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Mr Chan Tee Seng Ntuc First Campus Resized KCo-operative offers a Very Worthwhile Pursuit

For an entity that lost money on day one, after taking over 10 childcare centres operated by a government department in 1977, NTUC First Campus Co-operative has performed well beyond expectation to become Singapore’s biggest childcare chain.

Not one to rest on laurels, the man at the helm, the unassuming Mr Chan Tee Seng has a new determination - to almost double the current enrolment of 20,000 children in seven years’ time. The dream may sound lofty but judging from its track record, the co-operative has a good shot at hitting the mark.

An economist by training, Mr Chan joined NTUC in 1991 at the time when the labour movement saw the need to help moderate prices of healthcare essentials and food. He had the opportunities to serve in different co-operatives in different capacities before his current role as NTUC First Campus Co-operative CEO since 2009. His association with the Singapore National Co-operative Federation (SNCF) started in the late 1990s and for eight years in 2008 to 2016, he served as its Chairman.

What drives you?

The work I do has a clear purpose and noble social objective. That to me is worth striving for. The challenges are the same in every business - attracting the right talent, innovation, watching the bottom-line, and productivity. But in the co-operative, I have a very worthwhile pursuit - to give every child from any background a head start in life. Besides, I relish a challenge.

How would you describe your management style?

I believe in empowering people. People should be able to achieve goals when given a broad mandate and clear parameters. I am also quite a hands-on leader. I think it is important for managers and leaders to be in touch with the details of their business, besides having a grasp of the big picture.

You are also a caring employer. You have a staff strength of 3,000 and many of them are single ladies. You are concerned.

My principals and teachers are very committed to their work. The female dominated work environment limits the opportunities for them to meet people outside their existing social circle. I am open to ideas on how as an employer we can create opportunities for them to potentially meet their significant others.

Did you place any of your children in NTUC First Campus Co-operative?

My youngest daughter was enrolled in the Little Skool House at Ulu Pandan for three years. This was before I joined NTUC First Campus Co-operative. My other two children were in workplace childcare in the company where my wife worked.

How does the role of technology play in your sector?

I don’t foresee machines taking over the caregiver and teacher’s role. But we can certainly leverage on the power of data and technology to make work more productive; and communication between parents and teachers more effective. We have a partnership with Apple Inc. to offer a professional development programme to teach teachers how to use apps to enhance and enrich their teaching but never as a way to replace the physical interaction between the child and the teacher.

What is the number one challenge facing Co-operatives?

The challenge for any business is to provide a service to meet customers’ needs that is of better quality and lower price. As a co-operative, we don’t have strong shareholders demanding high returns. Because profit motivation is not as intense, there is less pressure and temptation to conduct less desirable business practices. And because of our value system, we can contribute towards a better social outcome in addition to serving the needs of our customers. We do have to make sure we operate efficiently and sustainably, and have the means to reinvest in the business.

 

Chan Tee Seng on 
Top 3 things Co-operatives Need to Focus On

 
1. Create a greater awareness

The public needs to know that there is a group of organisations that has intention to do good; and that prioritises benefits to members and society rather than profits. We have to demonstrate these through our deed, and our ability to deliver the goods. I hope that this will encourage policy makers to consider partnering with co-operatives as a means to deliver certain services to the public.

2. Continue to innovate

Innovation is the basis for long term sustainability. Just because we say we have good intentions is not enough. We need to deliver good outcomes. The DNA of innovators and do-gooders are not always the same. Businessmen/Innovators accept failure, take risk, calculate, save cost and look into having a commercial edge. To remain relevant, co-operatives need to combine business acumen with a do-gooder mentality, and continue to innovate.

3. Constant lookout for talents

I believe there are people who have the talents and who innately want to do something that will make a difference. I got this sense when I interviewed past batches of aspiring SNCF scholars. They are willing to devote to a particular cause. If we are able to harness this spirit, it can help us acquire a share of the needed talent. I believe talent is an important basis for innovation and our ability to compete.

 

Learning Tips

  • Innovation must be in the mindset
  • Be business-like and fulfil a social mission
  • Embrace talents

 


 

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