China. When it comes to the issue of international business expansion, that is oft perceived to be the place to be at. After all, in Beijing’s National Bureau of Statistics data just released last month, the mighty Middle Kingdom shows a healthy, balanced and controlled growth of 7.7 percent in the first nine months of the year.
Certainly, “the opportunities there are immense”, Jean Yip concurs. But the founding chairman of the Jean Yip Group beauty empire has long dodged the call of the Middle Kingdom. Some may see this as being overly cautious but for Yip, it was more a calculated business move.
“We’ve long seen the business potential of China and are well aware of the challenges that await us,” says the six-time Singapore Superbrands award winner. “But I’ve always believed that if you want to be there, you must be there yourself to make it happen.”
For the 55-year-old, the push to being “there” in China happened through the familial. In January 2012, her eldest daughter Cheryl Wee was named the first runner-up of Miss Chinese International, a beauty pageant organised by Hong Kong’s television station TVB, that saw contestants come from Asia-Pacific and Euro-America. This led Wee to consider Hong Kong as a place to develop her career in show business.
“If my daughter were to work out of Hong Kong, then it is a good reason for me to be in China as I can be close by,” says Yip, her affection for her daughter clearly showing. “I can always drop by and visit,” she adds.
Which is how this January, the Jean Yip Group came about opening its first salon in China. But much to the surprise of fellow entrepreneurs, Yip chose Guangzhou over its hipper cousins of Shanghai and Beijing.
The dauntless Yip stands firm on her choice. “Others may see Guangzhou as a second-tier city but when it comes to business, it is more vibrant. The city has been keeping itself under the radar and has been enjoying tremendous economic growth. It’s a hidden gem.”
Also driving her decision is a reason more sentimental in nature. Her late grandmother, a once-popular porridge-seller on Bugis Street, hailed from the city. Growing up, Yip was often regaled with tales of Guangzhou and feels at home.
Already, the Guangzhou flagship — located in the central neighbourhood of Haizhu — is steadily garnering customers. The key to its quick success, Yip believes, is her team there, who gives her valuable insights into the mentality and expectations of her Chinese clientele. Her team’s diligence and insatiable hunger to learn has encouraged the chairman to invest a lot of time and resources in training them there. “If you don’t have a good army, you can’t fight the war right?”
The art of war is something Yip is all too familiar with. Her very first battle? Getting into hairdressing school.
Despite acute objections from her father, a straight-laced hardware merchant, the go-getter secretly enrolled in a nine-month hairdressing course. She sought the support of her mother who paid her $3,000 school fees (an exorbitant amount in the 1970s) by instalments. And as fate would have it, her father uncovered the truth.
“Of course, he was upset at first as he perceived hairdressing to be the profession of women who were second wives,” Yip says, laughing at the stereotype.
“But he saw the fire in me, how good I was at it and finally relented,” she added. The only condition: She learnt from the best.
So Yip packed her bags and headed to London, the city regarded as the mecca of the hairdressing world. She attended the Alan International Hairdressing School and Vidal Sassoon, as well as made her rounds to other established names, such as Jingles International and Toni&Guy, to hone her craft. Eight months into her stay, Yip found herself a part-time position in a salon.
“I just couldn’t sit still lah,” she admits.
After two years, she returned to Singapore with a wealth of knowledge on hairdressing techniques that was suitable for Asian hair. She wasted no time and immediately kick-started her career by understudying Sylvia Khoo, a famous bridal hairstylist of that era. The ambitious Yip got so good at what she did that she was once paid $500 for a job, $200 above market rate — a handsome sum then.
Shortly after this stint, she started working with her aunt, a London-trained beautician, in a Marine Parade salon that had been opened by her father. Her dedication to the craft very quickly earned her a loyal following.
After four years, Yip chose to go her own way in 1982, in order to build a business based solely on her vision. “I had grand dreams of working with other young people and sharing my knowledge,” she shares.
“Others were concerned that the people I trained would become my competition but I was never worried about that. Goodness begets goodness, doesn’t it?” she muses.
It certainly does.
Today, most of the people she had trained hold key positions in her beauty empire.
The decision to be independent proved to be a very good thing. Jean Yip, the brand, opened a salon at Katong Plaza and continued to capture the attention of the stylish set. “At one point, my salon resembled a clinic with a queue outside the door,” Yip says, clearly tickled by the memory of it.
Reputed for her professionalism, superior hairstyling techniques and gift for trendspotting, Yip even had the corporate set start to take notice. For a good number of years, her company styled the coiffures of the Singapore Airlines’ cabin crew.
Her perseverance and hard work paid off. From then on, the growth was simply phenomenal. Invitations from property developers for Yip to open in their malls poured in. Today, the Jean Yip Group boasts 71 outlets that comprises of hair salons, beauty and slimming centres, nail bars and spas with some 1,000 employees. Two more branches are opening in Singapore later this year and apart from China, the group also has branches in Malaysia and Indonesia.
Of course, the spirited Yip is not one to stop at just that. The group has also gone on to develop its own product lines for hair, face and body in laboratories housed at the Jean Yip Building in Kaki Bukit.
And as part of the group’s organic growth, she started Jean Yip Holdings, the group’s property arm in 2001. Its portfolio includes the Jean Yip Loft, a one-stop beauty and wellness destination sprawled over seven floors, as well as several bungalows and shophouses in prime areas. Recently, the group also bought land in Malaysia and has plans to develop it into a residential estate.
A huge part of this success, Yip acknowledges, is also due to the invaluable contributions of her husband of 28 years, Mervin Wee.
Dubbed the creative half of the Jean Yip Group, Wee only entered the scene in the fourth year of business. This, he did after completing a hairdressing course in London. “When I started the Jean Yip Group, business was good. When Mervin joined me, it got even better,” Yip says fondly.
The pair met when they were 16 en route to a party. A male friend of Yip’s had arranged for Wee to meet her at Odeon Towers so that Wee could ferry her to the venue. Prior to this, the duo had never met or spoken to each other, save for a short phone conversation where they exchanged descriptions of how each other looked.
“When we met, it was love at first sight!” Yip laughs heartily. “Well at least for me. Mervin says that he thought I was quite cute,” she adds, with a chuckle.
The duo got along like a house on fire. During their dating years, Wee spent a significant amount of time helping out at his father’s food business that he was then poised to take over.
However, his affinity for the creative industry was too strong to ignore. “Mervin is a very artistic person and versatile in his skills. He has this incredible talent for hairstyling and I suggested that he joined the business.”
And he did. Upon his return from London, the duo joined forces and quickly expanded the Jean Yip Group. “In the early days, I ran the Katong Plaza salon, while Mervin ran the one in Chinatown. We make a great team,” Yip shares.
This holds true even 31 years on. Today, Wee is the managing director of the group and oversees its creative direction and training of the hairstylists among other things.
Their chemistry goes beyond the business. Just observing the two over lunch (they share all their food and save the best bits for each other), it is easy to see that their devotion for each other runs deep.
The couple got married in January 1986 at the Mandarin Hotel. The proposal? “He was so straightforward!” Yip exclaims. “Before he left for London, he said: ‘Jean, we need to register.’ I said OK,” she adds with a laugh. Wee later asked for her hand in marriage from her father during dinner at the Top of the M and the rest is history.
So is there rivalry between the two when it comes to business? Yip brushes this off. “We play very distinct roles and are dependent on each other to be successful at what we do,” she explains. “Mervin, to the Jean Yip Group, is what Karl Lagerfeld is to Chanel.”
This dynamic also applies to the other family members that Yip has invited to be a part of the business over the years. When Jean Yip Group turned 10, Dawn, her younger sister, joined the business and helmed its beauty and slimming arm. Today, she is also the CEO of operations in China.
Yip’s eldest sister Pai Hong left a key position at a bank to be the group’s financial controller and Oliver, her youngest brother, joined to spearhead product development and the property arm of the business.
“We are all clear about our respective roles and respect each other’s area of expertise. Of course, there are always debates and discussions but that is to be expected,” she deadpans.
Clearly, with such a formidable team, one may think that Yip has little to worry about. While she agrees with this sentiment, she tells us that it wasn’t always as easy.
“During our expansion in the 1990s, things got really tough. When we started to hire external management personnel, a host of issues would follow,” she recalls. “You can’t think about profits, instead you think about how to sustain the business, how to make good people stay. At some point, it got so challenging that the only thing that helped me over that hurdle was my dream.”
With the business now running on auto-pilot, would Yip then consider retirement? “Never,” she says firmly. Even though she has capable general managers and chief operating officers, the chairman still makes her rounds to her salons to keep her ear on the ground.
Nonetheless, she is more willing to take the back seat. It gives her the flexibility to tend to whatever needs her attention — her business, community work and her three children — at the drop of a hat. Since doing so, Yip admits she has been enjoying herself. It’s a far cry from her self-imposed no off-day rule during the first 15 years of running her business.
Yip did not even realise how hard she was working till an unexpected outburst from her then five-year-old son in 1998. It happened on a Sunday not long after they had moved into a sprawling new home on Old Holland Road.
Husband and wife would typically lunch with the family then leave for the salon at 1pm. But that weekend, just as they were about to leave, her son Russell suddenly burst into tears.
“He said: ‘What is the point of this big house if mummy and daddy are not with me?’ I was stunned,” says Yip. “That struck a chord.”
The very same day, Yip vowed not to work on Sundays again.
Despite the hours away from her three children Cheryl, 26, Rachel, 25, and Russell, 18, Yip and her husband share a very close relationship with them.
“They’re very independent and logical children. We talk to them like adults and teach them to face challenges with an open heart. We lead by example and often stress that in life, we don’t have to be number one. Don’t think of the result, think of the journey.”
Yip doesn’t hide the fact that she hopes her children will take over the reigns in the future. Her eldest, Cheryl, fronts all of the group’s beauty campaigns and is currently pursuing a career in show business. “I’m happy for her and respect her decision. Who knows maybe some time down the line…” Yip says.
“Rachel is doing her masters in pharmacology and has promised to join the product development arm. Russell has also expressed interest in developing a new area in the business. Well, time will tell.”
Now that her children are all grown up, Yip is moving on to the next chapter. One and a half years ago, she and her husband had their Old Holland Road home rebuilt.
Slated to be completed in early 2014, the new house will boast three blocks and is designed to have the entire family live under one roof but also have their private quarters.
“My children are big now and may fly the nest in a couple of years. But I want them to know that they are always welcome in my home. If they (and their children) choose to live with me, they can,” she chuckles.
In the meantime, Yip plans to have her home be the centre of social interaction. She works closely with the architect and pays special attention to her kitchen, a place she dubs the heart of the home where she can bond with her family and friends. An avid cook, she has designed it such that it is spacious enough for a small group to laugh, chat and engage in cookout sessions.
After all, in the words of Jean Yip herself, business or otherwise, life is always about the human touch.
PHOTOGRAPHER / BRENDAN ZHANG
FASHION STYLIST / FURQAN SAINI
HAIR ARTIST / GREGO USING L’OREAL PROFESSIONNEL TECNI ART
MAKE-UP ARTIST / CELESTINE SNG @ TWO LEFT HANDS USING MAC COSMETICS
PHOTOGRAPHY ASSISTANT / GABE CHEN
FASHION ASSISTANT / ALESSANDRA CORY MARCELO
This story first appeared on 4 November 2013