Tuesday, Jun. 08, 2004

The Moisture Merchant

Olivia Lum
Olivia Lum, head of the fast-growing water-treatment company Hyflux, never knew her biological parents. She was adopted at birth by an elderly woman she called Grandma, and home was Kampar, a poor Malaysian mining town where an exodus of jobs had left most residents with no income. After Grandma sold her house to pay some gambling debts, Lum was brought up in a wooden shack without running water — unless you counted the rainwater that would regularly seep in and flood the floors. To keep Grandma's spirits up, Lum used to say that when she made it big, she would buy her a new house. "Of course it never happened," Lum says. "She died before I became successful."

Lum found her success in the water business. She worked her way through college and earned a chemistry degree, but she always saw the business world as the way to climb out of poverty. Fifteen years ago, drawing on her meager savings, she founded Hyflux, a company that pursued a wide range of water-related ventures in Asia, from cleaning wastewater in China to investing in desalination plants in Singapore.

Today, Hyflux is one of the hottest firms in the Asian water market, and under Lum's leadership it has scored a number of R.-and-D. breakthroughs. In the 1990s, the company developed an ultrafine membrane filter (pictured above) that is used in all the company's major products. More recently, Hyflux, in association with a U.S. group, began manufacturing a condensing device called the Dragonfly, which produces potable water by extracting moisture from air — and could change the way water-scarce countries meet their daily water needs. There are some drawbacks: the surrounding air must have at least 40% humidity, and each device costs about $1,000. Lum, however, insists that the unit price will fall as her team refines the design, and says Dragonflys may soon be found in refrigerators and even cars.

Hyflux is now a $270 million company, and Lum's biggest challenge will be to sustain its rapid growth. "There are further good years ahead," says Kerryn Tay, an analyst at GK Goh Research in Singapore, pointing to growing demand for Hyflux's products in China and government support at home. For her part, the hardworking Lum wants Hyflux to be worth $3 billion within five years. Grandma would approve.