SME Spotlight

Happy family the way to keep staff: CEO of Julia Gabriel Education

Ms Walker has also had opportunities to grow within the organisation since 1997, having moved from an assistant teacher to senior teacher and subsequently, head of a centre.
Ms Walker has also had opportunities to grow within the organisation since 1997, having moved from an assistant teacher to senior teacher and subsequently, head of a centre.PHOTO: JULIA GABRIEL EDUCATION

Small and medium-sized enterprises sometimes find it hard to recruit and retain staff, but Julia Gabriel Education prides itself on its high staff retention. The firm's chief executive Fiona Walker tells Chong Koh Ping how its staff policy was developed.

Q When and how did Julia Gabriel Education start in Singapore?

A We celebrated our 25th year last year. Ms Julia Gabriel, our founder, started teaching speech and drama to her children's friends from the international school out of her house in Dunsfold Drive, near Braddell. Then it grew too big and she moved to a black-and-white bungalow in Halifax Road. I believe this was the first speech and drama centre in Singapore back then in 1990.

It grew organically from there to include teaching younger children from as young as six months old. Then we took over a pre-school next to us, and that was how our pre-school division - Chiltern House - got started more than 20 years ago.

Today, we have one speech and drama centre, five pre-schools and a dedicated centre that runs Mandarin language programmes here.

Other than our in-house classes, we also run speech and drama as well as communication-based programmes in some 30 schools - from pre-school, to primary and secondary schools. We also do teacher training for staff in other kindergartens.

Q Do you have a presence overseas?

A Yes, we have centres in Shanghai, Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur. And we will expand into Australia and Thailand this year. We're also taking our Mandarin programme to Australia.

Q You first joined the company in 1991, left in 1995 and rejoined in 1997. What made you rejoin and what has kept you with the company for nearly 20 years since?

A The company has an open-door policy and anyone who has left is welcome to come back. People are encouraged to share and brainstorm for ideas together, and we feel that anything is possible.

ACCOMMODATING ENVIRONMENT

I've a got a staff member who is married with four children. She had been working part time, full time, part time and full time again... We're flexible on that. Life is not flexible, so something has to bend. We have to be flexible or we'll lose them.

MS FIONA WALKER, chief executive of Julia Gabriel Education

From 1997 to now, I had the opportunity to grow within the organisation. I never felt bored or stagnant in my job. It's a dynamic and creative environment that I can grow with.

When I started off as an assistant teacher after finishing my Montessori diploma, I had no idea I'd still be here so many years later.

From an assistant teacher, I became a teacher, senior teacher and subsequently, head of a centre. I was also involved in setting up schools in Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur.

Q How does your company attract and retain staff?

A A lot of us have been here for a long time. (About 28 per cent of the staff have been with the company for at least 10 years.)

We don't view our people in terms of job descriptions or job titles. Each individual is seen as an evolving human being, and we cater to that.

We also encourage positive communication, where people learn and move on if there's a mistake committed. It's not a blaming environment. So people feel comfortable and not fearful working here.

We're focused on how to help our people develop and grow. At the end of each year, we'll spend time with them to talk about the roles for the next year, to find the best fit for everyone. If you have the right person for the right job, everything will be in a flow, and this contributes to our bottomline too.

Everyone working here must be happy. We're in the education business; it's important that we have a happy environment here.

Q What are some of the best practices Julia Gabriel Education implements?

A We don't always know what's going on outside. But we do know that quite a number of our teachers leave and come back. (About 6 per cent of Julia Gabriel Education's 250 to 280 staff are rejoiners.)

We give children of our staff big discounts when they join our programmes. And for staff who have worked here for more than 10 years, they get free tuition for their children at Chiltern House. If the classes are full, they get first priority on the waiting list. We've got to take care of the family.

The majority of our staff are women and mothers. So they can choose to work full-time, part-time or even leave for a while.

I've a got a staff member who is married with four children. She had been working part-time, then full time, back to part time and full time again.

And she was a senior teacher, then not a senior teacher and then a curriculum writer, and so on. We're flexible on that. Life is not flexible, so something has to bend. We have to be flexible or we'll lose them.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 17, 2016, with the headline 'Happy family the way to keep staff'. Print Edition | Subscribe