“Phua Chu Kang's Boots Were Yellow — Mine Were Green”: From Luxe Fashion To Fish Soup Hawker To Skincare
Claire Au has a pretty extraordinary story — in 2007, the then-25-year-old SMU marketing grad ditched her corporate high heels and air-conditioned office to sell fish soup with her dad at Maxwell Food Centre. And no, it’s not like she went to help out at her dad’s hawker stall. The enterprising lass and her dad — himself a successful entrepreneur who co-founded public listed local electronics company Enzer, which he has since sold — set up the food stall despite having no experience in F&B. Fast forward 10 years, and a 35-year-old Claire, now a mum to a three-month-old baby, is knee-deep in yet another business that has nothing to do with fish soup, electronics or high-end fashion (she once worked in Louis Vuitton as a customer service rep) — she’s the founder of local skincare brand Auolive (pronounced “Olive”).
Despite her unusual career trajectory, Claire is reassuringly down-to-earth and normal, you know, the kind of person you’d trust when you want to buy skincare. I’m at the Au family home in the affluent Bukit Timah area for a shoot and interview (Was it electronics or fish soup that paid for the gilded gates, sprawling driveway and two-storey bungalow with a large garden, I wonder), and Claire and her mum are super-welcoming. They ply me with gourmet sandwiches and coffee, and dab creams on my hands (“See the difference between your right hand and left hand?” Claire says after patting on the Auolive Radiance Revealer). For the record, the products sink into your skin like butter and absorb instantly, so maybe she’s right when she goes on about how much testing they did to make sure the texture was right for our humid weather.
So how did Claire go from high heels to rubber boots and back again?
8 DAYS: You look every bit the busy and glamorous mum and businesswoman who loves her creature comforts. But 10 years ago, you left your corporate job to start a hawker business. Why?
CLAIRE AU: I started King’s Fish Soup in 2007. It was with great difficulty that I left my job in the beauty and skincare industry to start the hawker business. I remember I cried when I submitted my resignation letter — my colleagues and bosses were all very nice, and I was so sad to leave. But I did it as it was the right time for me to start my business venture.
Why hawker stall? Why not something more glam like a café? Or any other business? The hawker business is notoriously tough.
I’m a pragmatist. I count the numbers. I wanted to start a spa, but the investment would be too high, so I thought: Let me start this way first, so I can see what it’s like to run a business. I wouldn’t say it’s my personality to take the path less trodden. But I’ve always wanted to run my own business. Even when I was in school, I had a dream of having my own beauty business. At that time, since I was still young and I had a great fish soup recipe from my nanny, but didn’t want to kill myself financially with the high costs of opening a restaurant or café, I set out to open a humble hawker stall. It was much more manageable on my finances at 25 years old. Besides, so many people were opening cafés — it would be hard for me to have a differentiating factor. My dad is a successful entrepreneur, and he always taught me and my brother that all businesses need to have a Differentiating Value Proposition — so that was very much ingrained in our thinking, no matter what business we are in.
Were you one of those glamorous hawkers — hair and make-up always on point?
Only when we had a magazine photo shoot! (8 DAYS shot Claire and her dad back in 2008.) I try to put a bit of make-up but the reality of running a fish soup biz is that some nights, I had to go to the fishery at 2am in the morning. Yes, I wore rubber boots at the fish market. Phua Chu Kang's boots were yellow — mine were green! I’d get back home at 5am and be so tired. Then I’d head to the stall a bit later to deliver the secret fish soup recipe. It was very different from what I was used to.
Your dad was a successful businessman and your family must be used to a certain level of comfort. How did you mum feel about you running a hawker stall?
Actually, she had to jump into the hot soup with me! There was one day the cook decided not to show up. Luckily, we had a backup cook. My mum came to help chop vegetables. She had never chopped vegetables in her entire life. (Laughs) The cook was telling her the vegetables were crooked, but she was saying, “Nevermind, after you throw it into the soup, it will all look the same!” (Laughs) [Mrs Au chimes in, “I worked in the corporate world, and I’m retired, so I was saying, “Better make sure my ex-colleagues don’t see me!” They would be like, “Poor thing — she is doing this after her retirement!” (Laughs)] Once, we delivered fish soup in my mum’s Jaguar. It was so funny.
But you eventually sold the hawker stall in 2010.
Yes, the wake-up call came when we had a manpower crunch — the difficult part of F&B is manpower — and when my friends started saying, “Eh, Claire, you look very “ciu” leh (dialect for haggard). I sold the business and went back to corporate work. It wasn’t that the stall was not doing well, though — it was okay.
What did you take away from running the hawker stall that helped you with your skincare brand?
I really learned a lot on the ground. People may think it’s just a fish soup stall, but you have to handle HR, marketing, logistics, procurement and customer service. It really was an eye-opening experience for me, and no one can take that away. I tried to modernise and professionalise the hawker business — we had a process to cook the fish and soup, to make things go faster.
And after the fish soup stall, you went back to the corporate world.
Yes, I went back into a very glam role, working with a very high-end private members club — we’d handle requests like getting sold-out concert tickets, booking holidays or getting reservations with restaurants with long waiting lists. So I went from high heels to rubber boots and back to high heels.
And last year, you started your own skincare brand, Auolive. Why enter this ultra-competitive industry?
I worked in a skincare company previously, and my family and I also distributed another line of made-in-Japan skincare. We wanted to launch our own brand one day. After talking to customers, we knew a lot of busy women have no time for a multi-step skincare regimen. If we can cut three steps to one, it would be so much easier. We wanted products that were useful for women, to cut out the noise and the confusion. And when I was running the hawker business, it was a challenge to take care of my skin. Back then, all I knew was multi-step skincare — toner, serum, moisturiser, mask, but I was so tired when I came home that if I can cleanse my face, it was very good already.
So you rolled moisturiser, sunscreen, an anti-ageing serum and a make-up primer into one product, the Day Glower ($118 for 30ml). The question is, of course, is this one product as effective as four?
We worked with dermatologists and cosmetic scientists to make sure this idea of combining multiple products into one wasn’t just something that existed in our heads. We felt reassured that if a product is formulated well, the elements will work without a reduction in efficacy. The active ingredients are there to work hard for your skin. We went through a lot of R&D to test product efficacy and texture — we had to make sure that with Singapore’s hot and humid weather, the product would absorb quickly with no sticky feel. We live in this weather — we know all about the humidity and the differnet skin types here. I think that helps. The skincare was formulated in a Swiss lab, but it’s made in Singapore, so we can respond more quickly to customer demands.
You only have four products, and they aren’t cheap.
When people first see the products, they’d say, “It’s not a luxe product, so why is it $138? But the key thing is that our products will help you save money, ’cos you need to buy fewer products. It’s not designed to be luxe. It’s designed to meet a need, to work intelligently to take care of the multiple needs of busy women. We also sourced for airless twist bottles instead of jars to minimise contamination, ’cos anti-ageing ingredients age very quickly.
What’s the next step for Auolive? Are you planning more products, or are these four products enough?
We’ve had a lot of enquiries to have more products, so cleansers and masks are in the pipeline. For now, it’s more important to spread the word about Auolive in Singapore, and also to bring the brand worldwide.
Lastly, any beauty tips?
Use sunblock. We are shocked that some ladies are still not using sunblock. The sun and UV rays are what ages skin the most. And sometimes we forget the basic things, like getting enough rest and exercise, taking care of your body and drinking enough water. Have a well-balanced life. If you sleep at 1am and say you have dark eye circles, I’d say, “Sorry, my product won’t be able to help you. You need a concealer, not eye cream.” (Laughs)
Auolive is available at Naiise at Katong I12, The Cathay and Shaw Centre, and Tangs Vivocity, and at www.Auolive.com.