The Journey Of A Lifestyle Maverick
Ms Cynthia Chua (Arts and Social Sciences ’93) began with one spa in 1996. Today, the Spa Esprit Group is a $100 million-dollar global beauty and F&B lifestyle business.
WHO IS SHE?
Ms Cynthia Chua is the founder of the Spa Esprit Group, a leading lifestyle business. Since 1996, the group has developed beauty, spa and F&B brands that operate in more than 100 locations globally. She is also an advocate of urban farming in Singapore.
Given that she runs a lifestyle empire with 16 businesses, and a staff strength of 1,000 globally, one might think it would be hard to get hold of Ms Cynthia Chua. But just as she has been since the days of the original Spa Esprit at Holland Village, this celebrated entrepreneur is meticulous about making time for things. She apologises for not replying sooner than four days because, at the time of this interview, the COVID-19 situation was causing organisations to activate business continuity plans.
This sense of responsibility is just one attribute that characterises the woman who has been called “the maverick” of lifestyle businesses, a moniker that resonates with her. “I think I am first a maverick, then a visionary,” she says. “When I have an idea, I don’t really listen to many people who say the idea doesn’t work. I am independent-minded, and will follow with thinking about how it can become [reality].”
If one studies the milestones of Ms Chua’s career, one will see that her ideas have often, if not always, been ahead of their time. In 1996, after a stint working in a bank and discovering it was “not [her] cuppa tea”, she started Spa Esprit, one of the earliest homegrown urban spa brands, with a friend. “I felt that there was a gap then that modern working women did not have an urban spa where they could go to relax. What was in the market then were long retreats and spa getaways. Urban spas that offered an hour or two of spa therapy were rare.”
She didn’t think too hard about taking the plunge. “An opportunity was presented to me to go into a joint venture,” she explains. “It was also a spa that I was going to, so that was a great platform to start. There wasn’t any opposition to my decision — I didn’t really ask around. I just felt that I wanted to do it and was excited about the new beginning.”
Being surrounded with love keeps me on a high vibration and level of positivity; with that, I see all things beautiful and have a thirst to learn.
The Empire Builder
Spa Esprit quickly took off, becoming the go-to urban spa for working women, the first sign of Ms Chua’s sharp instincts for expansion. One of the first entrepreneurs to promote wellness as a mind-body concept, Ms Chua followed up with Qi Mantra, a concept service of stress-relief and mood elevation drawing from taichi and qigong techniques. Today, the two businesses have merged.
Her process of diversification is both linear and lateral, and builds on existing strengths. As she progressed, Ms Chua’s boldness began to show itself. Her Brazilian waxing salon STRIP, founded in 2004, was a big gamble — Singaporeans may consider themselves cosmopolitan but talking about removing pubic hair was taboo enough, to say nothing of actually going to a salon to have it done. Today, STRIP and its counterpart Browhaus (which primarily grooms eyebrows for both men and women) are global brands. More recently, she launched TWO L(I)PS, a range of luxury intimate care products including a vulva mask, inspired by requests from STRIP customers.
Entering the food and beverage business seemed like a natural progression. In 2007, part of the old Tanglin Barracks was converted by Ms Chua into a multi-concept spa and restaurant called House, which featured treatment rooms that overlooked verdant greenery, as well as a café serving innovative creations such as alcoholic drinks in tiffin carriers. This move into F&B included The Tippling Club in 2008, which was at the forefront of cocktail culture. “A lot of the brands are born out of a gap I see in the market. Forty Hands came about when I encountered the Melbourne hole-in-the-wall coffee culture. I felt it would be wonderful to have this in Singapore. The idea was seeded and things just slowly fell into place when I met the right people to put the pieces together.”
Forty Hands was founded in 2010 and since then, Ms Chua has expanded her F&B portfolio to include Tiong Bahru Bakery; Common Man Coffee Roasters, a specialty coffee roaster, wholesaler, café and barista academy; Chinese restaurant Ding Dong; and Argentinian cocina Bochinche. Ms Chua rocked the scene again in 2015 when she launched Open Farm Community in Dempsey Hill, a concept aligned with the recent global farm-to-table trend. Her love for homegrown edibles has parlayed itself into Farm To Beauty, a move to create rooftop gardens in buildings such as Wheelock Place and Raffles City. Plants like calendula and aloe are grown for use in Browhaus and STRIP products. Her latest venture is Noka (which means “farmhouse”), a Japanese restaurant that uses produce from another rooftop garden at Funan Mall.
Ms Chua defines the pursuit of excellence as “passion, creativity and tenacity.” It is these values that have driven her to grow her brands beyond Singapore. Both the STRIP and Browhaus concepts caught on worldwide, from Singapore and Shanghai to New York and London. And even if you don’t live in any of these cities, you can still have a piece of Spa Esprit through beautyemporium.shop, a beauty website offering Ms Chua’s own line of products as well as a curated selection of her favourite beauty buys; and twolips.vip, where you can purchase vulva masks. In 2016, Ms Chua opened The Beauty Block in Chelsea, London, which houses Ministry of Wax (as STRIP is called in London), Browhaus in London and a canteen called A Wanted Man. “Almost all the concepts are a reflection of my state of mind and how I want to live,” she says. “I am curious and love travelling and reading. I surround myself with beautiful things — and this, coupled with a love of innovation, has given me the blessings and success in the evolution of my businesses.”
INFLUENCES AND INSPIRATIONS
Ms Chua — who turns 49 this year — majored in Economics and Statistics at NUS, and remembers having “a great time” with classmates in the Arts canteen, the library and Eusoff Hall. “I feel that being in FASS influenced my free-spiritedness. There was time for imagination, play and interaction — the flexibility of the classes, the people who surrounded me, the general energy of it. They all contributed a lot to my positivity.” And despite her global outlook, there is always a space in her heart for home. “My family has influenced me a lot,” she says. “I recall the math sums my mother would throw at me, which trained my brain to work, especially in problem-solving. My father is most generous in spirit and a great force in supporting me and my ideas. This has set a good backdrop for my endeavours, so that I am fearless.”
But despite conquering many heights, her journey has not been completely devoid of lows: “Those would be when I fell out with my initial partners, and when I had to close my vintage fashion store Potion, and Skinny Pizza.” Yet, it is the wisdom to boost what works and trim away what doesn’t that makes Ms Chua the business juggernaut she is. She is now at a point where she can take time to dream. “I think my greatest value to the company is my vision and ideas, so making sure I have time for these has become a conscious effort.” This journey to carve out more time began 10 years ago, when she wanted to have more time in NYC and London as she has shops there and she wanted to connect with different cultures and gain new insights. It took her another four years to put in place “a good management team to allow [her] to do that.” In this respect, she is full of praise for her brother. "He has been working alongside me, in forming the infrastructure at the headquarters as well as driving the franchises for the beauty business in different countries (the New York and London branches have both been operated by franchisees for a few years now). He proved a great support to me for more than a decade, and I subsequently handed him the CEO role two years ago while I continue to import ideas and vision to the team."
Always a hands-on boss, Ms Chua got involved in the New York and London operations actively in 2014, but had personal reasons for spending time abroad as well. “My boyfriend, Benjamin Darnaud, is French. He is a travelling chef and TV host. That’s when I started visiting Paris and London more,” she explains. “I am based for six months in Singapore and six months in different parts of Europe and America. That has a lot of influence on my ideas.” Ms Chua credits her success to her ability to dream. “Being surrounded with love keeps me on a high vibration and level of positivity; with that, I see all things beautiful and have a thirst to learn.”