Made with love and kindness

A STRIKING figure in navy blue and beige walks towards me. She flashes a friendly smile and extends a handshake. "Hi! I'm Sandra."

Her friendly welcome sets the tone of the interview with Business Times in Ipoh, Perak.

Born and bred in Singapore, Puan Sri Datuk Sandra Lee, the chief executive officer and brand guardian of Crabtree & Evelyn Ltd, has made Ipoh, where her husband resides, her home for three decades.

She said Crabtree & Evelyn, owned by Ipoh-based Kuala Lumpur Kepong Bhd (KLK) since 1996, is very much a global company. This is because the creative process and product development is still being carried out in London while the laboratories in the US churn out the formulations.

Asked if she frequently flies out to meet her team, she replied, "Yes, every month for a week or two."

As the conversation progresses, it becomes evident that the old adage of "Do unto others what you want others to do unto you" applies to business, too.

In gaining loyalty, she gives loyalty. In motivating her staff, she is inspired by their initiatives. In encouraging hard work from her colleagues, she works relentlessly for them.

Their dedication is reflected in the company's posting US$8.4 million (RM25.6 millon) pre-tax profit for the year ended September 2010.

The company first sold products under the Crabtree & Evelyn brandname in 1972 and its first retail store opened in 1977. The store's name is derived from a short form of Crabapple Tree and the last name of John Evelyn, an Englishman who wrote about conservation. Evelyn's personal motto was "Explore everything. Keep the best."

On branding, Sandra explained that the enduring English Crabapple tree symbol is regarded the ancestor of all cultivated trees and exudes home apothecary.

Her eyes sparkle as she elaborates Crabtree & Evelyn's mantra for natural ingredients. "All of our products are extracted from fruits, flowers, plant and herbal essences," she said.

Crabtree & Evelyn's bestsellers are its Iris, Lily, Lavender and Rosewater bodycare ranges. Other fast-moving items include its award-winning hand therapy, body lotions and creams, shower gels and eau de toilettes and parfums.

Sandra says that Crabtree & Evelyn is not just for the ladies.

With men in mind, the group produce the Naturals and Nomad range of shaving creams and balms. These help to ease skin irritation from shaving. Asked if her husband Tan Sri Lee Oi Hian uses any of the products, Sandra exclaimed, "Why, of course, he's our biggest fan!"

"Our top-selling hand therapy products range contains the active ingredient tocotrienols," she said. Extracted from palm oil, tocotrienols are part of the vitamin E family. It includes tocopherols.

Sandra explained that regular vitamin E-enriched moisturisers, which have yet to incorporate tocotrienols, are not that effective in protecting the skin from the sunlight's ultraviolet (UV) radiation.

"Currently, what most face creams, body butters and moisturisers in the market offer is tocopheryl acetate, a derivative of common vitamin E tocopherols. There is not much benefit. The only advantage is tocopherols being a preservative for the product, increases the shelf life while allowing a claim that it contains vitamin E," she added.

Sandra foresees that many more skincare companies will soon start to incorporate palm tocotrienols in their formulations, even though they cost up to 10 times more than tocopherols. This is because research has proven that tocotrienols are 60 times more effective than tocopherols at protecting the skin from the damaging effects of over-exposure to UV sunrays, pollution, stress and smoking.

Tocotrienols have also been shown to be effective against excessive skin pigmentation and has anti-melanoma properties.

Sandra's enthusiasm picks up further as she touches on the expansion plans of Crabtree & Evelyn, which now has 452 outlets all over the world. "Half of our outlets are in Asia and the other half, in western countries. There's tremendous growth opportunities in China, India and Indonesia. We're actively seeking local partners to penetrate these huge markets," she said.

Crabtree & Evelyn has been supplying its La Source bath amenities to Hilton Worldwide for the past three years.

As the contract expires this month, a new contract kicks off with other Hilton family brands, namely; DoubleTree and Embassy Suites.

The La Source toiletries are also on board flights of Malaysia Airlines and Cathay Pacific. "We've put in our bids to supply to other hotel chains and airlines," she said.

A natural marketeer, Sandra clearly knows how to accentuate the positive. She brings the same skills she uses in everyday life to social media. Apart from its official website, Crabtree & Evelyn is present in Facebook, blogs, Twitter, YouTube and other platforms.

Sandra and her team share, connect, support everyone in their circle. Their virtual community is growing by the day.

Well-liked by many church-going folks in Ipoh, Sandra is known for her big heart. For the past 19 years, as co-founder and executive chairperson of Daybreak Centre, Sandra supports vocational training for the physically-challenged to be self-reliant.

Daybreak - an acronym for Disabled Adults and Youths Being Rewarded, Encouraged and Awarded in Kinta - operates a retail outlet that promotes handicrafts lovingly made with care and kindness.

The Perak Sultan, in recognising Sandra's dedication to charity and the under-priviledged, accorded her a "Datuk" title. In spite of this royal acknowledgment, Sandra is not one who rests on her laurels. Long after her children have left school and started working, Sandra continues to be involved in philanthropy.

She is an active member of the board of governors of Sekolah Menengah Jenis Kebangsaan (SMJK) Sam Tet and SMJK Ave Maria where her four children schooled. Recently, she raised RM1.5 million and oversaw the addition of new facilities there.

Like most women, Sandra strives for a balanced work and family life. Of her four children, her younger son stays with her in Ipoh. Whenever Sandra is in Kuala Lumpur, Singapore or London, she makes time for her three other children. Since she always hold that goal in mind, she is unlikely to cave in to entrepreneurial burnout.

On parting words to budding women entrepreneurs, Sandra likened running a business to a marathon - pace yourself, see the big picture and take time to live life to the fullest.

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