative ideas."

The episode changed Ms Lee's life in more ways than one. Her biggest takeaway? Every business needs a combination of A, B and C.

"A is for angels, the investors who come up with the money. B refers to the business managers, those who understand numbers, finance and logistics. C is for creatives, those with creative ideas, like me."

Using this as a guiding principle, she has since co-founded several other businesses, including online jewellery store Curated Editions and Baby Style Icon. Set up with blogger Xiaxue, Baby Style Icon sells designer children's clothing.

Her new-found confidence has also inspired her to help empower women.

She set up Crib, Singapore's first business and lifestyle incubator targeted at women, especially stay-at-home mothers and those who have taken some time off and are looking to return to the workforce.

The social enterprise is like a matchmaking outfit, pairing women with partners who possess the right skill sets to make their business ventures work.

"If I knew what I know when I was putting Crib together, I would have avoided a lot of mistakes I made in the past," she says. Ms Lee never set out to be a serial entrepreneur.

She is the second of four daughters of a doctor and a former remisier who now runs a violin school. Her youngest sister is Min Lee, a violinist and Cultural Medallion winner.

Instead of music, Ms Lee was drawn to art and writing, but felt creatively stifled at Methodist Girls' School.

She remembers being humiliated by a teacher in primary school when she was given a four-frame illustration and told to write a story. Instead of telling the story from the first frame, she told it from the third.

Her teacher sent her out of the class after reading out her composition. "She said, 'Tjin, this is very good, but you didn't write this. I want to see your mother'," says Ms Lee, who went on to read literature at the University of Western Ontario in Canada.

Back home after her degree, she landed a public relations and marketing job with fashion powerhouse Club 21.

"When you work in the glamour industry, you spend more than you save," she says with a laugh.

Six years on the job with no savings to her name seriously bugged her. "All my friends who were in banking and finance were making truckloads of money and buying properties and cars," she says.

"But a friend actually told me I was richer than all of them. He said I was debt-free, while they were tied down by mortgages. He told me it was the best time for me to start a business."

That was exactly what she did. She sold her junior membership with the Singapore Island Country Club (SICC) and plonked down $10,000 to start Mercury with two colleagues from Club 21.

They set up shop by renting a space just enough for two tables in Tanglin Shopping Centre. The going, however, was a lot tougher than they expected.

"It was a combination of things. We were inexperienced and didn't factor in mounting overheads, which were costing us like $12,000 a month. We burnt through our capital really fast. There were months when we didn't pay ourselves," she recalls.

Two years later, one of her partners left to live with her father in Kuala Lumpur.

Her remaining partner wanted Mercury to become the PR arm of another agency. "I didn't want to be alone, so I agreed," she says.

Things, however, did not work out. "I wanted to focus on lifestyle accounts; they wanted to focus on corporate ones," she says.

Within a few months, Ms Lee spent the last of her savings from the SICC sale, bought over Mercury and went it alone. By then, she had landed the contract to organise the 2004 Singapore Fashion Festival at Ngee Ann City in Orchard Road.

The festival lasted nearly two weeks, and she had just two assistants and many people were expecting her to fall flat on her face.

"We did everything ourselves, from knocking on doors for sponsorship to writing all the publicity materials. We slept at 3am and went back to work at eight in the morning," she recalls.

Working with a well-known fashion producer, she opened the festival with a Chanel gala and also staged shows by the likes of Julien MacDonald.

The festival had good press, but Ms Lee said it was a crushing experience. "On the day of the Chanel gala, it rained and rained, and the big fashion tent started to leak. I sat in my dripping tent at 3pm and started crying. But what doesn't kill you, makes you stronger," she says.

Indeed, when the Singapore Tourism Board pulled the plug on the festival a few years later, Ms Lee's credibility had gained such a shine that she was able to marshal support to stage Singapore's first privately supported extravaganza, the Audi Fashion Festival. The AFF, of which she is festival director, is now the biggest event on the local fashion calendar, and Ms Lee intends to make it hold its own against major fashion weeks such as those held in Paris, London and New York.

Slowly, Mercury gained a reputation for organising unique luxury events. Its client lists now include all the major luxury fashion and lifestyle brands, from Tiffany & Co to Cartier, Chopard and Audi.

Ms Lee's team had grown from three to 12 in 2009, when she faced her crisis of confidence and met Mr Tan.

"The real lesson for me was this: It is much better to be a smaller part of something big, than a bigger part in something small," says Ms Lee, who now has a 4,000 sq ft office in Telok Ayer.

Her entrepreneurial journey soon began to turn several new corners. Ms Lee, whose husband works in an oil trading firm, started encouraging women with good ideas to start a business by becoming an angel investor.

The idea for Crib germinated last year on her birthday. She and her friend Elaine Kim - a palliative care doctor and entrepreneur - were discussing taking their sons to Universal Studios while their lunch mates listened on with envy.

Ms Lee realised that entrepreneurship has allowed them to manage their own time, and she started thinking about an outfit to help stay-at-home mothers and those who want to return to the workforce.

Roping in Dr Kim and two other friends, Ms Mei Chee, head of product marketing for Apple South Asia, and Ms Marilyn Lum, a lecturer and curriculum developer for hospitality management schools, she formed Crib.

The social enterprise has a board of mentors and advisers that include veteran hotelier Jennie Chua, former Nominated MP Claire Chiang, businesswoman Elim Chew and Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Grace Fu.

"We have 56 members now and are reviewing 13 business ideas, and we will be doing our first mixer and matcher in January," she says.

Asked if she has any regrets over the mistakes she has made, she shakes her head.

"No, because if I hadn't made those mistakes, I wouldn't have learnt. And if I hadn't learnt, I wouldn't have been able to form Crib, which has so much to educate and share. I am happy to help other women so that they won't make the same mistakes I did."

kimhoh@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Dec 28, 2014.
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