Adelaine Foo, founder and CEO of the Otomotif College (TOC), was 28 when she decided to start her own college. Ten years on, she tells JOY LEE how she winged it and what she learned from the experience.
You’re a woman in a man’s world. How did you end up with an automotive college?
I’ve always liked to be a teacher. I’m the eldest of three kids, and my mother is the eldest of seven. So I’m the eldest kid in the family. When you are the eldest, you end up teaching people all your life. I also had the opportunity to tutor in university, and it was fun. You see someone coming in not knowing anything, and after you teach them, they go out feeling like they can conquer the world.
So I decided to be a teacher. But I didn’t have teaching qualifications. I did audio engineering, history, arts and opera in university. No one would hire me, so I thought to start a school. It was either a kindergarten or an art school.
What happened then?
If you are going to pump in money, it has to be a business that works and fill a need in society. To cut the story short, technicians, despite knowing a lot, are not given the respect that is due to them. Some disrespect them and feel they are just lowly blue-collar people. So I decided to take up this area to fight, and create enough respect, for automotive technicians and get them the pay that they deserve. That’s how we started an automotive college.
Was funding an issue?
Yes. When we first started, the shareholders put in RM5mil. When the business got better, we got loans from banks to make sure we could continue to expand. Other than that, most of the operating expenses are covered by student fees.
When we were younger, we got pocket money and all we needed to think of was how much we could save. But pocket money was free. So when we went into business, we only counted our expenses. You forget about where your revenue is coming from and whether ends will meet (laughs). Suddenly you have to think of all these realities and realise business is not so idealistic anymore. But it’s still fun lah.
What was your biggest challenge in starting the business?
Business was a concern. It wasn’t just about education or your skills anymore. You have to run a business. I ended up not teaching at all because I didn’t know anything about cars! But I needed to run people, licensing, profit and loss.
The learning curve was extremely steep but I had already jumped in and had to just learn it along the way. In between, I hit a lot of walls. I didn’t know about HR laws, payroll or anything. Financials was a challenge. I’m an art student! I faint at the sight of numbers!
How do you head a business you know little about?
I’m still learning. I believe that we hire people because we don’t know how to do their work. But sometimes, you have to pretend to know the work more than you actually do so that people are also challenged and cautious when they tell me things. Haha. But at the same time, we can’t be afraid to ask people when we don’t know something.
What do you think you’ve achieved in the 10 years of running the business?
A lot of students are no longer afraid to admit that they love cars and want to be technicians. There’s nothing wrong with this career. That is the biggest change I’ve seen.
Parents used to scold us for promoting this course but now they see a future in it. Or at least, I think we’ve convinced about 50% of parents that there is nothing wrong with being a technician. From an automotive company’s point of view, I think more are becoming convinced that technicians are important to the company and not just lowly-paid employees.
TOC has also expanded into Australia. How is that coming along?
I think every time we start something, you see the opportunities and it’s exciting. On hindsight, you’ll think maybe you’d bitten off a little more than you could chew. But in business, you can’t rewind. You just have to find a way to fix the problem and move on.
But it’s fun when you get to say that (the) Australia (college) is the branch of Malaysia. We are very proud to be able to say that.
The challenge for us, moving forward, is how to make the brand one. We have the same logo, crest and marketing materials. But the staff see each other as two separate companies. I think we have a lot of work to do as to how to bring the two companies closer together. That’s my focus for now, which is how to consolidate the brand.
What are some lessons you’ve learnt in business?
I think I’ve learned not to be too “artsy”. It’s not just about making yourself happy. You have children to feed. I have a staff of 90 whose family I need to feed. I have 900 students, whom I need to feed. So suddenly you learn about responsibility. This business is no longer about me achieving my goal. It is about me helping others achieve their goals. I’m still learning.
But all these things, I’d be able to share with my kids. If I weren’t doing this, I would’t be able to teach my kids a lot of things like how the world works, how to be friends with people, how not to be taken advantage of and not take advantage of other people.
If I were to do this all over again, I would because I’m a different person today than when I first started.
What would you advise budding entrepreneurs?
You should probably take a crash course in business. Business is not about making cakes, but it is about running a P&L (profit and loss outfit). I think if I had learnt more about financials before I went into business, it would really have helped a lot.