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Modern Montessori aims to expand into Asian emerging markets

Pre-school education provider earmarks Indonesia, Vietnam for expansion plans

[SINGAPORE] Pre-school education provider Modern Montessori International (MMI) is looking to expand into emerging markets in the region, specifically Vietnam and Indonesia.

Its first school in Vietnam, which has a 15,000-square-foot campus in the Vietnam Singapore Industrial Park (VSIP) in Binh Duong province near Ho Chi Minh City, aims to take in 350 to 400 students when it is completed, likely at the end of this year. It will cater mainly to children of the many foreign expatriates based in the VSIP.

A second centre in Hai Phong, 100km from Hanoi, is slated to begin operations in 2016.

Over in Jakarta, MMI will open a teacher-training centre in four to six months. It is already running two pre-school centres there under its franchise programme, and is among a few pre-school operators licensed to operate as a franchise, MMI chairman and chief executive officer T Chandroo said.

Explaining MMI's move into these markets, he said they hold "huge potential". In Vietnam, for example, seven in 10 people are under the age of 35, which points to strong demand by young couples for the best education for their pre-school-age children.

As Vietnam and Indonesia are among the most populated countries in Asean, Dr Chandroo believes that they offer significant growth opportunities for MMI.

In Vietnam, MMI will concentrate on the operation of its schools in Binh Duong and Hai Phong for the next three to four years, in order to build up the MMI brand name there.

However, Dr Chandroo revealed that for Indonesia, there are already plans to expand beyond the two schools MMI currently has in the country. This will be done through both franchising and direct investment, although Dr Chandroo added that the rate of expansion would depend on prevailing market conditions and demand, and thus has not been determined yet.

MMI also plans to strengthen its teacher-training services in Indonesia.

The intent to expand is reflective of MMI's commitment to opening as many centres as possible in Asia. MMI presently has a network of about 100 pre-school centres in Asia, of which 28 are in Singapore.

MMI, which has had a strong presence in Sri Lanka for more than 10 years, plans to set up another three to five centres across the island nation; in the capital Colombo, MMI has two centres and one teacher-training centre.

Plans for an initial public offering are also in the pipeline.

Dr Chandroo knows first-hand the challenges of taking MMI to an emerging market such as Vietnam. For instance, the group had to wait nearly three years for its licence to operate as a foreign provider of pre-school education there.

Finding local partners - a requirement for foreign companies, as is also the case in countries such as Cambodia and Myanmar - was also not easy.

Dr Chandroo said: "One must be prepared to accept these challenges when you want to cross borders. Nothing comes free."

As for the pre-school sector on home turf Singapore, Dr Chandroo is optimistic, despite current problems such as manpower retention and rental costs.

He said that the government's grants and schemes such as the Anchor Operator scheme are helping the sector along.

Under this scheme designed to make cheaper and better pre-school programmes available to the average Singaporean family, commercial operators and voluntary welfare organisations get government help - such as rental subsidies and priority in securing Housing Board premises for new centres - in exchange for keeping fees low.

Dr Chandroo urged parents to make enquiries into subsidies or grants they could take up to send their children to pre-schools.

"The landscape is transforming. Given another five years, 10 years, I think Singapore's pre-school programme delivery will be one of the best in the world," he said.