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GETTING an interview with David Chiem, the founder of MindChamps, was not easy. The 47-year-old has been busy travelling and securing deals to expand his pedagogy empire which he started building in 2008.
It is this tenacity and drive which has seen MindChamps centres grow at a compound annual rate of 50 per cent and higher since its inception nine years ago. Today, the group has about 8,000 students, and over 1,000 teachers, in preschool and enrichment centres scattered in Singapore, the United Arab Emirates, the Philippines and Australia.
So, what does the award-winning entrepreneur who recently added yet another feather to his cap - the 2017 Top Influential Brands award, his fourth consecutive year win - do for an encore after a nine-year career that made him a familiar name in the world of preschool education? Go for an initial public offering (IPO), of course. The reason is simple: a mission.
"From the beginning, it has always been my vision to make a difference in the lives of children, by providing the best in early childhood education and care," the petite gentleman tells The Business Times.
"This vision was based on research findings that many of the challenges faced by children during their primary and secondary school years - and beyond - stemmed from their early childhood experiences," he says.
From a very young age, Mr Chiem understood the importance of education. The former refugee, who in 1978 fled his hometown of Rach Gia - south-west of Ho Chi Minh City - ended up in a refugee camp teeming with thousands of Vietnamese boat people in Malaysia's Pulau Bidong. After a series of unfortunate and nail-biting events which saw the family almost miss the opportunity to go to Australia even after raising cash by pawning the family jewels, the family eventually landed on Australian soil. But things were not a bed of roses. On his first day of school in Cabramatta, a suburb in Sydney, he was called "stupid" by a classmate when he could not understand a word the teacher said. But instead of cowering, that made him more determined.
The soft-spoken man went on to co-author several books, one of which, Only The Heart, is now an English literature text for secondary students in Australia.
He believes that every child is born with an incredible brain, what he terms as hardware.
"What we had to design was a new operating system, optimised for a world where information was doubling every two years and the old 19th/20th century methods of memorisation and reiteration no longer held any relevance," he says, elaborating on the building blocks to Mindchamps' programmes.
The 3 Minds - the Champion Mind, the Learning Mind and the Creative Mind - lie at the core of every initiative Mindchamps has developed, including the revolutionary 'S.M.I.L.E.S.' approach - an integrated learning model that forms the basis of its early-childhood curriculum. Its curriculum is designed in collaboration with world-renowned neuroscientist Professor Emeritus Allan Snyder, a Fellow of the Royal Society, which counts Newton and Einstein among its many renowned Fellows.
MindChamps' business model grew directly out of its education model. To foster the "3-Mind Revolution", it needs to develop an effective and scalable delivery system for new brain "software". This is achieved through a network of passionate "brand ambassadors".
"Committed and enthusiastic franchisees became the engine for our growth and expansion. This was why it was important to create the 'movement'. Our franchisees - and every child and every parent - serve as our 'brand ambassadors', spreading interest in, and passion for, our education model," he says.
Evidence of this loyalty factor can be seen in the fact that around two-thirds of its franchisees are parents who have seen their children blossom to their fullest potential - and many have gone on to set up second, third and fourth centres. The preschool franchise licence fees which MindChamps charges in Singapore have risen over the years from S$55,000 in 2008 to S$150,000 - a reflection of how the market values its franchise, Mr Chiem says.
Growth strategy for Singapore follows an 80:20 model - 80 per cent of centres franchised and 20 per cent company-owned. In overseas markets, the model is around 90:10.
"This allows for rapid testing and evolution of the programmes, while enabling rapid growth and expansion," he says.
For the fiscal year 2016, Mindchamps generated a net profit of S$5.4 million on a revenue of S$18.4 million. It had S$3.9 million in cash and cash equivalents, and a gearing ratio of 55 per cent.
MindChamps PreSchool boasts 36 centres in Singapore - about 38.5 per cent share of premium-range preschools defined as one that charges a student S$1,700 and above per month before promotions or government subsidies for a 5-day week or 5.5-day week full-day programme. This, makes it the largest operator and franchisor of premium-range preschools in Singapore.
In the Middle East, Bloom Holdings bought the master franchise for the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and has in September 2017 opened the first MindChamps Nursery in Abu Dhabi. The second centre is due to open in Dubai soon, with plans to roll out several more in 2018.
In Australia, MindChamps has acquired four strategic locations in Sydney. These will act as flagships in the rollout of MindChamps Early Learning in Australia. It is now concentrating on franchising to drive expansion into the key population centres of Sydney and Melbourne. It has also sold a master-franchise of 20 licences for Sydney and Melbourne, and two MindChamps Reading and Writing centres are already up and running, so MindChamps is poised to strongly increase its Australian presence in 2018, Mr Chiem shares.
This year also witnessed MindChamps PreSchool expand its footprint in the Philippines to four strategic locations in Manila.
On his target markets, Mr Chiem says: "Apart from Singapore, the UAE, the Philippines and Australia, we view China, United States and United Kingdom as potential key strategic target markets for our global expansion, from which we can access other target markets such as New Zealand, Malaysia, South Korea and Vietnam."
Backed by major strategic capital funding partners China First Capital Group (CFCG) and Hillhouse Capital, Mr Chiem says MindChamps is now preparing for a strong rollout of multiple centres in China and Australia.
"Given our experience in Singapore, our plan, as in Singapore, is to take the number-one premium brand position in both China and Australia."
Asked if the premium fees charged is creating an elitist market, Mr Chiem said the market is already elitist.
"We are neither coldly pragmatic nor unrealistically naïve when it comes to creating a more level educational playing-field...We have always understood that without prosperity, we would be unable to achieve our bigger-picture goal of building 'a world of MindChampions' or our social charter - the commitment to 'the creation of educational opportunities where they would not otherwise exist.'
"This is one reason why it was important to take the company to IPO. Our vision has always been to take the MindChamps education movement to the world," Mr Chiem says.