A big heart for small business

ERC Holdings’ Andy Ong keeps an eye out for the budding entrepreneurs no one else pays attention to

Photo By: DON WONG

FIVE years ago, Mr Andy Ong decided to help budding businesses — “the really small ones which nobody pays attention to” — to succeed.

Maybe, he thought, he could even uncover another Sim Wong Hoo.

Now, the CEO of the Entrepreneur’s Resource Centre (ERC) — a hub to train, fund and mentor entrepreneurs — is helping many more people to realise their potential through studies rather than business.

In three months, his company will have 1,000 students enrolled in various programmes, from business and finance to tourism and media. So, how did an incubator and business consultancy branch out intensively into education?

“It was a discovery process. Some people … don’t have what it takes to be an entrepreneur,” said Mr Ong, who firmly believes that entrepreneurs “are born, not made”.

“But these people need to make a living. And they have a lot of potential. Some people are very services oriented; it’s just innate. Perfect for tourism,” he said emphatically. “That’s why one of the first acquisitions we made was a school. Besides encouraging people to start a business, we want them to consider careers in the most promising sectors of Singapore.”

And so, ERC Holdings snapped up private educational schools like the Asian Centre for Professional Excellence and the Centre for Professional Studies (ACPE),and turned them around.

“ACPE was not in very good shape when we bought it. Now, they’re one of the top 10 private educational companies,” said Mr Ong.

Helping education firms became part of ERC’s goals since it teamed up with the Economic Development Board two years ago.

“Our incubator partner mandate was to encourage educational concepts to blossom. It’s our agreement with EDB. We can assist other companies, but we try to assist as many education firms as possible,” said Mr Ong.

ERC Holdings is building its education base on four pillars: Digital media; financial services, including wealth management; tourism and hospitality, including spa and wellness management as well as casino management; and, of course, entrepreneurship. It offers scholarships, job placements and, according to Mr Ong, some of the most cost effective programmes in Singapore, thanks to government sponsorship through the Skills Development Fund.

“We have connections with hotels and restaurants, so we can arrange jobs,” he said. “We also offer to sponsor any staff in ERC, after one year of service, to study with us all the way to the Masters level. And we find like-minded companies to do the same.”

There is no bond, but students cannot leave their companies during their studies.

The result, said Mr Ong, is that many companies are willing to partner ERC because “they are always on the lookout for talent”, organic or otherwise.

“It’s the one thing all businesses in Singapore lack,” he said. “At the same time, I tell everyone: ‘There’s no way you’re going to work for me for life. No bloody way.’ But once you’ve got the skills set and you want to start a business or go somewhere else, I’ll be more than happy to assist.

“Employers now must think of things from that perspective … because at least you get to capture that person’s potential.”

It may be an uncommon concept, he admits, but then again, so is the way ERC works. In its contract with budding entrepreneurs — it helps to start up or accelerate at least 20 businesses each year — the company expects them to help others in the future.

“Of course, I can’t enforce it. But, we want to groom 10 or 15 very successful entrepreneurs and we want them to commit to us that they will groom another 10 or 15 more individually,” he said.

“It’s a legacy issue. The shareholders of this firm are all able to retire very comfortably. But we want to nurture the next generation of entrepreneurs.”

Of course, when it helps a business to succeed, ERC’s cash registers ring just as loud. Just last year, a quick service food company was on the verge of closing down because of a cash flow problem from over-expansion. ERC came in as consultants, bought a stake in the company and reformatted the food chain’s entire marketing plan.

“One brochure cost 11 cents. I cut it down to 2.5 cents. Postage for each brochure cost 22 cents. I asked them to do inserts in TODAY in very targeted zones around their outlets. The effectiveness impact doubled. I got them profitable in three weeks. Five months later, a public-listed company bought our stake,” he said.

Of course, with a success rate of about 55 per cent, ERC works with its share of entrepreneurs who never get their business plans off the ground.

But with its expansion into education, ERC now has alternatives at the ready.

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Article by: Derrick A Paulo

Today Succeed the business of learning
14 August 2006

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