At the end of her first year as a Humanities Programme scholar at Hwa Chong Junior College two decades ago, Helen Ng was hauled up by a teacher for faring poorly in one of her subjects.
"He told me to buck up because I was in the bottom 5 per cent of the socio-economic strata in Singapore," she recalls.
The remark needled because before that day, no one had ever told her to her face that she was poor.
"I told myself I'd prove him wrong," she says.
And she did. The schoolgirl who used to collect beer bottles to sell for pocket money has since climbed several rungs up the social and economic ladder.
She lives in a Serangoon Garden bungalow and is the chief executive officer of Lock+Store, which operates two self-storage facilities in Tanjong Pagar and Chai Chee. The company has an annual turnover of more than $10 million.
Those who know the outspoken Ms Ng describe the 41-year-old as a self-starter and go-getter.
She does not disagree with the labels.
"Being born poor makes you realise the importance of standing on your own two feet. You realise very early on that nothing's for free, and you've got to work for things," says the eldest of three children of a taxi driver and homemaker.
She grew up in a kampung in Serangoon, not far from where the nex shopping mall now stands. The family of five lived in a rented room in a house with a zinc roof.
"We had two double-decker beds and I remember my mother used to sleep on the floor," she says.
There was never enough money.
"My dad started working when he was 15 because he was the third of 13 children and his father died early. So he had to help support his mother and siblings even after he was married," says Ms Ng.
Her mother, a former shampoo girl at a hairdressing salon, took on odd jobs at home, such as sewing promotional buntings for beer companies.
As a child, Ms Ng used to run errands for neighbours for the odd Cornetto. When she was eight, she learnt she could sell used beer bottles for five cents apiece and took to scouring her neighbourhood a few times a week looking for them.
She was also an avid reader and a star pupil at the now defunct Aroozoo Primary School.
"I realised after my Primary 1 exams that you could get books as a prize if you topped the class. So every year, I told myself I must be No. 1 so that I could have those books."
Not only did she top her class every year, she also made class monitor and head prefect.
"I was the school star," she says unabashedly. "I was always the actress, narrator or director of any skit or play in school. If there was any competition - sewing, knitting, talking - you would see Helen."
She loved the attention.
"When your parents are too busy making a living, you have to create your own attention," she says with a laugh.
Naturally, she aced the Primary School Leaving Examination. Her teacher advised her to go to a Special Assistance Plan (SAP) school for academically strong pupils good in both mother tongue and English, whereas her parents told her to choose a school near home.
So she ended up at CHIJ St Nicholas Girls' Secondary School, and the transition from primary school came as a shock.
"I went from being the star of the school to being a nobody," she lets on. For the first time in her life, she also became starkly aware of how poor she was.
She remembers seeing schoolmates chauffeured to school whereas she sometimes did not have enough pocket money to eat at the school canteen during recess. "There was a big wealth divide."
But she performed well enough to win the prestigious Humanities Programme scholarship to do her A levels at Hwa Chong JC.
"The scholarship was $1,000 a year and there was no need to pay school fees. It was a very important motivation," she says.
For extra pocket money, she took on part-time jobs during school holidays and gave tuition several times a week, earning about $500 a month.
She rejected a Public Service Commission scholarship to study geography at a university abroad. "I didn't want to become a civil servant and be bonded for eight years," she says.
Instead, she funded her way through a Bachelor of Arts degree at the National University of Singapore, majoring in geography and philosophy.
"I spent more time giving tuition than I did at the university," she says with a laugh.
But that did not stop her from making the dean's list in both subjects. She graduated with a Second Class Upper honours degree in geography in 1994.
For six months after she graduated, she failed to get a job she wanted. "It was hard to find a job with a geography degree. I wanted a marketing or sales job but didn't want one which paid only commission, and not a basic salary."
So she decided to do her MBA at Imperial College in London instead, digging into the $20,000 she had saved from giving tuition.
"I chose the shortest MBA programme I could find. I had enough to pay for the school fees and buy my air ticket," she says.
For the first couple of months, she bunked with friends and survived on cheap student meals and £1 sandwiches.
She moved out after securing a gig teaching aerobics three times a day - at £20 per session - at the university.
On her return, she became a project executive with property developer Tong Lee Co Pte Ltd. For nearly three years, she worked on a project to build and then market 16 houses in Cactus Green, off Yio Chu Kang.
Not only did she get to work closely with architects, designers and consultants, she also learnt to source building materials, buy them in bulk and negotiate prices.
She got her next job with property developer Ang Oon Hue Pte Ltd by chance. She was in a music shop at Sembawang Shopping Centre when she learnt that the manager of the centre was retiring.
Ms Ng decided to apply for the job.
The mall was not exactly bustling then. "It was run-down and had the wrong tenant mix; a lot of contractors had their offices there," she recalls.
She rolled up her sleeves and set out to turn it around.
"I read up a lot about mall management, joined the International Council of Shopping Centres and visited a lot of malls to find out what needed doing," she says.
She launched marketing efforts, holding concerts and other promotions to bring in the crowds. She introduced a more diverse tenant mix, getting rid of the contractors and bringing in retailers selling home furnishings, antiques and stationery and Giant hypermarket. She also turned the adjacent piece of land into a satay club, and introduced a feeder bus service to attract shoppers from nearby areas.
The strategies worked. Within three years, she managed to turn the shopping centre around. The visitor counts show that its traffic increased from barely 100 a day when she first took over to more than 10,000 three years later.
The results did not come easy.
There was a lot of hostility when she first started. She had to contend with tenants who snorted at her marketing efforts. A belligerent tenant paid her more than $1,000 in $2 notes.
There was a tangle with a triad member. "He parked his car in the loading and unloading bay so I had the wheels of his car clamped. He came into the office, banged on the table and threatened me, saying he was from Ang Soon Tong," she says, referring to a secret society.
"He refused to pay (the fine), and the security guards got scared so they unclamped his car."
Refusing to be intimidated, Ms Ng made a police report. "The police took it quite seriously. They would come around to make sure nothing happened to us. We found signs of abuse on the property such as paint sprayed on the walls and lights broken," she recalls.
A relative, who knew some elders in the gang, finally helped to make peace.
Ms Ng was promoted from manager to general manager and was soon tasked with marketing Greenview Mansion, a block of apartments next to the shopping centre. For two years, she also travelled between Singapore and Perth, overseeing the concept and execution of a makeover for one of the company's properties, the Comfort Hotel Perth City.
Despite a demanding full-time job, Ms Ng, who married a financial investor in 1999, found time to open a bar and restaurant in 2001. And she went on to have two children not long after too.
"I know, it sounds crazy but when you're young, you do crazy things," says Ms Ng, who started My Dining Room and Union Bar in Club Street with her savings and a loan from her husband's family. She would close the bar at 3am and turn up for work barely six hours later.
"I managed with great difficulty. Luckily my mother helped out a lot with my daughters," she says.
She quit her day job in 2006 to spend time with her children. By then, Sembawang Shopping Centre had been sold for $78 million to CapitaMall Trust.
"At that time, one of my daughters was two years old, the other was four and didn't really know me. I decided I could not let that happen," she says.
Two years later, in 2008, she closed the restaurant and bar when her landlord wanted the space back.
The idea of starting a storage business struck while she was trying to find a place to store the furniture from her restaurant.
"Unless you lease a very big warehouse for a very long time, you really do not have that many options," she says.
Socio-economic factors, she noticed, were also pointing to a demand for storage solutions.
"Singaporeans are getting richer and many have some kind of collecting hobby. I had a friend who had seven bicycles and didn't even cycle. Another friend collected comics. So I told myself this could be a lucrative business."
Excited by the idea, she travelled to Hong Kong and Australia to explore how storage facilities work.
"After doing my sums, I realised it was a very expensive proposition. So I wrote a proposal to set up a storage business and sent it to a few private equity firms."
In 2010, Temasek Holdings' property arm Mapletree Investments decided to sell its self-storage arm, Lock+Store. Southern Capital Group bought it for $50 million and asked Ms Ng to become its CEO.
Again, she set out to zealously revamp the business. She launched marketing efforts to spread awareness about self-storage, brought in a trainer to help staff grasp the finer points of selling space and introduced processes to make the business efficient.
"When I first took over, there was a lot of delinquency in payments. One way to solve this was to increase the number of channels for people to pay," says Ms Ng, who introduced online payment options as well as payment at 7Eleven outlets.
The results are showing. The customer base went from 2,000 when she took over to 3,000 now; and annual turnover went from $6 million to more than $10 million last year.
She has already expanded the 144,000 sq ft facility in Tanjong Pagar by another 38,000 sq ft, and will be adding another 50,000 sq ft to the Chai Chee facility.
Ms Anita Sam, owner of furniture company Journey East, has known Ms Ng for more than 10 years.
"She is very focused. She knows exactly what she wants and how to go about getting it. She's very sharp and sizes up a situation in no time. If she doesn't like something, she will show it," she says.
She adds that, like many people who are direct, Ms Ng can sometimes be misunderstood. "But she also has very loyal staff who have absolute confidence in her," Ms Sam adds.
Although she has come a long way in life, Ms Ng - who sits on the board of Ju Eng Home for Senior Citizens - is determined that her two daughters, now six and 10, should know all about poverty and that nothing in life comes without hard work.
She has taken them on trips to orphanages in Cambodia, and ropes them in to help distribute food to poor residents of one-room flats in Singapore.
"And if they want pocket money, they sweep the floor and clean the windows," she says with a laugh.