When cousins Terence and Nelson Loh left their high-flying jobs to start their own integrated healthcare and aesthetics empire, Novena Global Lifecare Group, they knew that they wanted the business to be more than skin-deep. Their decision to leave their jobs at multinational bank JPMorgan was based on a desire to chart their own destiny and give back to the community at large. It would seem very odd, then, that the decision was made over copious amounts of alcohol, and a game at the tables, as they have often been quoted as saying.“You’ve probably read [other interviews] where we said we made the decision [to leave our jobs] over a game of roulette,” Terence, the elder of the two by a year, tells Options with a smile. They agreed — black, they would quit; red, they would stay. “But what has not been mentioned is that we didn’t get black at the first ‘try’. We had to try many, many times to [purposely] get the outcome we wanted, which was to leave our jobs and control our destiny. I think we were hell-bent on getting out already.”
Says Nelson, “Terence and I grew up knowing we wanted to create something on our own. Honestly, there’s no ideal time to leave [the job]. It was tough, leaving banking, leaving the perks, but at least [we] had our own destiny. I ran Southeast Asia, but I was still at the beck and call of someone else and, obviously, after the Lehman [Brothers] crash, banking changed. I didn’t know whether I wanted to be a banker anymore, and that was really when we decided if we didn’t get out now, 10 years would turn into another 10 years.”
No turning back
Once they had made up their minds to do it, the cousins embarked on a journey to disrupt the aesthetics and integrated healthcare industry, armed with little knowledge about the industry, but with a great deal of enthusiasm and business savvy. Their goal was simple but effective: to offer no-frills, affordable and quality aesthetics treatment to Asia’s booming middle-class population.Since 2010, the two have built, from ground up, one of the largest integrated medical healthcare and aesthetic groups regionally with a presence in Singapore, China, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, India and Malaysia. Novena Global Lifecare is a subsidiary of DORR Group, the investment vehicle the duo set up in 2008.
They claim Novena’s network is now in 250 locations in more than 20 cities, and drives a US$100 million ($136.5 million) revenue portfolio. Their first foray — beauty treatment chain PPP Laser Clinic (rebranded as NOVU Aesthetics in 2016) —was founded in 2010 and was a runaway success. Later, they incorporated in-house medical equipment manufacturing, customer relationship management data analytics and R&D into the business and rebranded it as NOVU. It now has about 100 clinics in eight countries and its line of products are available in 1,000 points of sale. Novena Global Lifecare’s clinics in the region offer services such as health screenings, DNA testing and stem cell treatments besides general healthcare.
It was no easy task jumping from banking to running their own business, however, but they were aware of the risks. “The problem is that, in Asia, the tolerance for failure is very low,” says Nelson. “In the US or in Silicon Valley, the tolerance for failure is higher. You fail many times, you’re a serial entrepreneur. If you fail once here, you’re a loser. But why does it have to be this way? To me, there’s no such thing as failure. I think it’s just your first attempt at learning something.”
For the pair, it is not just about revenue and the bottom line. “Where we are now is to transition from success to significance. How canwe touch more lives and help more people to bring about positive change? On the business side, we are still growing. We started from aesthetics, and now we’re evolving towards anti-ageing and general healthcare [including] basic health screening and ambulatory services,”says Terence.
While focusing on growing their business, Terence says, their overarching goal was to do more for the community and go beyond one-off financial donations or spur-of-the-moment charity work. “We wanted to put real thought behind it,” he says. Guided by their shared values, interests and passion to keep children off the streets and to provide opportunities to the underprivileged, Terence and Nelson give out grants to non-profit sports organisations such as the Amateur Muay Thai Association Singapore. In fact, the sponsorship helped the national team score its first medal win (bronze in the Under-23 category) in the World Muaythai Championships in Bangkok in July 2019, where Singapore competed against 127 countries. “It is a rather under funded sport, to be honest, but following the programme, they’ve won medals and championships and, in this way, the [fighters] go onto become role models to others, or to become trainers,” Nelson says.
The group also stepped in as St Michael’s Soccer Association’s inaugural title sponsor in2019. “The key thing is, how can we do something different that’s not just giving money? How can we bring about change?” says Nelson. “Terence and I love sports, which is why we gave a lot of sports scholarships and sponsorship for sports programmes, for example, the Muay Thai programme— we’re very proud of it. We are helping keep kids off the streets, to channel their energies into sports and, most importantly, our scholarships are contingent on their going back to school. In addition, sports teaches you core values— determination, grit, teamwork, discipline. That’s why when people ask us, why is it always sports scholarships, why do you do things differently, where the key parameters are not academic results?” Nelson believes academic results alone could, in fact, be a stumbling block. “It could not be a plus, and may in fact be a deterrent. People say we are mavericks, that we shoot from the hip, but that’s the world we live in today. With technology and [artificial intelligence], what we learn today may not be relevant for the jobs of tomorrow.”
That is not to say they do not appreciate the value of a good education. The key is never to make it the sole determining factor to one’s eventual success and their life path. In fact, the Loh cousins are alumni of the Girton College (University of Cambridge), and they also give out undergraduate scholarships to Singaporeans students to attend Cambridge everyyear. “We want to give it to those who’ve never even dreamt about being able to go to Cambridge,” says Nelson. Terence agrees that education is key to charting one’s own path. “We want to give back to education because it’s crucial that people are able to use education to think for themselves,to help them find out who they are,” he says.“And sports is [also] an excellent way to overcome your challenges, physical or mental, to learn how to work as a team and be able to lead and be led.”
What they hope to do next is to take their efforts for social good further through healthcare screenings, which is something they do in other markets such as Taiwan and South Korea. “[We want to] advance basic healthcare for more people. We have the resources and the platform, so the question is where and how do we do [it].” On Dec 14, Novena Lifecare Group will hold a fundraiser called the Education Benefit Gala Dinner to support education and training for marginalised women and children from disadvantaged families.
The four beneficiaries are Dreams Institute(South Central Community Family ServiceCenter), which empowers young people from low-income households to break out of poverty by providing bond-free scholarships as well as residential accommodation; Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations Service Fund to aid marginalised women through counselling, financial assistance and legal advice; Daughters Of Tomorrow, which supports training and workforce-related agencies to help underprivileged women; and Persatuan Pemudi Islam Singapura, which provides holistic support for Muslim women and their families with training programmes and consultancy services. With the aim of raising $5 million for these charities, the group has invited former US president Barack Obama to attend the gala dinner and participate in a 60-minute moderated conversation.
The decision to invite Obama was not driven only by the fact that he would be a highlight of the event, but also that he would be able to inspire those present. “We did not want this to be like every other gala. We have chosen the charities whose founders and patrons share our values and are invested in the cause, and they are equally involved,” says Terence.
So, how does one “top” inviting Obama to a gala? Who is next? “Who knows, maybe we’ll invite David Beckham next year; the sky’s the limit,” he says, laughing.