Two's Company With Novena Global Lifecare Group's Terence And Nelson Loh

Novena Global Lifecare Group’s betting on aesthetics

Cousins Terence and Nelson Loh let a roulette game decide if they should work together, which led to a business in the beauty industry

Aesthetic clinics often woo their clients by pampering them. They might, say, offer a relaxing facial to remove one's make-up before a procedure.

Not at Novu Medical Aesthetic Clinic.

Here, one is handed a pre-packed moist towelette and informed of one's appointment through a phone app. And instead of a languorous consultation, you meet a doctor who performs your treatment within 15 minutes, after which you proceed to another room to re-apply your make-up and then scoot off.

Cousins Terence and Nelson Loh, founders of Novena Global Lifecare Group which owns the medical aesthetic chain, have cut out all the bells and whistles that one has come to expect when visiting an aesthetic practice.

The upside of the zippy experience - apart from time saved - is that you pay up to $50 a pop for a laser treatment, compared with between $200 and $1,000 for a similar service at more "high-end" clinics here.

Since the chain only focuses on non-invasive medical aesthetics treatments such as its P+ signature laser treatment for pigmentation, pores and pimples, a bulk of its treatments can be done very swiftly - meaning clients can be in and out of the clinic in half an hour. Keeping to non-invasive procedures also means that lengthy consultations are not necessary.

For Nelson, 39, and Terence, 40, their chain of aesthetic clinics bears great similarities to low-cost air carriers such as AirAsia, which they often liken themselves to.

"We are not doctors so, for us, starting a business in the medical aesthetics line was a matter of strategy. We saw the opportunity to come in and disrupt the industry," says Nelson, who is executive chairman of the business.

We are not doctors so, for us, starting a business in the medical aesthetics line was a matter of strategy. We saw the opportunity to come in and disrupt the industry.

MR NELSON LOH

"For a long time, going to these aesthetic clinics was something that was available only to the well-heeled and we saw the potential to make it accessible to everyone."

For the two first cousins who grew up together under the watchful gaze of their grandmother, working together was not always on the cards.

They went separate ways for university - Nelson studied economics and political science at Cambridge in England and Terence read literature and business at Santa Clara University in the United States - and despite staying in touch, their early careers in investment banking meant they were working in different cities for nearly a decade.

It was a roulette game during a holiday in Las Vegas in 2008 that nudged their lives in a different direction. At the time, Nelson was working in London and Terence had settled in China, but both of them were exhausted from their finance jobs and were looking for something new.

"We bet on black, saying that we would leave our jobs and start something together if we won," says Terence, who is chief executive of Novena Global Lifecare and father of a five-year-old daughter. "Turns out, that one spin changed our lives."

The two started a venture capital fund together called the Dorr Group, named after the iconic duo Danny Ocean and Rusty Ryan from the Ocean's Eleven film franchise.

They began investing in businesses and start-ups in industries that they felt were the next big thing, focusing mainly on North Asia.

That was how they found themselves investing in a South Korean medical aesthetics equipment manufacturer, an area which was new to both of them.

After some careful research, they realised that the cost of equipment can really add up for service providers and businesses in the industry.

They hence saw an opportunity to enter the market if they produced their own equipment.

"What we realised was that if we were doing our own research and producing our own technology and equipment, then there would be an opportunity for us to provide the services at a much lower cost," says Nelson, who is a father of two.

The duo also clued in on the recession-proof nature of the industry, where demand is fuelled by social media and an increased focus on wellness and beauty.

"Millennials are not shy to focus on feeling and looking good," says Terence, adding that they saw the aesthetics and wellness space as a sector with an offline component that could survive the rise of e-commerce.

"More than ever, people are spending on their appearance because it is so much about self-expression these days - feeling good is a global phenomenon."

Also, many doctors in the industry were general practitioners as aesthetic medicine is not a professional specialisation in medicine. That made it easier for the cousins to get the right doctors on board, whom they could train to use anti-ageing and wellness tools.

With all that in mind, they opened their first clinic in Liang Court shopping centre in 2012.

By taking the no-frills route - their clinics were small and basic and saw up to 150 patients a day - they were offering a new business model of cheap and efficient services.

Still, cheap is not always considered reliable and the duo had the challenge of convincing customers to take a chance on them.

Trusting in the strength of their product, they decided to offer patrons three free trials of their laser service. It worked as many continued to use their services after the deal was over.

To keep costs low, they began expanding rapidly to benefit from economies of scale. They also manufactured their own equipment in South Korea so that they would not be at the mercy of high overheads.

The results over the past six years have been impressive. Novena Global Lifecare Group is now Asia's largest medical aesthetics and healthcare group, with a network of 100 clinics across Singapore and the region, including China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia and India.

With its own research and development laboratories in South Korea, the group manufactures all its equipment and has a panel of 10 doctors and 20 engineers working to develop new technologies.

In 2016, it also started producing its own line of Novu clinical skincare and now offers a range of 30 products, which is available for sale at its clinics as well as at healthcare stores Watsons and Unity. Nelson's wife manages the products.

Last November, it also opened its first branch in Spain, making Novu the first Singapore medical aesthetics chain to expand into Europe and paving the way for an expansion into Latin America.

Beauty and the biz

Last year, the group had a turnover of US$50 million (S$65.8 million).

Along the way, the cousins have also had their share of pitfalls.

In 2015, the founding doctor of their clinic - then known as the PPP Laser Clinic chain - quit, leaving clients with packages in the lurch and a trail of closed-down clinics in his wake.

Nelson and Terence, who were at the time focused on expanding the chain overseas, were forced to return to Singapore to do immediate damage control.

The cousins won the lawsuit that followed and learnt an important lesson about choosing the right partners and always paying close attention to all aspects of their business.

They rebranded as Novu, reopened their clinics and, within 18 months, set the business back on track.

Today, the two say their focus is on global expansion and expanding their customer database so they can offer more services and greater value to their clients.

"By having this database in each market that we're in, we are able to learn quickly what customers want and what are the services that are important for that specific market," says Nelson.

"It has helped us tailor not only our services, but also our products. We're using technology to really shape the strategies and direction of our business."

For Terence, it has been the ability to innovate and disrupt a traditional industry that has been the most rewarding part of the whole journey.

"The beauty industry is one of the oldest industries and, for a long time, people just paid what was asked of them because they saw no other options," he says.

"We believe that he who does not grow up, grows smaller, so it's important for us to keep learning new things, innovating and improving the way we work.

"For us, becoming irrelevant is not an option."


Nelson on Terence: Childhood bond strengthens partnership

Asked if he had ever thought of joining the family business of construction and shipping, Mr Nelson Loh, executive chairman of Novena Medical Lifecare Group, is quick to quip: "Terence and I were both told not to join the family business."

The cousins come from a large family - their fathers are the seventh and eighth children in a family of 11 siblings - and they saw the drama that can happen when families work together. This was why they did their own thing when they graduated from university.

Still, their close bond ended up drawing them together as business partners. "What we realised is that we've got different strengths, but we had enough of an understanding to work together - we split everything 50-50 from the get-go," says Nelson, 39. "We trust each other completely."

And even though their equally opinionated natures mean they often have disagreements about issues, both say they never take anything personally.

"We know how the other person thinks, so it's a constructive process to disagree because we really flesh out issues and often reach a better solution," says the father of two. "We have a duopoly of ideas, so if we can't convince the other person in 10 minutes, then the idea is not good enough and we know we need to move on."

For Nelson, it is the bond they have had since they were children that also gives their relationship added strength.

"We are brothers and business partners, which make the work we do together that much more special," he says. "We riff off each other and we've got so much shared history - that's why this is a partnership that works, even through all the challenges."


Terence on Nelson: Sharing a love of wine and extreme sports

For the older of the two cousins, Mr Terence Loh, it is having distinct roles in the business that has helped his partnership with Mr Nelson Loh grow from strength to strength since the duo started working together in 2010.

"I handle the operations, business development and technology aspects of the business, while Nelson handles more of the human resources and finance," the chief executive of Novena Medical Lifecare Group says. "Keeping the majority of our work distinct means we don't step too much on each other's toes."

For the 40-year-old father of one, a lack of communication can be problematic in a partnership. "We make it a point to keep each other in the loop about everything, especially with regard to strategic and marketing decisions, which are areas we work on together," he says.

It helps that despite their relatively different personalities - Terence is more the self-confessed romantic while Nelson is more pragmatic - they also have a lot of common interests, which helps to gel their solid friendship.

"We both share a love of wine and extreme sports - I surf and paddle-board competitively and Nelson is a competitive Ironman (triathlete)," says Terence. "Because we train so hard for our sports, we share a similar strict work ethic as well."

For Terence, their common interests have been key in teaching them to support each other. He adds: "It helps that when we disagree, we know we can always make amends over a great bottle of wine."