Sign up

By submitting this form, I agree to these terms and conditions.

Elizabeth Tan

Become – High Profiles
April 28, 2017

An interview is like going on a first date. There is the pressure of meeting someone new, compounded by the desire to make a good impression. Today, I want Elizabeth Tan to like me. But here’s the thing—the best first dates are when both parties actually like each other. The conversation flows, the connection is undeniable and one party doesn’t have to try harder than the other—both are on an equal footing.

Over in the corner, Elizabeth is sitting on a plush velvet sofa, accompanied by an untouched cheese plate. I approach with a full-on smile, only to be pulled in for a friendly embrace. As we break away, I notice her benevolent, deep eyes that sparkle and her smooth, unblemished complexion. She’s a vision in a black, figure-hugging dress and nudish high-heeled shoes with ankle straps. Like any first date, I pay her a compliment.

On paper, Elizabeth is quite frankly, flawless. Credentials-wise, she is the epitome of a successful woman who has it all in every aspect of her life. She majored in history, possesses a bottomless zest for travelling, runs a healthcare non-profit that brings mobile clinics to remote communities, and to top it all off, has managed to build a shoe empire with 60 stores around the world. Heatwave was started by her father in 2001, with a long heritage in shoe design and manufacturing, and since officially taking over the reins in 2013, the growth has been exponential. Now, her sights are set on global domination.

More often than not, massive growth seems to come at a price—the overall direction shifts, core values are compromised, and the purpose is diluted by profit-driven motives. However, Elizabeth remains steadfast and grounded in her beliefs of what kind of company Heatwave will be in the future. “We want to become a global retail brand that resonates with the modern women of today. Can a pair of shoes really change someone’s life? That’s something I keep asking myself—not in a superficial way, but in a real way. Women need a reliable pair of shoes and we want to empower their daily journeys by making comfortable, well-made shoes that they can depend on from day to night, at affordable prices.”

I have to admit; we are getting on like a house on fire. As time goes by, it’s hard not to fall in love. She’s present, she’s heartfelt, she’s believable. And she’s real. Elizabeth listens to understand and isn’t quick to react or spill out template answers. Taking a sip of water, she goes on to reveal that she answers the customer service hotline once a week to “understand customers better”, and plans to work on the retail floor soon.

The best kinds of leaders also challenge themselves constantly—and in Elizabeth’s case, she literally goes to extraordinary lengths to make sure the only battle she is fighting, is against herself. “I love mountain climbing, and sometimes people don’t understand why I love doing it, especially since I’m a mother. Mountain climbing reflects all my core values: taking risks and pushing the boundaries of human potential. I hope to climb Mount Everest in the next 3 years.”

Our interview is coming to an end and I almost don’t want us to part. Elizabeth fights to pay for the bill, but I insist and she finally gives in after much reluctance. I am on the verge of telling her how her soul enkindles my spirit or what an exceptional human being she is, but I hold back—knowing, in time to come, I won’t be the only one who thinks that way.

Conversations with Elizabeth Tan

CEO, Heatwave
Text by Wy-Lene Yap
Photography by Yew Jia Jun

WY-LENE YAP: What do you say when people ask you what you do?

ELIZABETH TAN: I tell them I sell shoes.

WY-LENE: How do they respond?

ELIZABETH: Normally, women get excited and their eyes light up when they hear “heels at affordable prices”. Well, for men, they go, “Oh no, I hope my wife is not here…”

WY-LENE: I’m aware that you prefer to you call yourself the “Chief Empowerment Officer”. How do you empower your staff on a daily basis?

ELIZABETH: To begin with, Heatwave has a very flat hierarchy. Everyone has the independence and authority to make decisions and achieve their goals. I make it a point to have one-on-one meetings with my staff every week, so I know their progress and how best to guide them. I don’t micromanage. Empowering my staff also means allowing them to make mistakes and not faulting them for it. I see it as a partnership, and we problem solve together.

WY-LENE: How big is your team?

ELIZABETH: In total, 40 people. 20 in Singapore and 20 in Malaysia. Our production and design team is in Malaysia.

WY-LENE: You father started the company in 2001. When did you officially take over the reins?

ELIZABETH: I joined the business in 2008, and took over in 2013.


We never give up on you.

WY-LENE: When you took over the company from your father, what kind of culture did you want?

ELIZABETH: I wanted to build a purpose-driven company. When my father started Heatwave, he instilled very strong core values, and we still have a lot of staff who have been with us since his time. So to build on our existing culture, I wanted to have clear communication channels with my staff. It was also important for me to listen to every single voice and understand their challenges (both the younger and older generation), so that I can incorporate their opinions into the overall direction of the company. I have been in Heatwave for 8 years, and probably only 3 to 4 people have left us.

WY-LENE: That’s a very low staff turnover.

ELIZABETH: One of our core values is: We never give up on you. Unless the person wants to give up, then we let them go. But if they are still willing to try, we will continue to train and engage them in different roles until they find their right place in the company.

WY-LENE: How do you deal with incompetence?

ELIZABETH: First of all, we hire people with the right cultural and value fit. That’s more important because I believe competency can be trained and we have done that successfully in the past.

WY-LENE: What’s your ultimate vision for Heatwave Shoes?

ELIZABETH: We want to become a global retail brand that resonates with the modern women of today and caters to their practical needs. Our vision is to empower women’s daily journeys by making comfortable, well-made shoes that they can depend on from day to night, at affordable prices.

WY-LENE: How long will a pair of Heatwave shoes last?

ELIZABETH: Six to twelve months. All our Heatwave shoes have a unique sole which is very soft and light, and we also add in extra cushioning. Even though we don’t use leather now, we use a particular material, which is very close to it and is almost breathable. You know, I spent my first 4 years making sure that we have a strong product. If you look at our brand history, we spend quite little on branding and marketing as compared to our competitors. I believe in investing in R&D and production innovation. How can we make the heel more stable? A pair of heels is like a 3D construction—you need to balance on them. It’s not as simple as creating a design—there’s physics behind it. Our shoes also cater to various types of foot structures because ultimately, it is all about the fit. 

WY-LENE: You have 60 stores in Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Dubai and India. Are you intending to expand into other countries?

ELIZABETH: We started out as a Singapore brand, and our first store was at Far East Plaza in 2004. At that time, malls favoured international brands more and they wouldn’t pay any attention to us. It took us a while to gain presence in Singapore as well as the region, and now, we are ready to look at much bigger markets like China, the US and Australia.

WY-LENE: Who are you going to put out of business, and why?

ELIZABETH: In the past few years, there has been a surge in cheap and poorly made products that have flooded our markets as well as manufacturers from China. I think it is a temporary effect because of fast fashion, and eventually, I believe that women will be more conscious and discerning in what they wear in terms of quality, where and how it is being made too. The trend nowadays is people are getting tired of overconsumption, and being in retail, I am highly aware of that.


I don’t think women are defined by the roles they play in life, but rather their life journeys.

WY-LENE: What do you think of Aldo?

ELIZABETH: Aldo is also another family owned company from Canada. They have reached a very successful stage with retailing and merchandising… however, sometimes when you grow into a huge company, there is a tendency to lose focus on design.

WY-LENE: What is the biggest misconception about the retail industry?

ELIZABETH: People think it is a glamorous industry. But retail is one of the most difficult industries because there are so many aspects to it like logistics, supply chain, etc. A huge element is also how well you run your operations. When people are out during the holidays, it’s business as usual for us. Currently, retail is totally disrupted by e-commerce. We are a brick-and-mortar retailer and now we have transitioned into another model—in the last 1 t0 2 years, our business model has totally changed. Basically, what we were doing 5 years ago, is not relevant anymore in today’s landscape. I have reached a point where I have to be constantly okay with change.

WY-LENE: Where do you see the future of retail?

ELIZABETH: The online and offline world will come together at some point. I think data will be a huge element too. With all the customer data, we can understand what the customer wants, and tailor our offerings to them. It will be very knowledge intensive because you need to look at a lot of data and respond all the time.

WY-LENE: Who do you think is doing brick and mortar really well?

ELIZABETH: Charles & Keith and Zara (Their online sales are not even 5% of their total revenue).

WY-LENE: What one word do you want to own in the minds of our customers, employees, and partners?

ELIZABETH: Can it be two?

WY-LENE: Sure.

ELIZABETH: ‘Performance Heels’. 

WY-LENE: When I think of the word “performance”, Adidas comes to mind.

ELIZABETH: Yes, but in heels! Heels that you can run in and stand all day in them. Normally, when you look at a pair of heels, it is a product of fantasy. You watch TV shows like Sex and the City… and it’s glamorous to take off your shoes and run after the bus. But obviously in real life, that doesn’t happen. We want to change the perception that heels can actually be comfortable.


I make my staff send me a list of their top 5 priorities every day, and these have to contribute towards their annual goal.

WY-LENE: Who is the Heatwave customer?

ELIZABETH: We have a name for a core customer and she is called the “Journey Woman”. I don’t think women are defined by the roles they play in life, but rather their life journeys: they might start the day very career-focused but towards the end, become very family-oriented. Our core customer is also someone who is very active and engaged in her journey, and wants the best out of life.

WY-LENE: In the past few months, what is the smallest change you have made that has had the biggest positive result?

ELIZABETH: There are quite a few. For the most recent one, I make my staff send me a list of their top 5 priorities every day, and these have to contribute towards their annual goal. That has made a positive and productive change because people start to see their day not like a series of tasks. Even if they don’t do more than 5, I am fine with it.

WY-LENE: What prevents you from making the changes you know that will make you a more effective leader?

ELIZABETH: I won’t say it’s preventive, but how can we expedite the process? We do talk to our staff and customers, and their feedback counts, so when there is a change that has to be implemented, it’s not necessarily about me driving it, but rather getting buy-in from everyone right down to our retail staff to affect this change. Sometimes it takes time for people to accept change, and not everyone can accept it as fast as I can.

WY-LENE: What is one change that resulted in a lot of resistance?

ELIZABETH: Having an e-commerce platform. Our retail staff were not motivated to recommend an alternative channel as their salaries and commissions were based on the sales generated from stores. The implementation of any technology infrastructure takes time, and even at the back end, we had to change our inventory because we wanted clear data. This was especially hard for the older generation.

WY-LENE: How is the way you as the leader think and process information affecting your organisational culture?

ELIZABETH: I am someone who is very independent and also very big on learning, so that’s one area I push my team. For example, if someone comes in to do marketing, tomorrow they might be in a different role. We had a graphic designer who is now a brand executive. I don’t believe in boxing people in, as we want to be a learning organisation. When people are willing to learn, they are able to change their roles and adapt accordingly. This is probably why our team is so lean, despite the size of the business, and over the years, they are able to grow with the company. 

WY-LENE: How do you bounce back quickly from setbacks? 

ELIZABETH: I take a deep breath and just continue. [laughs] I have accepted that challenges and setbacks are part and parcel of my entrepreneurial journey. Having that mindset helps—I am less afraid to fail. Besides, failure is part of the learning process.

WY-LENE: What’s the single most important reason for your success?

ELIZABETH: Probably my tenacity. Heatwave has grown to become a chainstore brand, and we wouldn’t have gotten to where we are today if I wasn’t tenacious or determined.

WY-LENE: What do you enjoy most about what you do?

ELIZABETH: I love being able to talk to our partners (franchisees) and customers from various countries, and solve problems with them too. It keeps me on my toes. There is a strong sense of satisfaction when I know they are happy with our product, and are proud of it.

WY-LENE: What’s your least favourite part about being an entrepreneur?

ELIZABETH: The work-life balance. Being an entrepreneur is not really a job per se, it’s a full-on lifestyle choice and commitment. A business is a living thing. Some people think: “Oh, you took over from your dad, and it’s already ready-made. That’s so easy for you right?” But that’s not the case… many times it is even more difficult because I inherited something—not a blank canvas. The business environment constantly changes—you need to mould and adapt.


WY-LENE: How would you like people to remember you and your company?

ELIZABETH: We want to be remembered as a brand that made a global positive influence on people.

When people ask you for help and you are in a privileged position, it is really hard to say no, especially when you can do something about it.

WY-LENE: What inspired you to start Sight to Sky?

ELIZABETH: I love hiking in the mountains, and I spent some time (2 months) in the Himalayas during my postgrad trip as a volunteer teacher. I have always been drawn to different cultures and remote places, since I majored in history. While I was living in a remote village in the mountains, with no electricity or facilities, teaching English in a monastery, one of the students had to drop out of school because her father suffered from cataract. She had to stay at home to take care of him, while her mum went to work. In that moment, I realised that we take so many basic things for granted—healthcare being one of them. In a place like that, having cataract surgery would cost her an education, and it does affect lives. So Sight to Sky started as a personal project to help this particular family, and it grew from there after more people came to us for help. When people ask you for help and you are in a privileged position, it is really hard to say no, especially when you can do something about it.

WY-LENE: At what time in your recent past have you felt most passionate and alive?

ELIZABETH: I would say this present moment because it is a period of change and growth for the company. It’s challenging and difficult—a lot of questions I haven’t found answers to, but that really gives me the drive to push myself harder. I feel very passionate knowing we are moving towards our goal of building a global company, without having to sacrifice our core values.

WY-LENE: If someone made a movie of your life would it be a drama, a comedy, a romantic-comedy, action film, or science fiction?

ELIZABETH: It would be an action film. [laughs]

WY-LENE: What’s a great book you’ve read recently?

ELIZABETH: Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike.

WY-LENE: Finally, what are you most grateful for in life?

ELIZABETH: My family. I am also grateful to have a lot of good people around me who are my strong moral compasses, and they have guided and mentored me. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without them.