Sue Yap (MBA 1994)
She’s had many incarnations; from Malaysian “village” girl to Singaporean University graduate, from farmhand to founder of a biomedical company, from lively go-getter to owner of a lifestyle business. Sue Yap (MBA 1994) has experienced life’s roller coaster ride to its fullest. Its lessons are not lost on her and she shares some of them here.
What were your early years like, and how did they shape your character and career?
I grew up on the outskirts of a town, attended Convent school, and always looked forward to adventures ahead, knowing I would leave my hometown one day.
Eventually I came to Singapore for my university education. I paid my own way through university, working in various jobs. I am the eldest of five siblings and was supporting the family back home, so I was always on the lookout for part-time work.
Some of the jobs were interesting. One time, there was a circus in town – the Gerry Cottle Circus from the UK. I sold admission tickets and manned the entrance. It paid $60 a day for about 12 hours of work. It was something about 20 of us from the university hostel – Sheares Hall – did. Some of the others worked with animals.
I received my Bachelor of Sciences degree in 1984 and Honors Degree in Zoology in 1985. I started work in a fish farm in Punggol. It was the recession then, and I was grateful for a job. Many of my classmates didn’t even get work. I had no social life, working 5am to 5pm. But I love the outdoors, so I didn’t mind it or my uniform of jeans, T-shirt, gumboots and straw hat.
The job was part of the government’s project to convert pig farms into fish farms. It was something new, so there was no one to teach me the job. But I needed to learn because I had a job to do, and I had to do everything. So, on my day off, I worked for an old farmer in Mandai, just to learn from him. He liked having me on the farm, to be a good influence on his daughters, as I had an education. So that was how I ploughed on.
You did not have it easy; and even chose to do things the hard way, such as being an apprentice on your day off, to perform your job even better. How did you make the switch from farming and the outdoors to corporate life and being an entrepreneur?
The fish farm was an EDB project. One day, I came across an ex-classmate who was working with the EDB. She was so finely dressed. That started me thinking. Here I was, with an Honors degree, drawing $1,000 a month, after two years on the job. I still needed more money to support my family in Malaysia. I was in a dead-end job.
So I switched to sales, selling medical and analytical equipment. I was thrown into the deep end; I had about one day to read up on the material before I met clients. But I liked the job and I was moving into the area of life sciences. I slowly settled into it.
There was no real major inspiration for my move into entrepreneurship except for the need to be financially independent and to put my siblings through school. It was also a natural progression from being an employee to trying something on my own. I was encouraged by my husband, an MBA classmate, and the researchers who were customers and friends at the same time. My customers had always expressed their surprise that I was an employee. They thought I was a shareholder from the way I discharged my responsibilities. All of them encouraged me to venture out on my own, promising to support my business. And they did! They were probably not aware of how much they inspired me.
So you set up Research Biolabs Pte Ltd in 1993, with your husband as a partner. How did you grow it from a niche life-science service provider into a full-fledged life-science biomedical company?
Initially, we had a flat organizational structure. Sales, marketing, customer service, research and administration were closely integrated. Responsibilities were clearly defined and people worked in teams, with everyone having substantial knowledge to support sales. Every department collaborated with sales to discuss problems and brainstorm solutions. We also had a customer-oriented approach and were the only local company with its own in-house laboratory.
When we expanded into Malaysia in 1996, I appointed a General Manager to be in charge of operations there. I always felt doing that was a big risk, handing control in Malaysia to someone else, but it had to be done. We had regular meetings to set common goals and I controlled strategic directions.
Thus we grew the company until I finally sold it to my key supplier, Qiajen, a NASDAQ-listed company, in 2006.
Today, you have “moved from life-sciences to lifestyle”, as you like to put it, running Mana Mana Beach Club on East Coast Parkway. What similarities are there and what skills do you transfer from one business to the other?
The only similarity is that the clients are made up of a very large percentage of expatriates. Other than that, it’s a business like all other businesses, where one needs to be focused and watch the bottom line. My husband is the creative one in our partnership; he dreams big dreams and I work to hopefully realize the dreams for him.
Each day at work, I meet very interesting people. I enjoy listening and learning from them, sharing my previous career experience, and the excitement of my present job. My work place is unique; I get to enjoy nature, the rolling waves, thunderstorms, chirping birds.