Olivia Lum: how I sold my car to jump start a £231m company

Abandoned at birth and raised as an orphan, Olivia Lum sold mangos at school to make ends meet. Now she is CEO of one of the world's most dynamic water-filtration firms.

"Hunger is the handmaid of genius," wrote a near-bankrupt Mark Twain more than 100 years ago. Olivia Lum, the 49-year-old founder of Singapore filtration firm Hyflux knows all about that.

Now worth $330m (according to Forbes), Lum grew up in a palm-leaf hut with no running water in a Malaysian village near Singapore. Abandoned at birth, she was one of five orphans raised by an impoverished elderly woman called 'grandmother'.

"The one big luxury was knowing that we had sufficient resources for the next few meals," says Lum. Because they rarely did, young Lum ran a stall between classes at school, selling mangos, "kaya toast" a popular local snack and jeans just to make ends meet.

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Today, after paying her own way through secondary school and university in Singapore, she is the CEO of one of the world's most dynamic water-filtration firms. A trained chemist, the self-confessed "hard taskmaster" left a well-paid job with GlaxoSmithKline in 1989 to go it alone, believing there were great opportunities in water filtration and recycling. China is home to 7% of the world's fresh water, but has 21% of the global population, and even back then, the rapidly growing economy was putting severe strain on its water infrastructure.

In hindsight, "it was a leap of faith", she says. She had no clear business plan, product or funding. But that didn't put her off. "I believe my childhood experiences have given me the tenacity and the self-determination to make things happen." And that's what she did. Selling her apartment and car, Lum then 28 raised S$20,000, and started selling water treatment systems along the Malaysian peninsula off the back of a motorcycle.

Realising she would only grow the firm if she went into manufacturing, she brought in membrane technology (very fine filters rather than chemicals) as a means to treat water in 1993. By the mid-1990s, with the firm turning over S$1m, she set up pilot plants in potential clients' factories. It was a smart move. Once shown the merits of the technology, which cleaned and filtered water before returning it to freshwater supplies, companies snapped up Hyflux's services, with Siemens in Singapore and Hewlett-Packard in China among its first big customers.

After listing in Singapore in 2001, Hyflux's profit rose 67% to S$12.3m in 2002, on the back of a 66% jump in sales to S$45.3m. It soon bagged a S$250m contract to build and operate Singapore's first seawater desalination plant, and made S$550m (£231m) in sales last year. With more than 40 plants planned across 26 provinces, the move into China has proved the wisest so far.

"As one of the early pioneers in China, we have established strong municipal relations. We focus largely on the north eastern coastal cities, such as the Jiangsu and Hebei provinces, where the demand for clean, treated water is high." Having built China's largest desalination plant, last year Hyflux won the contract to build the world's biggest plant in Algeria.

Driven and hands-on about her work, Lum has some no-nonsense advice for would-be entrepreneurs. "Having passion is not enough. A successful entrepreneur also requires tenacity, hard work, and perseverance to turn dreams into reality."

Jody Clarke

Jody studied at the University of Limerick and she has been a senior writer for MoneyWeek for more than 15 years. Jody is experienced in interviewing, for example in her time she has dug into the lives of an ex-M15 agent and quirky business owners who have made millions. Jody’s other areas of expertise include advice on funds, stocks and house prices.