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The business of beauty

Annette Tan
Annette Tan • 9 min read
The business of beauty
For aesthetic doctor Low Chai ling, beauty is about being the best version of yourself, and running a business is about motivating staff to give their best
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For aesthetic doctor Low Chai ling, beauty is about being the best version of yourself, and running a business is about motivating staff to give their best

SINGAPORE (Nov 4): Doctors are trained to practise medicine, but little in medical school prepares them for the business of medicine. This is a fact Dr Low Chai Ling knows well. Months into opening her first clinic in 2000, she found herself floored by the fact that despite seeing numerous patients daily, her clinic failed to register a profit at the end of each month.

“I quickly learnt to be a businesswoman from the need to make money,” says the lithe 40-something with a laugh. “At the time, I had just got married and sold my car to start the clinic. I realised that there are systems you must put in place and that you have to motivate every single staff to make the business work.”

(Main image: Low: When we first thought about taking things to a different level, we didn’t just demand a lot from ourselves but from our staff as well. We wanted them to achieve a certain standard.)

Today, her blueprint for business success has resulted in the impressive SW1 Clinic, which she founded with her husband, Dr Kenneth Lee, in December 2017. Occupying more than 7,000 sq ft in Paragon Mall, the clinic is a Ministry of Health-accredited day surgery centre that has two operating theatres and 23 treatment rooms. The waiting area with its dusky pink walls and gilded accents exudes an atmosphere of serenity.

Low describes SW1 as a “global wellness village” that offers beauty treatments and aesthetic and cosmetic procedures. Last year, it was brought into the Singapore Medical Group fold, giving it access to a larger team of specialists and the network for overseas growth.

“We wanted to start something different,” Low explains of SW1’s concept. “We have a whole team of doctors here because we think how we conduct medicine must be different. We realised that, in the past, when you saw a doctor, they would prescribe a cream that the clinic carries; if you saw a plastic surgeon, they would [perform a procedure]. But that isn’t the whole picture.”

While aesthetics is a large part of the business, there is more to it than meting out treatments to improve looks. “For example, sometimes we have breast cancer survivors who come in for breast reconstruction. [With our set-up], we can have a general surgeon talk to them about removing the tumour and then a breast reconstruction surgeon talk about how to reconstruct. Then, we have an aesthetic doctor discuss how to reduce or remove the scars. That is more holistic,” she says.

People first

This holistic approach extends throughout the business. “People before profits” is the ethos that guides Low, though it is the profit that allows the business to take exceptional care of her team.

“When I started my first clinic, I was the only one who was motivated. I wanted to do my best for it, but that wasn’t translated to the team. Each patient spent only about 10 minutes with me, but spent a lot of time with the other people, who weren’t as motivated. And that’s how the business could fail.”

From that experience, she learnt to make improvements from the ground up, whether it was spending time with her employees on the front line listening to how they took phone calls or observing how her patients were treated during facials and how other doctors treated their patients. Today, she says, one of her proudest achievements is her team, who delivers what she demands, even up to the little details.

The waiting area at SW1’s clinic in Paragon Mall boasts dusky pink walls and gilded accents and exudes an atmosphere of serenity

“When we first thought about taking things to a different level, we didn’t just demand a lot from ourselves but from our staff as well. We wanted them to achieve a certain standard. For example, the facials we give must be as comfortable as they are effective. It’s in the small things like cleaning make-up off a client’s face — for example, they must be able to spot if she has eyelash extensions, and if so, what they must do. This elevates our staff to a certain level where they require more expertise, and they’ve all delivered really well,” she says.

Over the years, one of the biggest business lessons she has learnt is the importance of giving everyone a chance. “Sometimes, people surprise you. I’ve interviewed many people [for employment] and you can’t tell how valuable a person will be based on just their qualifications. There are candidates who have the best qualifications but will do nothing for you, and there are those who have no qualifications but turn out to be the best because they have the best attitude.”

One of her longest-serving employees is a tetraplegic whom she had read about in The New Paper and hired as a graphic designer. He had no background in graphic design and knew next to nothing about it at the time. “Sure, he didn’t start off with the best qualifications, but his attitude is amazing,” she says. “We’ve been together longer than most marriages last, and he’s grown from doing a bit of graphic design to creating all our websites.”

Beauty and your best

It is this big-heartedness and willingness to look beyond the superficial that anchors her drive to make societal changes in whatever ways she can. Besides contributing a portion of her personal income and the clinic’s proceeds to social causes, she also started Glow Up, a pro bono clinic initiative for teenagers. Each week, she sees six to eight individuals whose concerns range from acne to anorexia and sweaty palms.

“It’s about empowering teenagers to take the first step towards greater self-confidence,” she says. “Sometimes, their problems may seem small, but you cannot imagine how much they impact them. And there are treatments for things such as sweaty palms and acne, but when you’re 17, you don’t have the money for these treatments.”

Having a teenage daughter of her own has also enabled her to look at beauty from a young person’s perspective. “I always tell my daughter that the most important thing is for her to be comfortable and confident about the way she looks and feels. I also tell her that if there’s something she doesn’t like or thinks can be treated, she shouldn’t be afraid to seek help. It’s not so much about changing your looks but about not having to suffer if there are solutions for your problems. But, if you want to change your features so that you can look like someone else or think that your new look will change your world, then those are not the right reasons,” Low explains.

The same goes for the patients who come to her for the non-invasive aesthetic treatments that she specialises in. Some arrive with an idea of who they want to look like and she is quick to tell them that looking like someone else is not necessarily the best course of action. “It’s really about how you can look like the best version of yourself — that’s the result that you’ll probably be happiest with,” she says. “Being the best that you can be, that’s beauty. If we can achieve that by optimising the way our skin looks and by having healthy bodies, that’s beauty.”

Lifting years off your face

I finally gave in to the four-figure price tag of an ultrasound skin tightening treatment in my mid-40s. And what a difference several thousand dollars make. Three weeks post-treatment, the loose flap of wattle beneath my chin and the hanging jowls that bookended my cheeks had visibly tightened and shrunk, taking a year or two off my visage, or at least making me look like I had just returned from a relaxing holiday.

Like other middle-aged women, I still felt that there was much about my face that could be improved, or at least a couple more years that could be erased from it. In particular, there were the deep lines around my mouth that spoke of, among other things, the 15 years I had dedicated to smoking cigarettes in my 20s and 30s.

When I told SW1 co-founder Dr Low Chai Ling I had been contemplating fillers, she assured me that it was a valuable course of action. I imagined that the fillers would, as their name suggest, simply fill in the caverns of those hollow laugh lines. But instead, Low said she would inject the fillers just below the outermost corners of my cheekbones, which would provide volume while subtly lifting the skin from the edges of my face. “Fillers are no longer about filling the lines in your face,” she explained. “We look at your face and what it could be in terms of proportions, and use fillers to reshape the face.”

The Volume High-Definition Lift, as the procedure is called at SW1, involves a micro-injection technique that strategically places a hyaluronic facial volumiser under the skin. These fillers are 99% identical to our skin’s hyaluronic acid, making them safe to use. Not only do they fill and plump up the contours of the face almost instantly but the hyaluronic acid continues to work over several weeks to stimulate the skin’s natural collagen production.

My only question before the procedure was: How much would it hurt? “The good thing is, I’m terrified of pain, which is why we have the best numbing creams here,” Low said reassuringly.

And indeed, the worst part of the treatment was not so much the pain but the stress of not knowing whether it was going to hurt as she injected the fillers into my face. For that, I got a stress ball to squeeze, which helped immensely.

The effects were immediate, and in the first week, I almost felt like my face looked a little too plump, like I had gained some weight around my cheeks. But three weeks on, the fillers have settled nicely, giving my face a fresh appearance.

Around this time, I also start to notice that my wrinkles have softened and my skin is just a little tighter and smoother. According to Low, the effects of the fillers typically last about 18 months with proper rest, exercise, skin maintenance and a healthy diet, which seem a sensible duration to adopt those good habits and save up for the next round of fillers.

Annette Tan is a freelance writer

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