TOPLINE

How two brothers built a music school empire in Singapore

From teaching students to training instructors, the aim is to build a pipeline of talent and resources for overseas expansion.

IT'S not just students who can learn music at Aureus Academy - now, Singapore's fastest-growing music school is able to train teachers as well.

The aims is to build a pipeline of talent for the future growth of the business, with overseas expansion on the horizon, said co-founders Lawrence and Julius Holmefjord-Sarabi.

The brothers, who hail from the US, have seen their business grow exponentially since the first branch in 2013. With a turnover of S$20 million in 2018, it offers a full suite of complementary services, including piano leasing and concert production.

Its latest venture is the Aureus Conservatory, a tertiary music institution that aims to cultivate the next generation of educators and performers in Singapore.

Located at Forum The Shopping Mall, the facility includes recital halls, ensemble rooms, lecture rooms and practice rooms.

"It's something we are very passionate about because our singular focus is to produce teachers of the future," said older brother Lawrence, who trained at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music at the National University of Singapore.

"We plan to open in places like Hong Kong and the Middle-East, and potentially to Indonesia and China. As Aureus grows and expands as fast as it is, the only way that we can continue at this rate is to systemise our training processes down to a certification level."

Currently, the school offers a three-year diploma programme in music, as well as a six-month professional certificate in music education for students who already have previous music qualifications.

The conservatory is currently working with the relevant authorities to offer a Bachelor's degree in music as well, said Lawrence.

It also offers full scholarships for students who commit to a teaching position in Aureus, with all graduates to be offered employment opportunities within the group - understood to be the first of its kind in Singapore.

Acquisition

The brothers said creating their own programmes would not only build a talent pool for regional expansion, but also elevate music teacher training standards.

"We have to increase both the size of our manpower pool as well as the quality," said Lawrence. "We don't only recruit foreign teachers - we want to cultivate them here as well."

Two-thirds of the group's employees are Singaporeans or permanent residents.

The duo also recently acquired Ossia Music School in January - a chain of eight schools in the heartlands - in a seven-figure deal.

With this addition, the group now has over 400 employees and 8,000 students in 18 locations islandwide.

Ossia differs from Aureus Academy in several ways: the key ones being price point as well as location. To illustrate the difference, Lawrence likened Aureus Academy to Singapore Airlines, while Ossia is like Scoot. "It's still a reputable brand, and it serves a geographically targeted area. We think they have a great future."

He added that the team is in the midst of turning the Ossia business around through investments and training.

With the new addition, Aureus Group's revenue is split thus: its flagship Aureus Academy contributes 70 per cent; Ossia makes up 25 per cent; and its other divisions complete the remaining 5 per cent.

But the brothers expect its other divisions, such as Aureus Instruments - its piano leasing scheme - to eventually contribute more than 10 per cent of revenue.

Julius said the scheme has "grown way more than expected" since it launched last year, with 50 pianos ordered in the first week alone.

"The only reason Aureus Instruments made up less than 5 per cent last year or so is because our suppliers could not keep up," he quipped.

On the back of continued demand, Aureus diversified its suppliers and committed to larger orders.

This year, one major project the brothers - Julius, in particular - are working on is the software overhaul of the group.

To scale up, the digital infrastructure needs to be in place to accommodate further expansion in an orderly manner, said Julius.

Julius, who has an IT background and had previously started IT businesses in the US, is overseeing the project to consolidate all their various platforms into one, connected to a central financial reporting system.

The team is also developing an app where customers can reschedule lessons and anything else they need. This is due to be rolled out sometime this year.

Julius wants to automate at least 80 per cent of the administration so that parents can access everything through a portal.

He said: "We are laying the foundation - between the training of teachers through the conservatory to the operational management through the platform - so that we can go from 18 schools to 180 schools in the future."

For the first half of 2019, the brothers said their strategy is to focus on the overhaul of the IT systems, launching the Aureus Conservatory as well as integrating Ossia.

Once these are settled, Aureus Group will be ready to move on to expansion abroad. "We hope to have a very clear overseas plan the end of this year," said Julius.

And while the two often get asked if they would consider franchising the brand, the answer has always been no. This way, Lawrence said, they get to control their business and the quality.

Ambition

Their ambition now is to be the single largest operator in the world in the music business, and the brothers see plenty of opportunities.

Some ideas they have thrown out include an educational app which students can use to supplement their piano lessons, and even recording programmes in the conservatory further down the road.

The duo said their ability to think out of the box comes from the fact that unlike many young business owners, they have a management team that runs the day-to-day operations, allowing them to focus on strategy.

Lawrence said he spends at least two days a week making plans for the business.

"We look ahead a lot. For an entrepreneur, if you are not disciplined and always freaking out about the fires that are going on right now, you cannot grow the business and move forward," he said.