In pursuit of excellence

Success Magazine ,
December 1993
by Irene Leong

The pursuit of excellence is one never-ending story for Lillian Too. Having reached the peak in the corporate world years ago, she has now set her sights on new things, hoping to cover fresh ground, as a writer.

“Yes,” the author of several books including feng shui says with resolve, “this is the beginning of a writing career. And I’m happy doing it.” Lest the world thinks otherwise, the Taiping-born Too sets the record straight: she’s not writing for the money. On the contrary, she believes writing is not a money-spinner.

“I don’t write books to make money - I don’t think one can make a lot of money doing it. But you can get a great deal of satisfaction writing.” ‘All my books are not commercially motivated,” she states further, “But it’s nice when it sells because it gives you a sense of achievement It makes you feel great that people are benefiting from something you’ve written.”

Those of you who haven’t been following the corporate world closely would probably be asking yourself - Lillian who? But let her track record speak for itself. Too who’s now in her 40s, was the first woman in Malaysia to head a public-listed company with her appointment as the managing director of Hong Leong Credit Bhd in the early 80s. Shortly after, she was appointed managing director of Grindlays Dao Heng Bank in Hong Kong.

In the mid 80s, Too became the deputy chairman of Dickson Concepts Ltd, the billion-dollar conglomerate that owns ST Dupont of Paris and Harvey Nicholas of London. Following that, she became the executive chairman of Dragon Seed department store group on Hong Kong after having packaged a financially leveraged buy-out of the group.

Too’s story began almost two decades ago in a plane bound for home from the United States She was already armed with a degree in economics from University Malaya and an MBA from the prestigious Harvard Business School in Boston then. “I was never interested in finance until after I came back from Harvard,” she recounts. “when I was there in 1974, I had no training in accounting. I was hell because all the cases came with financial statements. But somehow I managed to get through all my finance and accounting courses.

“Coming back home on the plane, I said to myself, ‘Gee what wouldn’t I give to be a real financial whiz kid!’. I really was very keen. So when I came back, I worked briefly with a merchant bank and realized that I was actually not bad at it at all. I understood the basic fundamentals very well and that was when I started becoming really interested, and not just in finance but the whole business world. And the more interested I became, the more I started reading.”

Too quickly got her act together but little did she expect o go as far as she eventually did. With her steely determination, and aided by an obvious element of luck, Too set out to claim her niche n the corporate world. She did well. It wasn’t long before she landed a job with Hong Leong, setting off what was to be an illustrious career.

In Hong Kong, The “heavy-duty” corporate lady rubbed shoulders with the rich and famous like Donald Trump and Robin Leach - a lifestyle most would die for. But something was obviously missing in her life, for Too gave it all up in favour of a different lifestyle. She resigned from her high office and return to Malaysia.

And so that chapter of Too’s life came to an end in the late 80s. But she is quick to point out that fir he, this voluntary end marked a new beginning. “I have not retired from working life, not retired from living,” she stated explicitly. “ I have merely retired from the corporate fast track. It was a fast life in the corporate world because I was very much involved in mergers and acquisitions of public listed companies and that was very demanding. I felt it demanded to much of my time.”

Her present working lifestyle, adds Too, suits her just fine. Apart from her writing, she has her investment business to keep her busy. “Without fail, I’d spend four hours working in my office at home. Mornings, I’d ring up the market and do the foreign exchange - you know, manage some investments. “I have to follow what’s going on in the corporate world. I have some joint-ventures and business in Hong Kong (still). And I’m building my publishing company which is basically selling my books (which are also going overseas).”

And believe it or not, Too says she is making more money than she was making before! What does it take to achieve success the way Too did? Listening to her, you’d get a pretty good idea. It’s not hard to imagine Too as the hard-driven professional. The lady is quite without affection. She has this no nonsense, straight-to-the-point air about her. And she admits to being extremely demanding.

“I’m very demanding,” she says, getting to the point. “I demand a lot of myself and those who work for me. I believe in the pursuit or excellence. I am very much a self-motivated person. I take great deal of pride in what I do. I have never done anything for money, everything I’ve done is because I believe in doing it. It is part and parcel of my philosophy. What is worth doing is worth doing well.” Too pauses, adding a philosophical edge to her statement, , “I’d describe myself as a balance person. There’s a great deal of balance in my life. I’m not rich and I’m not poor. Lot of people have helped me and I have helped a lot of people. Many people have accused me of behaving to much like a kid but I think it’s good to be young at heart!”

Not surprisingly, Too admits feng shui is the extension of her philosophy. “My philosophy in life is: there must be a balance.,” she declares. “if you have to much of one thing, there is no balance in your life. I am a great believer of the I Ching philosophy. I’m a great believer of ancient Chinese wisdom.”

Does that mean she lives and breathes feng shui? “Yes and no,” she replies. “I’m not obsessed with feng shui but I’m always aware of it. And I believe everybody should know something about feng shui because it’s helpful for them. “Don’t depend on others to tell you what feng shui you have,’ she continues. “Find out for yourself. If your life is important enough for you, invest in a book. If you don’t want to buy my books, buy another you like.”

Too’s fascination with the world of feng shui began when she was in her early 20s. “At that time, here were hardly any books on the subject. I was learning kung fu and tai chi and my master at that time was Yap Cheng Hai. After the sessions, we would go for supper and he’d tell me about feng shui. “At that time, I took it lightly. He told me a lot of stories, drove me around Kuala Lumpur and showed me the houses of successful and unsuccessful people. I was told why some people achieved success and then (their world) collapsed.”

At that time, Too continues she and her now retired husband, were residing in a house in Kenny Hills. “We couldn’t have children for ten years,” she reveals, “and when I brought the feng shui man to my home, he said, ‘of course, you cant have children. There’s this tree blocking your front door!’ Believe it or not, four months after moving into this house (her present house in Bangsar), I was pregnant!” Too attributes part of her success with Hong Leong o feng shui. “The feng shui man told me to build a wall in front of my house otherwise my feng shui would be bad. I did it and I got the job in Hong Leong and kept getting promoted. It proved to me that feng shui’s really potent. It really works.”

Her belief in the Chinese geomancy grew with her transfer to Hong Kong. “There, I met a lot of feng shui masters. At that time banks in Hong Kong were collapsing. As the head of a bank in Hong Kong, I was scared to death so I got this master to look through every single branch of my bank and my bank was okay! Of course, we were an honest bank backed by a good group but still, things could have gone wrong.”

One thing led to another. Too got to know more “feng shui people”, as she puts it, and she went to China where she was shown the city of Canton and how it was built according to feng shui principles. She saw that the Ming tombs an was told how they were also built according to feng shui. “So I decided to do a lot of research into it,” she explains. “I started taking it seriously to understand the basic fundamentals. And when I came back here in (in 1990) and started writing, I was told about the demand for books on feng shui.” Needless to say, this spurred Too into coming out with her feng shui books. “I’m interested in the subject,” she goes on. “It’s like a revision for me, pulling out my notes and books. It’s (Her first book on feng shui) selling very well and I have followed it up with a second book. To me, it’s my small contribution to putting on paper a Chinese wisdom.”

I’m a third generation overseas Chinese and when I visited China I could fell no sense of identification. And yet one has a romantic notions of one’s roots. It’s from this angle that I investigated (all) things Chinese. Feng Shui is very much at the center of it all because it affects our lives. It affects our fortune.” “I don’t regard it as a religion,” she continues. “It’s a form of Chinese science and because it works there must be something to it. It’s something we don’t fully understand yet.” With her deep-rooted belief in feng shui, life must be blissful for Too. As expected, she says “I’m very happy with my life. No regrets at all. That’s not to say I did not make a lot of mistakes. I did but I used them as a learning experiences.

“I could have been nicer to people and I could have been more understanding of situations but then when you are young, you don’t know that much. So why be so hard on yourself?” The most important thing in her life now, Too adds, is her family. “My greatest joy is my daughter, Jennifer. She’s 14, and quite different from me. She’s gentle, softer and more secure than I was. When I started out, I was not secure - but I’m secure now!” Too describes her husband, a retired engineer, as “a fabulous guy, full of fun, very witty and down-to-earth.” “He’s different from me, just the opposite. He’s supportive, relaxed and easily satisfied. I’m the more intense, passionate one; he’s the laid-back one.” “My family loves riding,” she volunteers further. “We have three horses. The best part of my l ife now is being able to work at my own time, in my own house. If my daughter wants my time, she has it. I take her riding in the morning, sometimes in the evening. And when she’s not here, I ride.”
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