ENTREPRENEURSHIP WITH RESILIENCE

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Delane Lim (above), the founder and group chief executive officer of youth-leadership training company Agape Group Holdings, has fractured his spine, undergone a heart by-pass and been investigated by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) – and he is not even 30 yet. The spunky 27-year-old just picks himself up – along with life lessons – after each trial.

DELANE LIM: I started out selling Christmas cards when I was in Primary 5. The following year, I switched to selling perfume because I needed money to go bowling. I loved bowling and became a bowling coach at 15 to cover my daily expenses. That was when I stopped taking pocket money from my parents. It was also the time when I went adrift and my grades suffered quite badly.

Then the Christian ministry Singapore Youth for Christ found me along the street outside my school, and mentored and counselled me. I joined the ministry. In my 18 months there, I found my passion for youth and education. I introduced bowling coaching into the ministry and was involved in rock climbing, outdoor education and character-building.

At 21, I fell and broke my spine. After my operation, I thought: “Am I going to be a bowling coach the rest of my life?” That’s when I decided to go into business. I started off trying to make bowling a business, and went into partnership with a group of friends. Eventually, I realised that it was no longer my cup of tea, and we split the business.

After that, I got into running team- and leadership-building camps. At the time, I had two staff – myself and a part-timer. Each time we had a camp, we struggled with manpower. This was in 2005 to 2006. In 2007, I was diagnosed with heart disease and my liver wasn’t functioning. At that time, I wasn’t medically covered so I had to work doubly hard.

Although we were passionate about youth and training and had good clients who retained our services, the business really wasn’t sustainable, and we had come to a crossroads. We asked ourselves: “Why are we doing this? Do we want to be a million-dollar business? Are we doing this to make sure we’re employed or is it a calling?”

We decided we needed good cash flow to sustain what we loved doing. It was then that we undertook a lot of consultancy work. It was tiring, but it was where the main money was, and we needed to have enough to pay the staff.

The good thing is that in the last four to five years, we have branded and created a niche for ourselves among schools. Today, schools know us as a tobacco-free training company – all staff and trainers we hire are either non-smokers or ex-smokers. Because we are in the education and character-building industry, we wanted to set this precedent.

It wasn’t easy doing it. The mandate to hire only non-smokers or former smokers was made in 2010 – in an industry in which 80-90 per cent of instructors and trainers are smokers. At the time, we had eight staff. We gave them six months to quit smoking. Half of them left. Everyone in the industry laughed at us, and asked how long the company would survive without trainers with a smoking habit.
Now, we are proud to say that we are 100 per cent tobacco-free.

In terms of experiential learning and character building, we are an industry leader. When people think of camps, they think of activities such as rock wall climbing, but our camps offer training in life skills. It is a gap that we have identified in the market.
In this business, you need to be adaptable to change. We normally take our cue from the Ministry of Education (MOE). Even if you don’t like it, you need to see what the government and the audiences want.

I know of training companies that are dying because they haven’t changed. There are so many companies doing “Amazing Race”. That was a niche for us two to three years ago, but we’ve stopped doing that, and gone instead into culture and heritage because that’s the direction that the government is headed.

We’ve also branded ourselves as organisers of conferences and workshops that young people want to attend. Our first conference in 2008 had an audience of 120; last July, 769 people were at the AG-SIM International Youth Leaders’ Summit; this year, we’re hoping for 1,000 attendees at the “Be Local, Be Global” conference.

One of the challenges that we face is staff retention. Staff leave to set up their own company, becoming our competitors. One of my ex-employees took away our intellectual property – soft copies of our training materials and manuals – and even my CV, which was used to pitch for clients after my name was removed. They’re young, so we didn’t want to file a legal suit, but these players are hurting the industry. 2010 was our worst year. I was ill, we were short on manpower and we had debts to clear because we weren’t prudent in the way that we spent our money. Then in December, I was called up by the CPIB.

(This was over an investigation into Charles Surin, then principal of Hai Sing Catholic School who was being probed for alleged irregularities in procurement procedures and allegations of bullying and coercion. The CPIB also opened investigations into Mr Lim, then a resident consultant at Hai Sing on business excellence and the service provider of its youth-training programmes. CPIB officers asked Mr Lim whether he knew the bid prices submitted by suppliers for projects and whether he influenced Mr Surin into awarding him contracts. The year-long probe cleared both of them of wrongdoing. Mr Surin is now an assistant director at MOE.)

In my view, the case arose because of jealousy and competition. Internally, schools have their own politics. Two of the management staff weren’t happy with the principal, but I happened to be a consultant at the school, and because of our working relationship, we became friends. Our friendship started only after the completion of a major youth training programme. When I was called up (by the CPIB) at 5.30am, I was confused and afraid. But then I asked myself: “Is there anything I want to hide? If there’s nothing, just tell them the truth.”

The CPIB officers asked me: “Is there a conflict of interest? Did the principal have any intention of investing in your business?” My statements to them were consistent. I told them that the principal would have no interest in running a business because he is comfortable being a civil servant. Secondly, he was student-centric – and that quality was the consideration, not price. Thirdly, he was above board.

Anytime there is a tender, we don’t call each other till it closes. We wouldn’t even meet each other because we want to be professional in the way that we do things. Even when we meet on Sundays for meals, it’s all Dutch. We always keep our own receipts; this is something entrepreneurs must learn to do.

When you deal with the government, make sure you’re in the clear – even for a meal or cup of coffee. Although it may cost 70 cents, it’s good to not pay for your client – and you should make that clear from the start. If the client wants to take advantage of you, then you know it’s not a client that you should keep.

Thankfully for us that investigation didn’t affect our business.

Recently we implemented a new programme in the company, where we hire youths who are ex-convicts. It’s a very new programme, and we currently have just one such employee. He’s 20 years old and when he came for the interview his arms and face were full of tattoos. He’s also a heavy smoker. I hesitated to consider him for a career at Agape as we are a tobacco-free organisation. But as I spoke to him, I began revisiting in my mind Agape’s social mission on youth outreach, and I decided to give him a chance to be able to integrate back into society.

But because he smokes, I decided not to place him as a trainer, but as support staff. In time to come, I believe he will kick his habit and be positively influenced by his mentors at Agape. He has also assured me that he will quit smoking when he starts working with us. Hopefully one day, he will be able to tell his life story to youths at risk. These youths needs a second chance, and if we don’t give it to them, who would? We are willing and prepared to give this guy a second chance and I hope my clients, especially the schools, would too. I don’t know if there will be a backlash. We shall see.

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