- Cover Story
If you had thought that a feeding bottle was just a feeding bottle, well, you haven’t met Yvon Bock.
When you meet Yvon Bock, the first thing you see is her shock of flaming red hair.
The cheerful, youthful 40-year-old looks like she is in the business of selling hipster stuff. You know, something like artisanal singing bowls, butterfly pea flower soft serves or bow-ties made from discarded tarpaulin scraps.
But no, Bock designs, makes and sells baby feeding bottles and breastfeeding pumps under the brand Hegen, which she co-founded in 2011 with her husband of 16 years, Leon Bock. Bock is its CEO and Leon, the chief operating officer.
Their Midas touch has somehow turned otherwise-mundane baby bottles and breast pumps into hipster merch, going by the fangirl reactions we got from friends-in-the-know who told us adoringly that Hegen products are so millennial, so hipster and “so influencer” (a compliment in Instagram times like these).
And it’s not just the young or young-at-heart parents who are taking to the award-winning Hegen bottle hungrily. The brand has earned its share of accolades from the industry, both locally and overseas.
It has been named one of the top three baby bottle brands in China by Alibaba Group’s Tmall.com and, in 2017, Hegen won the Alibaba 11.11 Most Outstanding Performance for Mother & Baby Brand.
Bock herself was also a winner of the Great Women of Our Time 2016, organised by The Singapore Women’s Weekly, and the Overall Winner in the Nova Category at the Women Entrepreneur Awards 2018.
During our interview at her homely Sin Ming Lane office — where motivational slogans are emblazoned across the walls — Bock makes a very remote reference to her brand’s hip quotient only once. From the start, she wanted Hegen and breastfeeding, which she passionately advocates for its child-and-mother bonding benefits, to be “trendy, lifestyle-ish”.
So, how did she get new (age) parents so excited about stocking up on feeding bottles and breast pumps?
First, Hegen bottle lids come in trending shades like pastel green, baby pink and what looks like the perfect pale grey. But Bock did not pick these millennial colours randomly or for aesthetic reasons.
Colour-coded lids help harried mothers — or whoever’s helping with hourly feeds — differentiate and recall when the milk in each bottle was expressed. The one with the pink lid would hold milk expressed in the morning (think the Pantone simile of a sunrise) and a bottle with the grey lid would remind the user that the milk was expressed at night.
These things are important to Bock because she herself is a busy working mother, having nursed her three sons who are now aged 11 to 15, and her daughter, nine.
She also made Hegen bottles sustainable (hence, hipster) long before bamboo straws, zero-waste stores and menstrual cups became part of our vernacular.
For hygiene reasons, feeding bottles don’t fall into the “hand-me-down” category and are generally discarded once every six months. If you think about how a baby may go through three to four bottles or more every six months for a year or longer, that is a lot of plastic landfill.
“I wanted something that you can build upon along the way in life, something modular, just like Lego toys or Ikea furniture,” she shares.
The solution: interchangeable lids in line with the brand’s “express, store and feed” philosophy. What does this mean? The bottles feature a patented “no screw thread” closure so you can simply click on or twist off the lids easily with just one hand and without spilling precious milk.
This way, the same container can morph into a feeding bottle or a pumping container, simply with a convenient switch of its feeding head, lid and adapter, which are sold separately. And when baby outgrows the bottle stage, there are drinking spout and storage lid converters that let the bottle enjoy a second life as an air-tight snack or juice storage container. There’s more: storage dividers which you slot into the bottles double as safe-to-use food choppers.
This multi-functional USP isn’t exclusive to Hegen’s feeding bottles. You can modify its electric and manual breast pumps by fixing kneading rings, sold separately, onto the suction caps and, voila, transforming them instantly into massagers.
Then there are the other myriad design details that have gone into each Hegen feeding bottle that even the most hardcore fan may not be aware of.
Concerned about food safety, Bock scouted around for the material PPSU, which is usually used to make medical appliances because it can be heated up to 180 deg C or frozen to a low of minus 40 deg C. It is, of course, free of BPA, phthalates and all the other nasties that you don’t want anywhere near your tiny tot’s lips.
Little wonder that Bock dubs her feeding bottles “perfect for tea and coffee”. In fact, some customers buy them as coffee cups or even containers for olive and coconut oils.
The bottles also have a unique “soft-square” — or what Bock terms “sqround” — shape, which makes them more comfortable for babies to grip and easier to stack and store in the fridge, drawers or bags.
Because her designs had so many specific details and requirements, her manufacturers were initially frustrated. More than 200 prototypes had to be created at the start. That was in 2012.
Even now, with Hegen selling about two million feeding bottles a year to 14 markets outside Singapore — from US to Russia — the brand has just over 30 products in total, including all the modular add-ons that it is famous for. This is because Bock believes in keeping her product portfolio tight and focused on helping the breastfeeding community.
And yet, naysayers have questioned her decision to sell feeding bottles when she is so pro-breastfeeding.
Explains Bock in an earnest, not didactic, way: “When mothers return to work after maternity leave, we have to pump our milk and we may need someone at home to help feed the baby while we are at work.”
She talks about “nipple confusion”, a term that working mothers fear a lot. It refers to a situation where a baby is so used to sucking on a bottle or a teat that it doesn’t want to latch onto its mother’s breast.
“We should be able to pursue our career dreams but also be able to prolong our breastfeeding journey.”
Hegen’s feeding teats are shaped to resemble a female breast so there is less risk of nipple confusion taking place. While most teats on the market do not drip, Hegen’s version does. “When you breastfeed, your breast drips. It’s not human-like to have a non-drip feature on the feeding teat,” Bock says. “We wanted our version to behave just like how a human nipple releases milk.”
The teat is also designed to be asymmetrical and off-centre to prevent back-flow, which can cause mid-ear complications in infants.
Clearly, Bock’s thought process behind every design and production detail is a thorough one. This has resulted in Hegen products sweeping up quite a number of design and innovation awards, including the Singapore Good Design Mark 2018: Gold Winner, Life Category, for its feeding bottle.
She is grateful that she can count on support and expertise in her family. After all, her father Chan Ching runs Fitson, which has been making mother and baby care products since the 1980s. “We are blessed to have manufacturing roots,” she says.
And if you are wondering why Bock doesn’t share the same surname as her father, it’s because she took on her husband’s family name when she joined Fitson. She did not want clients or the newer staff to know that she is the boss’s daughter.
“When I joined the family business in 2004 after leaving my job in the banking sector, it was a culture shock,” she recalls. “I was used to wearing suits and carrying nice bags, and when I turned up on the first day, I looked like a crazy woman in the factory.”
Her father wanted her to be involved in every aspect of the business, so Bock made plans to revamp the corporate image, change the logo and implement ISO systems and workplace safety and health guidelines. She also felt there was a need to expand Fitson’s client base because it was servicing only two to three key clients back then. Some of the older staff didn’t agree with her as they felt that they should stay loyal to just a couple of long-time clients and that her modernisation initiatives were a waste of time and money.
“It was a humbling time,” she says, without any hint of bitterness. “I had to be very respectful and show that I was there not to destroy but to disrupt in a positive way.”
But ask her if she faces any difficulty working with both her father and her husband, and she says happily: “Working with my family is the greatest joy because we complement one another.”
Of this informal triumvirate, she calls Leon the warrior on the field, her father the analytical thinker, and herself the dreamer. “I like to daydream a lot about our marketing efforts,” she says, a little coyly.
A couple of experiences led Bock to starting Hegen, which aims to grow its number of overseas markets to 35 by 2022.
First, Fitson, being a contract manufacturer, was like “a hamburger”. Raw materials always cost more, but clients wanted lower prices. Clients were also slow to inform the team of any last-minute management decisions, which could mean phasing out an entire product line in three months and leaving Fitson with surplus manpower and raw materials.
Bock also remembers a meeting when a client insisted on manufacturing a feeding bottle that could trap saliva, dust and mould.
“As a mother, I look at all angles of a product. But I was told by the client to do the thing right, not do the right thing. I was very hurt and felt that we need to have greater control of what we do,” she says.
Also, at about the same time, she experienced a near-death experience after giving birth to her youngest child via C-section surgery.
“In the hospital bed, I suddenly caught a reflection of my baby and myself in a mirror, and a lightness came over me. I felt very blessed to have four kids and I wanted to give back to society by contributing to good-quality and well-designed baby care products.”
She thought of what she was most familiar with. “It had to be breastfeeding — I had done it for seven years by then!”
Her father’s only concern was ensuring that the new company did not compete directly with his existing clients. Instead, its products had to complement theirs.
“Starting a brand from ground zero was like being pregnant again with my fifth child!”
Today, Hegen, which is an old German word for “cherish”, employs 20 people in the Singapore office and another 200 employees in its Malaysia factory. The business has finally broken even last year but much of the revenue is pumped back into R&D and protecting intellectual property rights.
Says Bock: “But we don’t measure our success based on how much we sell but on how many mums we can empower. I want to create a positive change in women’s and people’s lives. A happy mother is a happy family.”