Jannie Tay, the name synonymous with luxury watch retailer The Hour Glass Limited, grew up amongst doctors: four of her six siblings took the Hippocrates Oath; she even married one - Dr. Henry Tay. Her accomplishments in business and entrepreneurship are renowned, but lesser so was that she too shares the traits of her family members, as a healer of sorts.
Tay, who holds both a Bachelor of Science degree in Physiology (Honours) and a Masters of Science degree in Pharmacology, did not enter either of these fields - at least not literally.
In 1979, together with her husband, they founded The Hour Glass, feeding the steadily growing demand for luxury timepieces by an increasingly affluent Asian market. The company now runs 25 boutiques in nine Asia Pacific cities, achieving a turnover of S$439.9 million for the financial year ended March 2009.
However, after having built The Hour Glass into one of the most high profile watch retailer in this region, Tay has been devoting her time on a decidedly different field. In recent years, she has been using her skills to realise her vision for ancient cures, modern science. Tay's new venture, Scientific Tradition Pte Ltd, draws upon the medicinal properties of reishi or lingzhi (as this mushroom is known in Japanese and Mandarin respectively) to develop a range of products. The products, which include skincare oil, capsules and even coffee, are said to fuse aspects of both Western and traditional Chinese medicine.
For Tay, this new venture is not just about selling reishi. She sees a greater motivation - to do good by the health of people and the planet. This, said Tay at a recent Wee Kim Wee Centre talk, is about universal wellness.
With her formal education in science, Tay employed her analytical and observational skills to understand markets, industries, and customers. I realised how expensive it is to be sick. She said such an observation came into her consciousness when she saw how customers would willingly drop $20,000 on luxury watches for their children, yet, they resist spending on products that would give them a healthier body.
In a sense, she now follows the footsteps of her grandfather and father, both of whom were in the medicine business. Just like them, Tay combines medical innovation with entrepreneurship as she builds a business around the natural healing attributes of reishi.
With her vast experience in the business world, Tay, a recipient of the 2004 Monash University Distinguished Alumni Award, now has ambitions to establish a brand that is greater than the product. What she means is that business owners like hers have an obligation to do more than just sell their own company's products. Businesses need to impart values to its customers... it is important for us to keep in mind not only a wellness of self, but also for the environment and planet, she said.
During her presentation at SMU, Tay detailed her intimate involvement throughout the entire supply chain, in the production of reishi medicines. It begins with identifying traditional cures and then applying scientific research and manufacturing controls to produce products that are well differentiated.
With decades of experience in the retail trade (she is also the current president of the Singapore Retailers' Association), Tay clearly has an idea of how to go about developing brands and products. Companies that want to achieve success must include their customers, empower them and listen to them, she said.
Wealth to wellness
Of course, Tay understands that there are limits to what she can achieve. I am in the most luxurious, most materialistic business, I am, she admitted candidly. And that business is so tough because I cannot manage (and control) everything.
She tries her best, despite the bevy of unforeseen, uncontrollable factors at hand. For instance, her current business involves manufacturing and the management of a supply chain - areas that are decidedly different from selling watches on behalf of the watch makers. So Tay is giving a lot of attention into the building of a holistic supply chain.
I make sure that for every brand that I now work with, I will go through its complete supply chain cycle. Because I don't want to miss (out on) some parts that will 'outlast' me, and after 10 or 20 years, I won't be able to do a thing about it, she said.
Prevention rather than cure
Like many prominent business figures, Tay also spends time on philanthropic activities. She shares a common guiding principle for doing business and charity: prevention rather than cure. Her latest initiative, Save Our Planet Foundation, founded in 2007 with the aims of addressing present-day environmental challenges, is something Tay describes as a social philanthropic enterprise.
There are many social-philanthropic causes around today and among them all, one in particular draws her attention: The need of the hour is reforestation. I believe that when you log a tree, you should replant 10. Already, during the late 1990s, I was aware that with all the deforestation, our planet's oxygen level is not going to be replaced. The only way to replace oxygen is through trees - naturally. I'm amazed that until just recently, no one talked about deforestation. Everyone is still economically driven.
I was trying to tell everyone, but no one was interested. But today everyone is interested, especially after Copenhagen and witnessing the disasters around us, said Tay, urging people to join her in acting for this cause.
Through the establishment of the Save Our Planet Foundation, Tay has already made a head start in attempting to bring about what she terms as oxygen regeneration. She has invested in what is known as the super-grow plantation, where trees are genetically-modified such that they require less time to grow. Tay explains this approach as one that is objective and commercially viable.
Species such as teak, eucalyptus and acacia have many uses. You must make some money, but that (cannot be) your main objective, she said. People who are out to make money will focus on how they can see profits in every three months or so, and that is the worst thing, because they then forget about integrity, and greed comes in.
Greed, she said, is the reason why global talks have failed. Carbon trading doesn't work, it's just a means of making money. Copenhagen didn't work because people were not aligned because of their economic differences. Our approach is to give value to society and to communities, and to educate.
As one of the most high-profile women in Singapore's corporate scene, Tay is also an advocate of women's rights. Her approach, it seems, is to lead by example: Don't tell the people what you are doing. Show them through your actions and consistency.
Women, she said, have the capacity to contribute more to business, economy, and society. To this end, Tay's portfolio or social roles is exemplary. She is the chairman of the Commonwealth Business Women's Network, the first female executive board member of the Commonwealth Business Council and founder/ president of the International Women's Forum in Singapore.
She hopes that her own accomplishments will go towards assuring other women to realise their own success stories. The essential ingredient that Tay emphasised is that of love - Do what you are passionate about and make a hobby out of work.
More importantly, be socially responsible. I've been getting paid to do my job all these years. There always has to be a time for giving back, she added.