Up Close and Personal with Datuk Seri Edmund Santhara

FOR Masterskill Education Group Bhd’s founder Datuk Seri Edmund Santhara, who spent most of his early years growing up in the estates, it was a big deal when he secured a seat in a local university many years ago. But this he could not have envisaged until it finally happened – owning one.

Masterskill, the country’s largest operator of non-government nursing colleges, made its debut on Bursa Malaysia last month, making its mark as the country’s largest initial public offering so far this year. The growth path of this health science college over the past three years has been phenomenal; revenue has more than doubled from RM126.5mil in FY2007 to RM273.4mil in FY09. FY08 in particular, was a pretty outstanding year for Masterskill as revenue surged 60% from the year before.

That year, student enrolment jumped 55%.

Today Masterskill generates net profits of RM97.38mil.

Where it all began

“Masterskill started from an idea. We saw a need in the market. I wanted to bridge an opportunity gap, as Malaysia is a net importer of nurses. We have a serious shortfall of nurses and health workers, so surely something is wrong. There is ample room for growth in Malaysia’s healthcare industry,” he says.

From a more altruistic perspective, Edmund says his primary focus is to provide an opportunity to Malaysians who want to succeed by caring for somebody else.

“Before Masterskill, the Health Ministry (MOH) struggled to get bumiputras to study in the science stream. In Masterskill, 80% of the bumiputras are in the science stream!” he says. Today, 52% of Masterskill’s students are bumiputras from Peninsular Malaysia, 21% are Christian bumiputras and the remainder are Chinese and Indians.

“When I first started out conceptualising this idea, we were doing a paradigm shift. We were going against the hospitals. Firstly, we don’t own hospitals. We decided not to compete with the other players. We trained students with a skill that the market really needed,” says Edmund.

Backed only with their dreams, Edmund and his partners approached the MOH with their idea of setting up a health science college.

“We wanted to use some of the public hospitals as our training ground. The benefits for doing this were obvious. By doing this, students would get better clinical exposure, and the hospital’s staff ratio would also increase. We suggested using some of the public hospitals as training ground for the students,” he says.

MOH saw merits in the idea, and allowed them to proceed. Then came the second part of the headache. Masterskill’s college was in Cheras, but the hospitals for training were in Sabah and Sarawak.

“We decided to take in students from Sabah and Sarawak. During their holiday break, they would be able to return to their hometowns and concurrently do their practical training. This immediately lowered our transportation cost which resulted in a savings of up to 50%,” he says.

Idea turns reality

Edmund says most of his inspiration and drive come from his humble background in the estates.

His parents were rubber tappers and school was 28 miles away. Going to school was a constant challenge, but through the combination of hitch-hiking from lorries, a walk and further hitch-hiking from other vehicles along the same route, he managed to get to school.

“I used to get caned for going to school late. It was pure hardship, living from day to day. Education was my only way out (of the estates),” he recalls.

“Education was the platform to reveal my ability. It was the key that could open my first door. Desperation leads you to success,” he says.

It’s been a huge leap for this salt-of-the-earth entrepreneur since. One can imagine how overwhelming it must have been when he got his cheque for RM1mil in 2007 from his partner.

Following the IPO exercise, Edmund has a 22.1% stake in the company worth RM335mil based on current market value.

Wealth of change?

Has all this wealth changed Edmund? “Money is a bi-product of success. It facilitates, but it is not the carrot,” emphasises Edmund. He believes success comes through getting things done.

“The power is in execution and speed. The outcome will be decided by the industry and God,” he says.

And certainly, Edmund practises what he preaches, not just in his professional life, but also in personal discipline.

He recently lost 10kg in a month and plans to lose a further 4kg.

He is a big believer of self actualisation – a concept where one is able to have an achievement and stand among his fellow man.

Therefore, it isn’t surprising that he is most let down when he fails to meet his expectations.

On that note, he also believes in engagement with the community. He does his bit by giving motivation talks to the underprivileged.

“If I speak to 100 people, and I inspire one person, then I have achieved my goal,” he says.

Now everyone can learn

Not surprisingly, Edmund does not go in search of rich students for his courses in Masterskill.

He goes to rural areas such as Limbang, Kuala Penyu, Sabah and Sarawak to attract students.

“What Masterskill offers students is an opportunity to study and graduate from an institution that is recognised and one that gives you a career beyond Malaysia.”

“It is a rewarding career and one that is noble and makes you feel happy. It’s about saving lives,” he says.

He says many households in Sabah and Sarawak only have a monthly income of RM600 to RM700.

“Once a student studies and graduates from Masterskill, he earns a living and his income increases the household income by four to six times? This definitely has a social and economic impact on every family,” he says.

Edmund’s indulgences are his children and chess. Today, Edmund has an eclectic collection of close to 500 chess sets from across the globe.

His passion for the game has seen him start the Kuala Lumpur Chess Association, of which he is founder and director. He is also the director of the Asian Chess Federation.

Edmund was a gold medalist in the inter-varsity competition in 1998 when he represented University Kebangsaan Malaysia.

Edmund’s grandmother, with whom he was very close, had passed away last year. She had been extremely proud when he got into a local university.

Does he have any major regrets? “Today I own a university. I wish I could tell her (grandmother) that,” he says.

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