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Saturday January 17, 2009

Lillian Too shares her past career and launch into the world of Feng Shui

SHE’S glamourous, charming and articulate. With her perfectly coiffured hair and with jade and gold jewellery aglitter on her arms and around her neck, she looks no different from most of the Puan Sris, Datins and other socialites you see dining in Bangsar.

But that’s where the similarity ends. The lifestyle of the idle rich is not for Lillian Too. The feng shui master toils at and thrives in innovating and making her feng shui practice informative yet exciting.

She’s been very busy lately, as she aims to wrap up her annual Feng Shui Extravaganza tour of Singapore, Malaysia, the US and Europe before the Chinese New Year. Nevertheless, she still manages to squeeze in an interview.

One cannot help but be inspired by Too’s positive energy, which helps her see the good in everything. To her, there is nothing in this world she cannot conquer if she puts her mind to it.

That’s not surprising considering she was once Malaysian tycoon Tan Sri Quek Leng Chan’s right-hand man (oops! right-hand woman, that is) and had headed large companies, including a bank overseas. That involved the shattering of glass ceilings. It was no small feat.

Everything I do must result in something good for someone, says Lillian Too

Then came the huge about-turn in 1991. At the peak of her corporate career, she chose to retire at 45 to become a full-time mother.

“I had everything. If I had stayed on with Leng Chan, I would have been a big star today. But at what cost? The cost of my family? My daughter?” she asks. “I work not for the name and the glory. I work to make me happy. Take it from me, someone who has had so much life experiences. Baby, its all about the choices you make.”

A high-flyer returns to the nest

Indeed, Too has made some very intriguing choices. Her background is nothing if not impressive. She graduated with an MBA from the Harvard Business School in 1976. She reached her corporate heydays in the 1980s, when she rose to the top in Malaysia and Hong Kong.

In Malaysia, she became the first woman to be the managing director of a listed company (Hong Leong Industries Bhd). Soon after, in 1982, she became the first woman in Asia to be appointed CEO of Grindlays Dao Heng Bank, the sixth largest bank in Hong Kong.

However, the stress was getting to her. “I was getting tired. And one day, when Jennifer (her daughter) was 11 and she came to visit me in Hong Kong, she said, ‘Mummy, why can’t you be like other mummies?’”

Too took those words to heart. Her marriage was also on the rocks.

“I was getting carried away by the rhetoric of success. Everything else was relatively unimportant. So, I decided to retire. My sole reason was to be a full-time mum,” she recalls.

There was also sadness in quitting. Too says she was heartbroken to part ways with Quek.

“I am so proud of Leng Chan. To me, he is as good as Warren Buffett, if not better. He made me a star. He pushed me so hard. We did so many things together. We took over Hume Industries together. We transformed companies. I was always happy when he challenged me,” she explains.

Still, she maintains that retiring was a fabulous decision. “A career can come back in later years. But your children, they grow up and leave,” she explains.

So what to do next? The only thing she was good at was leveraged buyouts. Hence, she and a girlfriend joined forces and packaged a leveraged buyout of Hong Kong luxury department store and boutique operator Dragon Seed Ltd for US$250mil.

Eighteen months later, Too got tired of the retail industry and cashed out. She became a millionaire and “had nothing but a pile of money”. For the next three to four years, she did nothing but horseback riding and being a mother.

A life of feng shui

Feng shui has always been a big part of Too’s life. At eight, she was already influenced by her grandmother, who told her never to hang clothes out at night.

When Too applied for a job at Malaysian Industrial Digest, she put a red dot on her form. She believes that helped her beat about 100 other applicants. She credits feng shui for her top-of-the-class performance at Harvard, and for her conceiving Jennifer after 10 years of trying.

“Whatever I tell people and write in my books, are the things I have experienced myself. I have been to all the rich men’s houses in Hong Kong, China and Taiwan,” she says.

“I have seen how every Hong Kong CEO sits with a picture of a mountain behind him. I have seen the goldfish in their houses and how this have changed their fortunes. I did the feng shui for Hong Leong and Dao Heng Bank. I changed the logo and the design of certain things. And the bank has done well.”

Throughout the years, Too has gone to various parts of China to learn Chinese history as well as to deepen her understanding of feng shui. She counts herself fortunate to have met the best masters of the East who are willing to help and share knowledge.

“I never had a master. I know many feng shui masters and am close to some of them. I got some help along the way, but I never had a real master or formal training,” she says.

“Feng shui is all about how you brand it. I can teach you feng shui in a week. I really understand feng shui and I am good at disseminating that knowledge.”

Today, Too is a best-selling author, television personality and feng shui practitioner. She has written over 80 books on feng shui, and her books have sold over 6 million copies around the globe. She is often credited for introducing feng shui to the West.

In 2000, Jennifer started World of Feng Shui (WOFS), a merchandising and franchise company. There are now WOFS boutiques in 20 countries around the world. Jennifer has also been co-authoring books with her mother.

Does that mean Jennifer will eventually take over from mummy? Says Too, “No, she will be better than me. She will do what makes her happy.”

Meaning in everything

Away from feng shui, Too focuses on taking care of her grandson, Jack; leading a healthy life; and reading. Every morning, she walks her golden retriever up and down the hill for about an hour before indulging in some “copycat pilates and yoga” for 25 minutes. That explains why Too is exceptionally supple for her age.

Then she spends about 20 minutes turning her gigantic prayer wheel, which contains some 41 billion mantras.

In a week, the avid gardener spends some three hours gardening and talks to her plants about four times.

In 1997, Too met Tibetan lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche in Bodhgaya, India, and took refuge with him. She considers him her spiritual master, whom she says is a living Buddha.

Too seeks meaning in whatever she does. “Everything I do must result in something good for someone. When I love my daughter, it teaches me how to love others. You always start by loving someone close to you,” she explains.

A strong believer in meritocracy, she rejects the idea of getting ahead at the expense of others. Her work beliefs include being true to oneself.

“I am very proud of the Buddhist principles. Everything I do should make a difference in other people’s lives. We don’t cheat. We don’t lie and then hold our head high. The commercial aspect will take care of itself,” she says.

Her family, staff and Buddhist friends are important in her life. She is very proud of many of her students who have done extremely well for themselves and have become the feng shui queens of Thailand, Maldives, Tahiti and many other places.

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