#Entrepreneur* Adelaine Foo, Founder and CEO, The Otomotif College

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You hold a Master’s in Chinese opera from UCLA. Why did you choose that course and how did it lead you to start an automotive college?I’m Malaysian Chinese, but grew up not speaking Mandarin. I didn’t realise it would be a problem until I studied in the US and discovered that so many kwailo could speak better Mandarin then I ever could. I felt very sorry for myself for being Chinese but not in touch with my heritage, which is why I took up East Asian studies to learn the language and culture through the arts. I gravitated towards Chinese opera as my research topic because I’ve always loved singing.

Throughout my university days I also worked as a tutor – mostly in language and maths. It was then that I realised my love for teaching. So when I returned I applied for jobs with schools but was never called for interviews, probably due to lack of experience and because my degree didn’t include education.

It was around then that I had the opportunity to set up this college with some partners. Although the partnership fell apart in the end, we had been doing research and studies for over a year. When the decision came to drop out or do it, I figured, why not? So I ended up doing this! It was 2004, I was 26, had no fears and thought it’d be so easy!But why the automotive industry?There’s a market for it. In Malaysia, everyone drives cars and needs technicians. It was the sort of market or industry to target.

Tell us more about this partnership. Who were your partners and what happened when the partnership fell through?They were a UK-based college which was initially interested in setting up a foreign campus in Malaysia but was forced to reverse that decision due to legislative issues and a change in management. So then, we [Foo herself and local partners] had to decide whether we still wanted to start a school or go back on the job market. But I was so confident, I thought, ‘Yes, I can do it! It’s simple, I think I know it well enough.’ So I gathered some investors, raised RM5 million and learnt just how wrong I was!Did you run into problems?After the first few months, I realised that if I had known what I was getting myself into, I’d never have done it [started the college] because it was very difficult. I had no management training, no clue how to run a company... I thought, I wanted to teach so I can set up a school. But I knew nothing about the education system or legislation.

But my partners and I had already invested the RM5 million so I could not back out. There were many nights spent crying and begging forhelp, but I persevered.

One of our biggest problems when we started was that it took 16 months for us to obtain a licence from the Ministry of Higher Education to issue a diploma. Until it came through, we had to survive by doing short courses, just one-day classes teaching people how to drive their car or take care of it. We lived month to month, kept our headcount very low.

But you learn. I learnt from every mistake, every bad hire, and hoped to do better the next time. If you asked me back then whether I’d do it all over again, I would have said no. But not today, especially after seeing our first batch of graduates. Circumstances have changed –we’ve graduated three batches since and started to be known in the industry – workshops are now depending on us as a source of talent.

Where did the RM5 million in start-up capital come from?Well, there were four of us — an ex-politician, a university professor, a foreign partner and me.

You started TOC without much experience. Did you benchmark TOC against other colleges elsewhere?We based it on the UK model, but it’s a different industry there. In the UK, every motor company will share their manuals and products withthe colleges. The automotive companies would then benefit from technicians trained in maintaining their cars. In Malaysia, it’s still quite closed as the firms are quite private so we had to tweak it along the way. Today it’s based on UK and German standards because Mercedes and BMWs are among the best cars in the world – though the Italians may disagree.How in demand are your students?When our first batch graduated, their starting pay was just RM600. But now, our graduating students command salaries as high as RM2,400! Our students graduate with experience and skills that no book can teach you. And this is the same automotive technician profession that is looked down upon by many. After eight years, the industry is finally changing – the higher starting pay proves our students are valued.So you think TOC is only scratching the surface of the market for automotive education?I think so. I think our students will be able to fulfil the demands of other markets – most countries lack motor technicians. Right now, we’re only offering basic automotive technology studies up to diploma level. We’ve not even talked about engineering, management degrees, master’s or doctorates... and then within the automotive industry, there are so many more specialisations – heavy vehicle, body and paint, upholstery... the list goes on!

What are your targets for 2011 and what plans do you have in place to achieve this?I hope to achieve a revenue figure of RM1.5 million this year. One of the ways we plan to achieve this is to provide short courses that will update or provide new skills to our alumni and even to car enthusiasts. The short courses range from very basic ones for car owners who don’t know anything to technicians looking for advanced classes. We’re planning to launch it after Chinese New Year.

Article source from: TheEdge