Ladies Who Launch

Enterprising expatriate women share their stories of success.

by / Published: 30 Nov 2011

Ladies Who Launch

Pampering with a British touch

Leagha McMahon
Co-founder of The London Orchid (

Leagha McMahon moved to Kuala Lumpur about a year ago, and with over ten years of beauty experience, starting her own spa seemed like the most logical path to take. “It seemed like the obvious choice when I came here and was deciding what to do,” she explains, adding that she and her partner, Jamie Laughton, took over a space in Damansara Heights previously used by an Irish lady as a salon.

The duo turned it into The London Orchid within a couple of months—“we did all the refurbishments ourselves”—and the name evokes the sophisticated interior of their spa with its black-and-white furnishings and smatterings of beautiful orchids. They pride themselves as an all-British spa, the first of its kind here to exclusively feature British therapists.

Doors opened last July, but it wasn’t without an unexpected month-long surprise, as the spa’s first month of business coincided with Ramadhan. “It was really quiet at first. We didn’t know how quiet

KL would be,” recalls Leagha. Business however picked up and their clients currently include expatriate women as well as a handful of Malaysians, including some from the upper crust.

With so many spas in KL, was there a gap in the market for a spa like theirs? Definitely, Leagha argues. “All of our clients are just so pleased to have someone they can communicate clearly with that has obviously got much more depth of training. Here, a beauty therapist only has to train for eight months, whereas in England you have to train for at least two years.”

“Clients appreciate the fact that the therapist isn’t just trying to sell them stuff. We’re not hard on sales, we don’t push sales, we give people advice if they want to hear it,” she explains. She’s aware that beauty spas are a dime a dozen in KL, but what sets The London Orchid apart is their service and all-British theme. There’s also the special treatment they offer, available nowhere else in the city: spray tanning. “That’s actually massive. I had no idea it would be that popular.”

On starting a business in Kuala Lumpur, Leagha admits that having already known someone who lived in Kuala Lumpur helped tremendously. “It’s really good just to have someone here that I know as well for support and advice,” she says. Her godfather, an expatriate that’s lived here for seven years, played a supportive role when it came down to language difficulties and the early setup of the business, so Leagha’s practical advice for those hoping to start a business in Malaysia too: “Make some contacts here first. Don’t just come without knowing anyone and make sure you research your particular niche in the market before embarking. If you don’t research your market properly, you could easily set something up that’s not needed.”

The consummate businesswomen who has it all

Christine Sterk
Managing director of Asia OnTime (

Melbourne-native Christine Sterk calls the shots at Asia OnTime, Malaysia’s first digital delivery network that handles the transmissions for more than half of Malaysia’s newspaper and magazine advertising volume.

Christine herself moved to Malaysia in 1997. “My husband is an engineer and we moved with his work. So I came here as an expat wife,” she explains. That initial role, however, wasn’t one she sat easily with. “I was very bored, so I was looking for something to do and I started to do a bit of a project here and there, and then, I ended up running into some people in government areas that were looking at some projects [that needed an expatriate at the helm],” she notes.

Christine’s background in media and advertising proved invaluable in the project that entailed online ad delivery, but timing proved tricky. “When the market crashed [around 1998], the investors and the people I was working with all pulled out because they were struggling and we decided to take it up on our own and that’s how we ended up starting Asia OnTime.”

The company began with just Christine and one IT partner at the time. And, as a woman in a male-dominated industry, Christine reveals it wasn’t always smooth sailing, especially since her company’s technology was a challenge to the norm at the time. Two years into the business, however, things picked up. “There was a moment in time when I knew the company would be successful. I just knew. I just knew it would work,” she beams.

Christine’s cautions for operating a business in Malaysia include being culturally sensitive for one, and working towards sustainability. “Always make sure that the standards that you set are able to be carried through by other people, but always maintain that overview,” she advises. Having practiced this herself, Christine is now in the position to let go of the reins, and she’s reaping the rewards of her early efforts.“I got my business established, then I had my children. So now I have an amazing lifestyle choice, which is that I spend loads of time with my kids and I have a lot of help. I feel so unbelievably relaxed and I run a business, so asking me now to remember all that hardship, I don’t think I can… it’s [been] so worth it,” she smiles.

Turning passion into enterprise

Jane Chong
Director of Courtyard (

Jane Chong has been in Malaysia since 1994. What was meant to be a “fun” two-year trip here with her Malaysian husband turned into “and here we still are” for the former market-researcher and owner of Courtyard furniture store on Jalan Ampang. It’s Jane’s flagship business and it began in 1999 organically. Her husband, then in marketing for a property developer, needed to furnish show houses, and when he couldn’t find the right match in an interior designer, embarked on the task with his wife.

A retail space was available at the then newly-built AmpWalk mall and the couple saw a great opportunity to run a business that blended enterprise with her areas of interest. “I love the gardens and flora in this country, so that’s really where the name Courtyard comes from,” explains Jane.

Jane’s love of textures and colours can be seen clearly in the store’s interior and selection of goods—a beautiful marriage of different elements that evokes paradise and comfort in one go.

As for turning her hobby into a business, Jane states that trusting her instincts was the secret ingredient. “I’d like to think that we have a Courtyard style and that’s because I try to be true to what my concept is. I look at it, and it’s something that I like and I have gone with my instinct, so if you do have an area that’s a hobby that you like, then I think that’s the way to go,” she muses.

And she is quick to point out how invaluable it is to treat customers well. “I really believe that for a business to thrive, you really have to service your customer. I want to develop it so that we service our customers the way I would want to be serviced as a customer, so in a way I am coming into this business from being a customer,” she explains, adding the same principles apply with her staff, a small but great team that she feels lucky to have.

A happy team and happy customers make for a fantastic business model, which explains why Jane doesn’t have much to say in terms of challenges. “One thing I would say though, which is the opposite of a challenge, I find working with people here really good. I find people very flexible, very service-orientated.”

“As long as we approach people with respect and speak nicely, then I find the service element fantastic here. Sometimes, you hear expats thinking everything is great back there [Europe], but actually, I think there are a lot of positives here.”

Capturing the sweetness and spice of Malaysia

Florence Lambert
Founder of Gadis Manis Malaysia (

Florence Lambert started toying with the idea of running her own business in 2007 to inspire her young daughter, Sophie. Sadly, Florence faced the untimely passing of Sophie in early 2008. To cope, she sought solace in drawing, and influenced by her copywriter husband, launched Gadis Manis Malaysia that year.

The brand filled a niche in the market of locally-themed products. “I came to realise that in the souvenir market in Malaysia, you don’t have that many nice designs that represent Malaysian cultures, and if there is, it’s things that you find in Central Market that have not been revisited by the designers since the seventies,” laments Florence, who has lived in Malaysia since 1994.

“So I wanted to do something different.” While on holiday in Kyoto, Florence spotted an illustration of a geisha in her kimono skiing. The contrast between traditions and modernity struck a chord and she quickly realised that the same playful principles could be applied in a Malaysian context. Enter Gadis Manis Malaysia, a homegrown brand that features three sweet Malaysian girls on practical, well-designed products. The line debuted with a small selection of items—t-shirts, two handbag designs and some greetings cards—but the brand’s product range has since expanded.

And business is thriving. From a small home setup, then a studio space, Gadis Manis Malaysia now has a proper commercial space in Solaris Dutamas where they’ve been since October 2010. Being married to a Malaysian-Chinese, Florence says she didn’t face any obstacles in setting up the business. “In fact, I feel that Malaysia is a very easy place to set up a business compared to any country in Europe where you would have to provide a lot more documentation,” says the lady from Brittany.

Gadis Manis Malaysia has won itself a lot of fans and Florence doesn’t hesitate when describing her most rewarding moment: “What really makes me happy is when people give me their feedback on Gadis Manis and they say it’s very unique. That makes me quite happy and proud,” she smiles.

There is more to Gadis Manis than that though. Twenty per cent of profits are donated to two foundations for children: Sophie’s Education Fund and Madeleine’s Children Foundation.