Me & My Money

Humble roots paved way for success

KinderWorld chief Ricky Tan had to give up his studies, but he now runs schools across the region

Few people know the value of education more than entrepreneur Ricky Tan, who had to juggle school and helping his family to make ends meet.

And when he qualified to start his university education, that dream of getting a degree had to be put on hold after his father died and he had to give up his studies to help support the family.

The irony of those early setbacks in his learning years is that Mr Tan, 64, is now executive chairman and chief executive of KinderWorld International Group, which runs schools across South-east Asia.

The company provides education services from pre-school to high school through three types of campuses - KinderWorld International Kindergarten, Singapore International School and Singapore Vietnam International School.

The group started as a single childcare centre in Changi in 1986, when Mr Tan wanted to help his wife Carol, who was a kindergarten teacher.

Mr Tan was a flight engineer with Singapore Airlines before choosing to take the plunge and start his own business.

  • Worst and best bets

  • Q What has been your biggest investing mistake?

    A I suffered heavy losses, about $1 million on Black Monday back in 1987, as did many other investors at that time.

    As a flight engineer with Singapore Airlines, I was given employee shares. I used those as collateral to invest and had margin calls when my stocks went down. My mistake was that I invested without doing any prior research and understanding of the stocks. I have learnt to do proper research and due diligence since, especially on my own businesses.

    Q And your best investment?

    A The best investment is my business. My wife and I have grown from owning a single childcare centre in Changi to now owning one of the largest owner-operators of foreign-invested international schools in Vietnam. As of last year, we had a turnover of around $50 million.

    It was not without challenges, though, especially having to deal with the fallout from the 1997 Asian financial crisis. It came at a time when Vietnam had just opened up and we were looking to expand.

    Due to the losses that investors suffered during this period, as well as the depreciation of the Vietnamese currency, investors were reluctant to invest and banks were not confident of lending to businesses.

    However, it did not hold me back from my plans. I saw it as an even greater opportunity to be the education pioneer in Vietnam at that time, when the country was shifting towards a more market-driven economy.

    The learning curve for expanding into a new market was also very steep. Being in a foreign place is always difficult - it was not just the language barrier, but there was also a lot for us to adapt to, doing business in Vietnam.

    We had to keep up with rapid changes in rules and regulations on investment into education there, as well as learn to develop relationships with the local governments and other stakeholders such as academic partners and real estate developers.

    Not only did I learn to be a lot more resourceful and adaptable, as well as prioritising different things on hand, but I also learnt to be patient, perhaps the single most important thing I learnt from my experience in Vietnam.

Mrs Tan is now the deputy executive chairman and chief operating officer of KinderWorld International Group, which employs around 800 staff across its various operations.

"We slowly expanded over the years and started moving into new markets, and finally decided to focus on expanding the business in Vietnam and opened the first KinderWorld International Kindergarten in Ho Chi Minh City in 2000," Mr Tan says.

The group now operates 15 schools across Vietnam.

Mr Tan attributes his success to his parents and his humble roots: "Despite being poor, my parents were my role models and, to this day, I cherish the value of hard work and perseverance, which I believe are essential to running a good business.

"I may not have been provided with everything that I needed but that taught me to pursue the things I want."

Mr Tan hopes to grow his business in Vietnam and expand into new markets like China. He is also looking to other Asean countries, including Indonesia, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia.

"Within Vietnam, I think we are beyond the organic growth of the past," Mr Tan says.

"In respect of growth overseas, we will have a combination of organic growth plus collaboration with suitable partners through strategic alliances, joint ventures, partnerships, acquisitions, investments and franchises, and we may do a franchise for our pre-schools.

"We will also review our curriculum and develop new education pathways to target a wider group of prospective students."

One of the couple's two children, Stefan, 28, is the firm's executive director. The other is Timothy, 24, who is studying overseas.

Q What's in your portfolio?

A My biggest investment is in my business, and I have reinvested most of my profits into new school campuses and expansion plans, for instance. The business is in an industry that I understand well and have been working in for many decades, and it is with this strategy that the business has grown from strength to strength over the years.

But, in my personal capacity, I do invest in properties as well, such as a freehold three-bedroom, 1,700 sq ft apartment in Marine Parade that I purchased in 1988.

I bought my current home about six years ago. Property is a good asset to me as I believe it can appreciate over time, and I am always on the lookout for new investments.

Q What are your immediate investment plans?

A As a business owner, I am always looking for good investment opportunities and I have been approached in my personal capacity to consider investing in start-ups. I have been invited to meet start-ups in Hong Kong and Taiwan as part of Singapore Management University's Round A INvestor programme. I was also approached to consider opening a hub in Da Nang for technology start-ups.

Q How did you get interested in investing?

A Like many others, I started investing in the stock markets in the 1980s. I should have understood the risks but, as a first-time investor, I was easily convinced by the potential for high returns.

I learnt a lot from my losses during that time - most importantly, that I shouldn't make speculative investments and that I should invest only in businesses that I understand and am comfortable with.

Q Describe your investing strategy.

A I am a long-term investor who believes in taking calculated risks and, more importantly, putting my money where my mouth is. I have never been one to shy away from a good investment if I think it would work. For instance, many people discouraged me when I first ventured into Vietnam in 2000, when China was opening up and seemed a better place to commence business in. The risk that others saw was an opportunity that I knew I had to take and, 18 years on, the outcome speaks for itself.

Q What else is in your financial plan?

A I have put in place succession and financial plans for my family and businesses, which include insurance plans and a will to allocate my assets. I have also set aside shares in the company for my children. These plans are mainly for the benefit of the longer term.

Q How are you planning for retirement?

A I don't look at retirement in the traditional sense. Retirement is not the end goal for me because I love what I do and plan to keep doing it for as long as I can.

I play an executive role in my businesses now and I intend to remain active in them. There are many business leaders such as Li Ka Shing (Hong Kong businessman) who practise this. I see myself being able to continue in my current role for the foreseeable future.

Q What does money mean to you?

A Money means different things to me at different stages in life. Growing up, it was a source of motivation for me to make a better living, but right now, having money means I can spend more quality time with my family, be it driving to a Malaysian plantation for durians or a road trip in Spain. It enables me to find work-life balance and to place my family first.

While money is essential for me to achieve my goals and provide for my family, I also believe in putting my money towards a good cause: education.

I hardly spend on myself - I'm driving an 11-year-old car! Money to me is not just investing in my businesses; it is an investment in education and people.

As a businessman, once you have experienced success, it is no longer about wanting to make more money in order to live a better life. It is about giving back, and being able to provide my children with quality education matters to me.

Q Home is now...

A My family lives in a freehold, five-bedroom private property, which is about 3,000 sq ft, in the eastern part of the island.

Q I drive...

A A light metallic brown Volvo XC90 that is almost 11 years old. It is an old but very reliable ride for me - it has never given me any problems and has served me well. I extended the certificate of entitlement by five more years for this reason. I am not a lavish person and don't believe in spending too much on cars, which depreciate in value quickly.