Entrepreneur of the Week: Adelaine Foo

Image from:  EMMAGEM

Image from: EMMAGEM

For a woman who has little, if not absolutely no knowledge at all about cars and how they run, Adelaine Foo herself is unsure how she ended up founding and running the prestigious, The Otomotif College (TOC), that is breathing new life into the automotive industry, one technician at a time. What she does know, however, is that she wants new respect and recognition for every automotive technician in the country and she hopes to achieve that by tackling the cause at its root — by means of education. We took the opportunity to speak to Adelaine about what it took to build and run one of the first automotive college in the country and how tough a job that entails being a woman running what most construe  as a man’s field.

Image from:  EMMAGEM

Image from: EMMAGEM

Share with us how did you start TOC?

I had absolutely no clue about cars so it wasn’t a life-long passion thing I had for cars. But I’ve always wanted to teach. I’ve always wanted to work in a school. This opportunity cropped up when an investor came here with the idea to start up a branch of an automotive school from the UK. They offered me an opportunity to teach in it and I jumped at the chance.

After a year of groundwork of market research (I was included in the small team that carried out that research) they decided to not go ahead with the idea. They said it didn’t look like a good prospect. I was disappointed! After all that work? What do I do now? Get another job and go through the whole application process again?

So I thought I’d do it myself. Before this it was another brand altogether but I decided to brand it after my own and made the bold decision to start TOC. I got three investors and three shareholders to put in some money. I didn’t know how much we’d need. After some referral from the original school, we were told we can start it with a sum of RM5million so that was how much we came up with for it. I was so naïve – I had thought we just needed some tools, a couple cars, and a few engines and we’re good to go. That was not true at all.

After pumping in all RM5million, it was not enough. Unfortunately we’ve already spent so much, we had to find a way to make it work. That was in 2004 and we just had to make it work. I guess we found a way to still be here today.

We had no students for the entire first year. It was just making ends meet, renting out the place to many other smaller events. It cost us over RM20,000 a month for rental alone. To cover costs in between those months, we rented our space out to small wholesale businesses. We did all sorts of things to stay afloat, even I can’t remember them all now.

Finally, we got some traction with an automotive company and that really helped us take off.

What are some of the more rewarding parts about doing what you do?

It’s the joy of seeing your students, who love cars, but have always been looked down upon, excel at something they love that makes it all worthwhile. You got to wonder why society look down on mechanics so much – they’re car doctors! You don’t look down on doctors, you pay your doctors incredibly wall, so why are motor technicians treated so differently?

Over the years, when parents come for graduation ceremonies and we see the look on their faces and receive their thanks for providing a proper school for their children to learn a proper skill, it just makes our day. That’s our biggest reward, I would say.

Going into the education industry is not for making money.

What were some of the toughest aspects when it came to building the TOC brand and gaining that traction you mentioned?

It was definitely trying to convince stakeholders what we were doing. The Ministry of Education thought we were nuts. They were telling us we’re applying at the wrong department. Everyone was just asking us why would you want to list automotive under a higher education listing. They think of it more as a vocational skill. They think you don’t need to study for a proper degree for it.

Industry partners themselves were highly sceptical. A lot of car companies are reluctant to hire technicians with degrees. They’re more expensive to pay, as compared to those technicians who come off the street and receive just your basic training.

Parents themselves aren’t very supportive of this industry. If they had the money, most of them would rather invest in more academic courses. Basically the automotive field is still very much looked at as a low-skill trade that no one thinks is worth that much money and attention.

We faced challenges from all aspects. No one has ever said the automotive field is a good trade. It’s long hours of hard work for very little pay and appreciation. That’s what we’re trying to change.

It’s so looked down on, yet so needed. Who doesn’t drive a car in Malaysia? Even if you don’t own a car, you rely on public transport to get to places, which is also a motor vehicle. It also needs servicing. If you don’t start appreciating your technicians now, who’s going to fix your millions of cars and other motor vehicles in the country? You can’t get a machine or a computer to fix them, you still need that personal human touch to find out what’s wrong and fix it accordingly.

The mindset has to change and that’s our goal here. We want to make it a profession of choice, make it something people can be proud of. We’re not there yet, but things are definitely much better now as opposed to 10 years ago. 10 years ago, the idea isn’t even thought of, but now we’re seeing more and more students who genuinely love cars and that they do enroll with the support of their families. They come from good respectable backgrounds and are proud that they’re in this trade. They see a future in what they do and want to pursue that with us.

Image from:  EMMAGEM

Image from: EMMAGEM

How costly is it to run an automotive college?

We spend almost 6 figures for most of the equipment that you see back there and most of them have only about a three-year lifespan. We change them frequently, every three months. All the cars you see are all owned by the college, we have no sponsors. Our costs are very high. Most of our lecturers are expatriates so it costs money to bring them in too. We pay for their airfare, work permits, housing, family expenses. It’s not easy at all running a college like this.

People think we make a money – competitors are mushrooming everywhere because they think it’s good business – but it’s not true. Our shareholders have probably been in this 10 years, but they’ve not taken out a single cent of dividend. We just can’t, yet.

The Motorsports part also give it a little more glamour. Could it be the reason why society is more accepting now?

People only think so. It’s tough work. None of the trainers, lecturers, or students from the Motorsports team would go home earlier than midnight. Sometimes they work right through the night and I know because I’ve seen them. You have to have a lot of passion for it.

When it comes to glamour, only the driver gets it. When you go for races, you only know the driver. No one knows who the technicians are. The race lasts half an hour to an hour.  After that the drivers are free to go home but it’s the technicians who have to stay back and work on the car, repair what’s broken and return it in tip-top condition. They’re the ones who have to clean up and make sure everything gets brought back from the race site.

So I’m always with the technicians when we go for races – they’re the ones who do all the work. They don’t get any recognition at all. We always know who the drivers are, but we never find out the name of the technicians. It’s so unfair!

That’s what we’re fighting for. We want to fight for that respect for skilled technicians.

What are some of your future plans for TOC?

We are already in Australia, that’s our first international venture. We would like to have a TOC in every major city around the world. We have looked into China for many years now but we don’t know the country very well, so looking for the right partners is proving to be difficult. You also hear a lot of horror stories about China so we’re being very careful. I’m an extremely careful person, so we’re taking our time.

Is the TOC in Australia a franchise or a branch?

It’s a branch. We fully own it. A lot of the students there are part-time students. The Australian branch is run more according to the German and Australian style. It is more focused on dual-tech training, which means they’re more workshops. Over here, we don’t accept customer cars for service. All the learning and teaching  is done on our practice models. In Australia, we do.  We accept customer cars and we have teachers teaching the students with those cars, how to repair them and things.

Also, in Australia they have their own funding and teaching systems. Australia’s qualifications are different. It’s their own. It’s not a Malaysian qualification that we deliver in Australia, no. They have their own courses which we run via their own systems. So they have apprenticeship systems and such, which we don’t have here.

From your experience in this field, what do you think is in store for the Malaysian automotive industry?

That’s not our area, that’s the motor companies’ job, to come up with more powerful cars, and we just keep up with the technology. The more advanced the country gets as far as technology is concerned, we have to just keep up. Our job is to keep a very close relationship with the motor companies and every time they have a new engine coming out, we want to be the first to learn about it. Nowadays, there is this technology that helps save fuel aside from the hybrid technology. Some newer cars when you stop at the traffic light, the entire engine shuts down. It’s amazing what they come up with these days.

Is it difficult for you to be in this field as a woman?

Yes, and no.

To deal with external parties, it is easier for me to do so as a woman. Maybe it’s because men don’t see us as threats, so they are nicer to us and more likely to oblige. I can request for something and be just a little nicer about it and I usually get the guys to agree. That’s the good part about being a woman.

The hard part is handling my staff. As you can see, most of my students as well as staff are guys. I don’t have a single automotive female teacher yet. It can get tough especially if you have the male ego coming into play. They think as a woman, I don’t know anything about cars so they override my opinions and decisions. So from that angle, it can get difficult.

What are some tips and tricks you’ve learned over the years on how to overcome that, having been in this field for so long?

Honestly, I haven’t figured it out. I’ve never worked a day in my life outside of TOC. I graduated, I came back and I started this place. So I don’t know how corporate cultures work or anything.

But when I first started the company here, I came up with a style of my own. I wanted it to be an open type of company where you could wear jeans to work and have everyone as a friend. I’m not sure if it’s because Asians just aren’t used to it, but it backfired. They start thinking you’re a friend and disregard all lines of authority. They start to really treat you as just a friend, not a superior. They may sometimes shout at you and scream at you when there’s disagreement, there is no boss-staff relationship at all anymore. It just didn’t work when I started pushing and wanted results.

Then I decided to look at more traditional styles. It didn’t work either because you become slightly detached from what you do. You’re just ordering people around and there’s no heart anymore in what you do. I had a friend who came here one day and when I was taking him around to have a look at the place, he said that really moved me. “This place has a lot of heart”. The heart element is very important to me because at the end of the day we’re all working here not because of the money. We’re not all going to get rich. I don’t pay above market rate, I pay just at bare minimum, just enough for people to survive. So yea, if you want to work at TOC, it’s not because it will get you rich. If you want to stay, there has to be something else. Therefore that heart element for me was very important.

But how do you manage that kind of relationship where you’re a friend, but also a boss? I don’t know yet, I haven’t found that balance. I’ve been bouncing back and forth, experimenting my way through things. If I have worked outside for a couple of years, maybe I could have learned something , but I haven’t found the answer as we speak.

Everyone seems very polite here. Everyone’s very polite from the security guards right down to all your staff we’d had the chance to meet, which was excellent. What was your secret behind it?

I treat everyone as equals. I know everyone by their first name, from cleaners to our security guards to all the part-timers. I address everyone by their first name. I will scold any staff who address other people like, “that teh lady”. Everyone has a name and I think it’s only respectful to address someone by their given name.

The Golden Rule works and I continually tell people that if you want people to treat you nice, you treat people nice.

Image from:  EMMAGEM

Image from: EMMAGEM

What have you learned about yourself since being in this industry?

I’m a very safe person. I’ve always imagined myself as the sort if I was in a dark room, if I put my leg forward and I don’t touch solid ground, I won’t take that step. I’m that kind of safe. So I’m a lousy entrepreneur if you wanna think about that. I’ve always seen myself as a terrible business person. I can’t see business opportunities. I’m an operator, I know only how to work. When I first started this business, my dad gave me a book. It’s called “E-myth”. It speaks about how in life and in work, there is the technician, the manager and then there is the entrepreneur. Most people when they set up a bakery, for example, it’s because they love to bake. I fix cars therefore I should set up a workshop. It’s actually two different elements. If you continue to be a technician, you will never break through that ceiling to become an entrepreneur. So I’ve always seen myself as a technician. I like to do, I like being behind the scenes. Don’t ask me to go out front and make friends with people.

I’ve been appointed “The Busybody”, the Chief Entertainment Officer for bonding and hospitality for a small group of people. I had to come up with a game where we exchange gifts. We had to choose a cartoon character that represents ourselves.

I’m an Eeyore. The donkey from Winnie the Pooh. I’m a pessimist, I’m a loner, but I’m also very loyal.

I’ve always known myself as an Eeyore. After 10 years of working here, maybe I have other trades that I never knew about. I’m still learning and trying to develop that business side of me, trying to see if I have the ability to see the opportunity for business rather than just being a follower. Somehow, people do follow me and I never knew that would happen.

I’m still trying, but I think that’s one thing that I’ve learnt about myself, that maybe I’m not just an Eeyore.

Any word of advice for the future entrepreneur?

Every business is about the return of investment and yes it’s about the money, but they must find a deeper purpose than that. It cannot just be about the money. If you cannot find the purpose in your business other than to make money and be rich, you won’t make it. Your ultimate purpose must be really something you believe in. Like mine is to bring pride to all technicians and give them a better life.

Say, when you want to start a business whether it’s a bakery or what not, it’s not about just selling cakes. It’s about selling imagination, perhaps, to sell colour and bring back someone else’s childhood. What’s your purpose?

In every business, there will be ups and downs. When times are tough, you must have something that will help kick you off your bed and make you go to work. You must have something that will make you want to make it work so badly. If not, you’ll just sell the company away and wash your hands clean off it.

Do you have any personal quotes that you hold on to and live your life by?

I always believe in the Golden Rule. Treat others the same way you wish to be treated. This is worldwide, I don’t care if it’s your family, or how you treat your business associates, or how you treat your colleagues, your staff, your boss, everyone. Treat others exactly how you want to be treated.

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