Drawing strength from detachment

Stansfield's Kannappan Chettiar sees success and failure in yogic light, reports LISA TAN

Somewhat like an alchemist, Kannappan Chettiar holds a delicate chest of his life's mysteries and will lift the veil on these secrets little by little through a discourse in philosophy (a subject he is personally interested in). "Perform your duty equipoised, abandoning any attachment to success or failure. Such equanimity is called yoga," Mr Kannappan, chairman of The Stansfield Group, quoting the Bhagavad Gita (the Hindu holy book) as his personal philosophy. Poised in the stillness of life, Mr Kannappan prac- tises the philosophy of yoga in the way he revived the failing Singapore Institute of Commerce (SIC) with more than $1 million worth of liabilities and propelled it to its current standing, without being Over- whelmed by the tribula- tions he faced in his life. He also built The Stans- field Group, which has re- ceived several awards, from a mere $20,000 per- sonal credit line. Stansfield generated a revenue of $14.2 million and a net profit of $1.3 million for its last financial year. For that, Mr Kannappan was nomi- nated a finalist for the Phoenix Award 2002/2003. The biennial award nominates businessmen, who have looked challenges in the eye, overcome the tri- als and emerged successful in their businesses. The Phoenix Award launched in 2000 as a pri- vate sector-led effort to commend those, like Mr Kannappan, who have found their own brand of tranquility in life's mael- strom. He says: "Although prof- its are important for a com- mercial organisation, this objective can be fulfilled by doing a great job and not being personally attached to the profits or losses." While he may not be the author of Sophie's World, his real experiences may be more endearing to businessmen. Like his father and sev- eral other family members, Mr Kannappan received an education in law and has attained bachelors and masters law degrees. If he had not been in the educa- tion business, he would have been a lawyer. Losing the fort In 1990, he tendered suc- cessfully for the former Middle Road Hospital (cur- rently SIC), for which he re- ceived funding support from his father and friends. But just two years later, Mr Kannappan left the business, when it had a re- serve of $1 million.He says: "When I left SIC, I was jobless for a few months. It was probably the most horrible feeling of not really being wanted or ap- preciated. It was then I resolved that I would rather 'over-work' to death than by being bored to death!" Mr Kannappan's brass- bound resolve to start Stansfield College stems from boredom and the fact that his wife was jobless as well as pregnant. However, with only $20,000 in personal credit from Citibank, how does anyone set up an education enterprise, with six British teachers, four of whom have PhDs? "The conservative banks in Singapore, I dis- covered, would only sup- port you when you have the money. So I quickly dis- counted the possibility of approaching Mr Kannappan says about his disheartening experience banks," Nonetheless, he ap- proached his suppliers and convinced them of his plan to bring in a UK higher edu- cation system, making deals for extended credit periods. Furthermore, he rented a place in Serangoon Central because he could only afford one month's rental advance, which only Housing Development Board permitted. August 1993, had By Mr Kannappan brought in over 200 students. In 1994, he took Stansfield even further with two additional facilities in Orchard and Colombo Court, and almost 1,000 students. This marked a four-fold increase from the previous 200.Because of his inexperi- ence, Mr Kannappan over- looked the issue and even- tually lost almost all of the SIC staff when he took over his old business around late 1998. Up till late 2001, he had to reform the manage- ment and rebuild the busi- ness. These included hav- to for arrange ing partnerships with other universities and institutions, deal with staffing and resolve building maintenance issues.

Oddly enough, he moved Stansfield College to Middle Road (only 400 metres away from SIC) in 1996. SIC was then his largest com- petitor but Stansfield out- performed SIC and almost "I had to make a sacri- pushed SIC out of the com- fice of sending my second petition. and third best persons to SIC fell to a takeover by head Stansfield while I per- sonally focused on SIC to Stansfield. make it better than Stansfield. I took this as a 'do or die' mission." "From Stansfield's per- spective, the acquisition of SIC was probably our big Having four campuses, SIC eventually outdid Stansfield College in terms of size, revenue and profits. It was no mean feat to say the least, and a source of immense personal satisfac- tion for Mr Kannappan.

"Since late 2001, I shifted my focus entirely, leaving the profits that we create at the goodwill and hands of our students (or customers). "Entrepreneurs after all only eat the 'leftovers' and not the main course -we deserve to eat well only at the blessings of customers who say good things and recommend others to us which allows our profits to increase." Moving on to the land of colourful saris and spicy tumeric, Stansfield bought an $8.3 million property in Chennai, India, last year. Mr Kannappan, a winner of the Enterprise 50 awards in 2002, 2003 and 2004, aims to repeat his feat in India with another 19 campuses by 2008. In Singapore, the group has also bought 20,000 square feet of space in Boat Quay and opened a new campus in Tampines.Mr Kannappan also ex- pects to open a campus in China next year and six oth- ers in subsequent years. "Our challenges are therefore multi-fold as we extend the dimension of our business from education, to employment opportunities to enabling our students to do business in unfamiliar countries." He says that individuals must be tolerant of failures and must be agile in responding to the trials life may bring."Failure is an interme- diate step towards success. There is no such thing as 'failures', just people waiting to succeed," says Mr Kannappan. "We may not be able to direct the wind but we should be able to adjust the sails.'