Stansfield's next stop: India

As part of its resolve to become an international player, Chettiar's education group is venturing abroad and planning a public listing next year, says Taila Krishnakumar

LIFE is not linear. Sometimes you don't even know when you are two steps away from gaining a real payoff for all your hard work and you give up. Not enough people realise that, says Kannappan Chettiar, chairman of education company, The Stansfield Group.Ranked 15 in the Enterprise 50 awards last year, Stansfield was one of the first private education groups to receive the Singapore Quality Class awards.

The group owns and manages sev- eral well-established schools, includ- ing the Singapore Institute of Com- merce, Stansfield College, St James English School and the Centre for In- novation and Entrepreneurship with a total enrolment of over 5,000 students Mr. Chettiar founded the group in 1993. It offers private undergraduate business and law degrees and language courses from accredited foreign universities such as the University of London and the London School of Economics. A confident, self-made entrepre- neur, Mr Chettiar likens his success to that of a Phyllostachys Vivax. The bamboo species grows one inch in its first year, none at all for the next four years, and explodes suddenly between 70 and 90 feet in its sixth year. "We are in that sixth year now, the high growth stage. After growing and laying our foundation, now I need to move on to the next challenge, before I become complacent. I want to go all out." The next step certainly is all out. After having completed its first stages of establishing itself locally in busi- ness and law education, providing renowned overseas curriculums for its students, and attracting enrolment from around the region, the group is now venturing abroad. In March, the company will announce the opening of campuses in Mumbai, with plans for more in Poona and Ahmedabad. It is partnering with a large, well-estab- lished and high-profile local player in India, and hopes to open 18 to 20 cam- puses in the next two years across the country. The plan is to enrol 2,000 stu- dents for each campus.The group will renovate campus fa- cilities, and provide the curriculum and know-how. Its partner has exten- sive local experience.Build it and they will come, is prob- ably an accurate motto for Mr Chet- tiar's strategy. Together with the capi- tal of his family and a group of investors, he tendered for the Middle Road hospital in 1991, his first foray into education, hoping to turn it into a private institute for law education.Before that, he had completed a de- gree in business in Michigan State University, but was unable to get a job upon graduation. He then enrolled in a part-time law programme here and found out on his last day of law school that he had won the bid. He hit the ground running with the new project. As the main director among the group of 10 shareholders who were also directors, Mr Chettiar had the place functioning with a full-fledged three-year law curriculum within six months. He worked from 6 am till 11 pm each day as a marketer, a teacher, an administrator and a vi- sionary. He invested $500,000 in reno- vations. "I wanted a classroom con- cept for the students. I wanted something that was a holistic ap- proach to education and was fun. I I re- member feeling that is what my part-time law degree really lacked."That vision has flourished into a mission. Said Mr Chettiar about the Stansfield Group's aim: "Our clear ob- jectives are to make sure that late learners in life have a second opportunity to prove themselves. In Singa- pore, the education system may not be geared for those in the lower half. What If you are creative and hard- working but not good enough for a top school? What if you want to make a transition in life? Our degrees allow people to have a new chance at life."

His law programme also provides an alternative education for profes- sionals wishing to understand the le- gal industry. "Many students of the law degree at Stansfield don't intend to be lawyers but are using their de- grees to enhance their knowledge. Professionals get growth, promotions and career transitions through both our business and law programmes."Even though he had SIC profitable by 1992, entanglements over business decisions with his partners caused him to leave that year. "I had initiated everything, done all the work, but yet I realised that nothing had become mine. I handed everything over but told them I would be back."He was determined to become SIC's chief competitor. In a few months, he laid the foundation for the Stansfield Group, opening up the Stansfield School of Business by renovating HDB facilities in Serangoon central and successively opening up new cam- puses in Singapore in the years to come.

By 1998 business was booming. He returned to take over SIC in 1999, when it was already in debt. This was the second time he had to renovate the school, relaunching the law pro- gramme he had instituted well over five years before that. "When we took over it was again an uphill battle. But I turned it around once more from five students in 1999 to 350 today." For the fiscal year ended March 2003, the Stansfield Group tripled its profits from the year before to $1.7 mil- lion. It expects similar results this year. However, the company invested $5 million in the past year in renovations, and bottom line is subject to depreciation costs. The group also plans to list in 2005. He is renovating his campuses, res- tructuring management and opera- tions and hoping to become a fully transparent company through the pro- cess of going public. "Being publicly listed means striving to be better than what we are now. We want to have a framework, balance and be as trans- parent as possible. A good leader should be able to replace himself one day, and with this process, the group will be independent."

After India, Mr Chettiar. is eyeing the region as his ultimate goal is to be- come a truly international player.