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Championing a global education movement

David Chiem, the founder of MindChamps, talks about how his vision to create the No 1 global brand in early childhood education is now taking shape.

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"People would say, Hong Kong has better multiples and so on, but that's not what it's about. The world is complicated. Singapore is one of the most neutral and transparent places in the world, and so is one of the best places to proliferate this movement." - David Chiem (above), founder CEO and executive chairman of MindChamps Preschool, on the decision to go for an IPO on the Singapore Exchange in 2017.

IN the more than 40 years since he first landed in Australia in 1978 with his family - a nine-year-old Vietnamese refugee with not a word of English - David Chiem accomplished the following: became at the age of 14 the first Asian to play a leading role in an Australian television series, graduated with a degree in communications and a master's in film-making, co-authored several books including a novel now used as a literature text in Australian schools, and ran his own production company shooting commercials.

Yet, these were mere stage-setters for his founding of MindChamps, the preschool pedagogy empire that he has built up over the last two decades. And Mr Chiem the education entrepreneur is now focused on bringing MindChamps back to Australia in a big way.

Today, MindChamps' global footprint includes more than 80 preschool and enrichment centres, with over 2,000 teachers and 10,000 students annually. The majority of these are in Singapore, but MindChamps has a growing presence in Australia, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, the Philippines, Vietnam, Myanmar and Malaysia too.

Growth through acquisitions and franchising alike is showing up in its fiscal results. Net profit for the year ended Dec 31, 2018 jumped 33 per cent to S$6.5 million, on the back of a 62 per cent surge in revenue to S$37 million.

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A sustainable, scalable model

But it is not numbers that Mr Chiem, founder CEO and executive chairman of MindChamps Preschool Ltd, is keen to discuss.

He speaks with palpable excitement instead of how the company is gearing up to launch "MindChamps Version Two" - a sustainable, scalable MindChamps model of early childhood education that can be brought to the world.

It has in fact always been his vision to create the No 1 global brand in early childhood education, says Mr Chiem. And he believes that vision is now taking shape. "We've been described as the modern-day equivalent of the education model that Montessori was 120 years ago," he says, quick to add that it is others who speak of MindChamps in these humbling, global terms.

Case in point: the latest book by Joseph Michelli, an organisational consultant whose best-selling business volumes include case studies of international brands such as Mercedes Benz, Starbucks and The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, is one entitled The MindChamps Way - How to turn an idea into a global movement.

"It's wonderful to have a business person who studies companies study who we are and the model we've created - both in education but also as an organisation. Because you can have a great education model, but until you're able to take it to the world it's still not sustainable," says Mr Chiem of the book, launched earlier this month.

MindChamps Version One, which he started in 1998, was about establishing his own "3 Minds" education model - the Champion Mind, Learning Mind and Creative Mind - that underpins MindChamps' early childhood curriculum. That involved pulling together research from neuroscience, educational psychology, mindset formation and his own background in theatre, and persuading international experts such as Professor Allan Snyder, a neuroscientist who is also a fellow of the prestigious Royal Society, to work with him.

Mr Chiem's ambition, then and now, is to "change the world" with a new model of preschool education. "The way in which the future and values system of the world is changing, (early childhood) is the time. For example, in China alone, say 10,000 Who's Who families' kids come to our preschools and we nurture in them values such as compassion - one of our champion mindset values - seeing the beauty in others. Imagine these kids in 20 years' time. They are the ones whose families are buying parts of the world and they may be the ones saying: 'Maybe we can make money without doing that to the planet'."

With a clear vision of taking this model global, Mr Chiem moved his research from Sydney to set up headquarters in Singapore in 2002. "Many people didn't get it, but I realised that Singapore was truly the gateway to both the East and the West. That idea of taking this education movement global meant that I had to come to Singapore."

Similar thinking drove the decision to go for an initial public offering (IPO) on the Singapore Exchange in 2017. "People would say, Hong Kong has better multiples and so on, but that's not what it's about. The world is complicated. Singapore is one of the most neutral and transparent places in the world, and so is one of the best places to proliferate this movement," explains Mr Chiem.

As he tells it, the past 20 years have been about refining MindChamps' education model and staying focused on clinching pole position in Singapore's preschool sector, particularly among premium brands. The company had no intention to venture beyond Singapore's shores till it secured that No 1 position here, says Mr Chiem.

But opportunities in markets such as Vietnam, Myanmar, Malaysia, the Philippines and the United Arab Emirates, were ones that came knocking on MindChamps doors unexpectedly. "It aligns with our philosophy - we never say "I want these things" in life, we focus on becoming. It's about becoming the brand of choice," he notes.

"We were extremely stringent about selecting a master franchisee for these smaller markets, but they were not our focus markets, so we're not going to have the headspace to own and operate preschools there.

"But markets like Singapore, Australia, UK, US, China - these are key markets for us. When we expand to these, we want to have our own headquarters and preschools that are owned and operated by us," Mr Chiem adds.

Now that MindChamps has achieved what it set out to in Singapore - its 38 preschools and 11 enrichment centres give it a 40 per cent market share of preschools in the premium range - the time is ripe for expansion in those other choice markets.

Gunning for No 1 Down Under

Australia is a familiar market in which Mr Chiem is confident of seizing the No 1 brand position. "That's the vision - brand positioning, not footprint. If you chase footprint in education, you can have thousands of centres, but if you don't deliver, you just shoot yourself in the foot."

Ever since its Singapore IPO in 2017, MindChamps has been on a preschool acquisition blitz in Australia, buying up 19 centres in the last year and a half. Having acquired a sizeable core of preschools and built up a HQ team of about 380 staff there, its focus is now on franchising. The goal is a network of 10 per cent company-owned and 90 per cent franchised MindChamps preschools across Australia.

The company is not just seeking new preschool operators, but also looking to convert existing ones into MindChamps franchisees. After all, of the 12,000 preschools in Australia at the moment, 80 per cent are owned by individuals rather than listed companies or funds.

"We want to be able to say that 90 per cent of our centres are 100 per cent owned by Aussies. So, they own the centres, they are already licensed, they've got the hardware, and we provide the global software, the research, training and tools that comes with the MindChamps brand," says Mr Chiem.

Says Lee Hwee Boon, managing director, head of Middle Market and Services, Global Enterprise Banking, at OCBC Bank, which helped finance MindChamps' Australia acquisitions: "Their focus on equipping children for the workplace of tomorrow differentiates MindChamps and puts them in a strong position when expanding overseas."

Another point of attraction for potential franchisees is MindChamps' emphasis on teacher training - one that also addresses the perennial manpower crunch facing the preschool sector across markets.

This goes to the very heart of MindChamps' DNA, according to Mr Chiem. Before it started operating preschools in 2008, it was a research and training organisation. It was thus natural for them to want to distinguish their preschool education offering with extensive training (up to 200 hours before accreditation) that is mandatory regardless of a teacher's qualifications. "Teachers come with different experiences and habits. We need to engage them in the MindChamps way, help them understand the research, break their own mindsets and lift standards as a whole," says Mr Chiem.

"No matter how many years' experience you've got, you've got to be open to new learning, because the kids can feel your energy. If you're a person who has a "I know it all, this is my way" view, you've got a very different energy in the classroom compared to a person who loves learning."

Investment in a training academy and teacher training also differentiates them from preschools owned by funds, in particular, he says. "The DNA of a fund is to buy and flip for profit. They couldn't care less about training deeply because it costs a lot of money to make sure every teacher is trained."

Given the rapid growth in Australia - the market's contribution to FY2018 revenue jumped from S$0.8 million to S$11.8 million or 32 per cent of revenue - what's next?

MindChamps is already eyeing targets in the US and UK, where it will aim for a similar 90-10 balance between franchising and ownership. "With China, which is a huge and complex space, we're going to take our time," shares Mr Chiem. The focus there is now on positioning its research by speaking at global conferences and raising awareness of the MindChamps model.

Three engines to power global expansion

Mr Chiem believes that among education players, MindChamps is unique in having three engines to power its global expansion - its public listing status, the backing of funds, and growth through franchising. But those engines will not be allowed to change MindChamps' DNA - that of growing a global education movement, he says.

Some have suggested creative ways to allow a larger than 50 per cent public float while retaining control of the company.

But Mr Chiem is adamant that MindChamps keep the discipline of retaining a clear majority stake.

"We'll never cross the line. It's a message to the world that we will not change our DNA. No shareholder can tell us to chase this, do that. Every organisation responsibly should grow; we don't want to not grow.

"To proliferate the movement, we have to be prosperous, we're not naive to that. But not the expense of our education DNA. Investing and upgrading in our people, in our research, to us that's about our DNA," he says.