Gotta be tenacious

Raja Singham, 48, founded the institution that would become Brickfields Asia College in 1991 when he was just 24, together with his wife, Meera Mahendran. It’s been a roller-coaster ride, he tells LIM WING HOOI.

How did you begin your business?

I completed my Certificate of Legal Practice (CLP) in 1990 and taught the CLP Programme which I started at a local college on a profit-sharing basis. After about six months, we decided to set up our own college to offer undergraduate and professional law programmes.

We applied for the necessary approvals and rented a commercial space of about 10,000 sq ft in Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur. We started with 12 lecturers, including my wife and myself, and 200 students. The students’ upfront fees allowed us to get the cash flow we needed, and we also applied for bank financing.

What was it like starting from scratch?

My wife and I did everything from answering the phones, photocopying and even cleaning the toilets. Two years later, we purchased our first building in November 1993 for RM2.55mil as our landlord wanted to double our rental. We also applied to the Education Ministry to run additional programmes and were told that we would not be given the approvals unless we acquired additional premises.

Based on this information, we acquired a second building in July 1994 at a cost of RM3.5mil. However, to my shock and disappointment when I went back to the ministry to say that we had purchased the additional premises, the same official now told me that just because we had bought the additional premises did not mean that they had to give us the approval.

This left us stuck with an underutilised building for two years while we had to service the bank loans.

How did you pull through?

It was really tough, and we finally sold the 70% stake to a property developer in 1995 who was interested in going into education. However, due to differences of opinion with the team brought in by the developer to manage the college, I stopped managing the school but continued to lecture on the weekends.

So what did you do?

I was observing the revolution in the US and companies like Yahoo and Amazon. I started my own group of IT-related companies under CN Corporate Network with several partners in 1996. We did everything from building business information databases and providing services like IT solutions, multimedia and design, website development to training.

However, we were badly hit by the Asian financial crisis of 1997/98 and lost approximately RM25mil in a matter of days, owing to the increase in the price of items purchased in US dollars. We also suffered from lost and cancelled contracts, as customers were unable to pay or cancelled jobs.

We lost our house and cars, but my wife was my pillar of support who kept me up when I was down. I tried to do the same when she was down. My wife and I have been equal partners in everything. I remember permanently borrowing my father-in-law’s Proton Saga as I no longer had a car. There was no choice but to shut down the businesses and to continue to pay off our debts which we did by 2007. One of my friends told me that if he had gone through what I had, he would have committed suicide. And I remember telling him: “What would that have accomplished?”

What about the college?

The college had been losing money after I sold it and I came back to help run it. In 2002, the Education Ministry decided to order the closure of more than 20 colleges, and Brickfields College happened to be one of them on account of alleged technical breaches of relevant legislation. I successfully established that the ministry had misunderstood the relevant act and totally misapplied the law. However, all these issues led to the majority shareholders coming to a decision to close down the college. I managed to convince them to sell it back to me instead of closing it down — on an instalment payment plan with interest as I did not have the money.

In order to make up for their error and to avoid legal action and adverse publicity, the Education Ministry agreed to give us a fresh new licence and Brickfields Asia College was born in 2004.

The college grew rapidly, and today we have 4,500 students and over 200 staff, operating campuses in KL and PJ and are affiliated to over 25 UK universities and professional bodies. With earnings before interest, tax and depreciation (EBITDA) of approximately RM30mil in 2015, the college is already planning its next phase of expansion.

What is your business philosophy?

We are constantly learning and implementing initiatives from local and international players from various industries which makes us different from others. Our goal is also to improve lives through education through our various CSR initiatives.

What do you do in your free time?

I love being around my wife and kids. I love reading and read about 80 books a year on areas like finance, branding, marketing, management, innovation and creativity. At the moment my team and I have been helping over 50 charities and NGOs as we strongly believe that it is our duty to help the less fortunate.

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