SME Spotlight

Music school with the right pitch

Impressed audience members started asking for Mr Lawrence Holmefjord- Sarabi (left) to teach their children and that inspired the birth of Aureus. His brother Julius adds business muscle to the business.
Impressed audience members started asking for Mr Lawrence Holmefjord- Sarabi (left) to teach their children and that inspired the birth of Aureus. His brother Julius adds business muscle to the business.ST PHOTO: ALICIA CHAN

Focus on human capital helps brothers grow their business in a highly competitive environment

A business lives and dies by its staff. This is a golden tenet for many successful organisations and lies at the core of music academy Aureus Academy's philosophy as it keeps hitting the high notes of strong growth in Singapore.

Formed by brothers Lawrence and Julius Holmefjord-Sarabi in September 2013, Aureus - which provides piano, violin, guitar and vocal lessons - has quickly established itself as a notable brand in the crowded music education scene.

In just two years, Aureus has grown into a network of four centres, including the latest which opened at 112 Katong this month.

EYE ON EXPANSION

When we started, we thought there was a possibility that we could thrive but we hadn't imagined coming this far. Now that we have, we want to grow a much larger presence in Singapore and, eventually, overseas.

MR LAWRENCE HOLMEFJORD-SARABI

The academy now trains more than 1,000 students - 10 times its starting numbers.

The main driving force behind this remarkable expansion is Aureus' full-time and highly qualified teachers.

"Our faculty has combined 40 bachelor's or master's degree holders and even one doctor of musical arts degree - all proven performers who had to pass a performance test during their interviews.

"I don't think there are many academies out there that can say they have this many tertiary-qualified teachers," Mr Lawrence Holmefjord-Sarabi, 24, told The Straits Times.

The older of the Hawaiian-born brothers, he would know the value of being tutored by dedicated and seasoned performers, having spent his teenage years training as a concert pianist under notable musicians, including Dr John Robert Ringgold, himself a student of Austrian classicist Artur Schnabel.

Today, the alumnus of National University of Singapore's Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music is a rising star in international tours and competitions.

Impressed audience members started asking him to teach their children and that inspired the birth of Aureus.

Within his academy, he intends for his students to also be part of a proud lineage.

"I was fortunate to have a very good teacher who taught me the true value of someone dedicating his whole life to learning and performing music.

"To reach that level of musical performance, you have to have dedicated a large proportion of your time and life to music. For most of our teachers, music has been part of their life since they were children. They understand the hard work and passion that makes a great musician," he said.

Brother Julius, 23, also sees the business value in having dedicated teaching staff.

Complementing Lawrence's artistic talents, the younger brother adds business muscle to Aureus. By the age of 21, he was already a tested entrepreneur with experience in apparel and IT start-ups in the United States.

Given Aureus' focus on human capital, almost all of its teachers are full-time employees, also a rarity in an industry where schools often rely on part-time teachers, Julius said.

"In our first year of business, we quickly found out that operating with part-time teachers really isn't a model for success. We have to have full-time teachers," he said.

This led to higher staff costs, accounting for about half of Aureus' overall expenditure, but he stressed that the business model is successful. "Our students love that their teachers are committed and are more flexible with time slots because they are full-time."

As Aureus continues to grow, both brothers know they have an attractive business proposition that can stand out from the music education industry despite the huge number of competitors. Singapore has about 120 music schools, Aureus' own survey found.

The company's potential was not lost on local investors. Last year, it received funding of a seven-figure sum from a group of investors, some of who were parents of the academy's students. This helped ensure further growth.

Said Julius: "I remember sitting at our front desk when this lady came up to me and asked whether we needed funding. I was very surprised, because normally parents come to me asking to reschedule time slots instead of offering money."

Said Lawrence: "At the time, we weren't quite sure whether we were ready for further expansion, but eventually we decided to take the risk. With the investment funding, we were able to go from having just one school, with around 250 students, to the size we are today."

The journey so far has been a pleasant surprise for the brothers, and they are confident that Aureus still has much untapped potential.

Said Lawrence: "When we started, we thought there was a possibility that we could thrive, but we hadn't imagined coming this far. Now that we have, we want to grow a much larger presence in Singapore and, eventually, overseas. We are interested in Hong Kong, Indonesia and Malaysia."

But he noted that Aureus will not sacrifice quality for the sake of growth, adding that franchising is an option that the academy will almost certainly not consider.

Julius agreed, stressing there is still ample room for Aureus to grow and enhance its service quality just within the domestic market.

"Our research showed that there are some 845,000 children in Singapore, so the market is not as niche and saturated as it looks.

"Before we go anywhere, we want to build a household name in Singapore so that when people think of music education, Aureus is one of the first names that comes to mind."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 28, 2015, with the headline 'Music school with the right pitch'. Print Edition | Subscribe