How Lillian Too creates the right space at the right time

The Wall Street Journal
Monday, 2nd October, 2006

Feng shui firm's founder paved a path via Harvard and Asian banking arena.

Lillian Too is the 60-year-old co-founder and chairwoman of the World of Feng Shui, or Sdn. Bhd., Malaysia's successful promoter of the Chinese belief system that one can optimize natural forces to enhance wealth and prosperity or create a harmonious work or home environment.

Mrs. Too began her working life with a government agency. She went on to get her master's of business administration at Harvard Business School in 1982 and became the first Asian woman, at the age of just 36, to head a major bank in the region, the Dao Heng Bank in Hong Kong, which was then a part of Malaysia's diversified Hong Leong Group.

In 1986 she quit the bank and its stock-brokerage arm, Hong Leong Securities, and put together a leveraged buyout of the Dragon Seed department store in Hong Kong. She says the deal helped to ensure that she had enough money to retire on. After giving up a full-time working life to bring up her only daughter, Jennifer, Mrs. Too started writing, and feng shui was her chosen subject. She has since written more than 80 books in English on feng shui that have been translated into 30 languages.

Today, Mrs. Too's, in addition to the online site, has 55 retail stores in 17 countries that carry about 6,000 products said to enhance feng shui. The company also publishes "Feng Shui World." She and her daughter are controlling shareholders of, which has annual revenue of more than 60 million ringgit (more than $16 million). While Mrs. Too is no longer involved in the day-to-day running of the company, she still has dreams of nurturing it to become a major online business.

Mrs. Too spoke to Carolyn Lim in Kuala Lumpur.

WSJ   :   What was your first Job and what did you learn from it?
Mrs. Too   :   My first real job was with the Federal Industrial Development Authority, now Malaysian Industrial Development Authority, a government agency charged with promoting the country as an investment destination. I was there for five years. I met all these hotshot people from companies like Motorola Corp., Intel Corp. and National Semiconductor Corp. and I learned from them what a Harvard Business School M.B.A could do for me. So I got a United Nations fellowship and I went to Harvard Business School.
WSJ   :   Who gave you the best business advice?
Mrs. Too   :   Quek Leng Chan, the head of the Hong Leong Group, of course. He said that in business there are no friends and there are no enemies and one must not become emotional. I remember on one occasion when I disagreed with him over something and I told him I was prepared to resign over this. He told me straight-off not to be dramatic. I still remember his words: "We are not a political party, we are a business."
WSJ   :   What advice would you give to someone starting his or her own business today?
Mrs. Too   :   The most important thing is to make sure you can identify you sources of income. If you don't have a source of income, all the grand ideas of the world are useless.
WSJ   :   What is the most important piece of technology you use?
Mrs. Too   :   I use all of them, the iPod, laptops, desktops - I have two or three computers because I am a very computer -literate old lady. Personally, this wonderful Treo 650 is my favorite. I like the Palm software because it is so good. All they need to do is to take out the few bugs and make the window a bit bigger. Of course, it is also a telephone with loads of memory and three different bands, so I can use it in America, China and so on.
WSJ   :   Is there an instance when you felt you let your colleagues down?
Mrs. Too   :   I have let so many people down because I lose my temper, become impatient and therefore hurt people. It is these issues with emotions that men accuse women of and which I am guilty of. But I do want to say I have always regretted every time I lost my cool.
WSJ   :   What were the toughest decisions you've had to make as a manager?
Mrs. Too   :   There were many, especially back in Hong Kong when I was running the bank. There were a lot of strategic moves to negotiate because I was expanding the bank, buying one bank after another. I remember when we were in the process of buying up a bank and suddenly just collapsed. Do we carry on, or do we cut our losses? Hundreds of millions of dollars were involved. I have also been involved in post-acquisition work and that is also tough in terms of who you keep and who you fire.
WSJ   :   What are the most important attributes of a good manager?
Mrs. Too   :   It's not easy, but first, a good manager must have integrity. Second, a good manager must have courage - courage of conviction, courage to move forward, courage to take risks. And third, you must have the expertise. If you don't have the expertise, you have no business sitting there.
WSJ   :   Would you recommend someone starting out in your field attend business school, or learn along the way?
Mrs. Too   :   Both are all right, but if you go for a good M.B.A., half the battle is won. If you have an M.B.A. from a char kuey teow [a local friend noodle dish] school, then forget it. Go for a good M.B.A. The American schools have dissected management, quantified things to such an extent, you really learn something. Go with about five years' work experience and you will get the most out of it.
WSJ   :   What is unique about what you do compared with what is available in the rest of the world?
Mrs. Too   :   English-speaking Chinese people are our market, our niche, with 80 million of them outside China. I don't go after the Chinese-speaking market, They are well-served. I also look at the 30 million English-speaking non-Chinese-Asians who are interested in feng shui.
WSJ   :   Still feng shui is becoming an extremely competitive business. How do you keep ahead?
Mrs. Too   :   Every year I have got to think of new things because after they've bought the toads and tortoises, what else can they buy? And then people see that you are successful, you'll have millions of competitors coming in, knocking you off like that. But that is business. I tell my people, why are you upset just because someone is copying you? It keeps you on your toes.
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