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Diving instructor braves sea of red for higher cause

Jacki Ng
Jacki NgST PHOTO: JOYCE FANG

Owner sees Asia Dive Academy more as social enterprise to promote love for the ocean than a profit-making outfit

Scuba company Asia Dive Academy is still in the red after more than 10 years in business, but chief executive Jacki Ng is unfazed.

"Our sole purpose can't be driven by profit," he tells The Straits Times.

He concedes that it is an an unconventional approach for a businessman - but then again, the secondary school dropout and former gang member is an unconventional individual to begin with.

Asia Dive Academy, which generates annual revenue of $4 million to $6 million, still looks more like a start-up than a mature small business. And he considers it "a social enterprise, more than a commercial activity".

Still, Mr Ng, 41, hastens to add that this is "not because diving can't make money". "But making money actually comes second for us," he says. "The ability to change someone's perspective, to care for the environment - that's what our main goal is."

Singapore may not seem like a natural harbour for the business, given its lack of suitable dive spots. "It's like starting a diving business in the desert," he jokes.

NOT JUST FOR THE MONEY

Making money actually comes second for us. The ability to change someone's perspective, to care for the environment - that's what our main goal is.

MR JACKI NG, Asia Dive Academy chief executive.

But diving threw him a lifeline when he was suffering from depression in his younger days - a blessing he wants to share with others.

"I realised that I could make an impact when I told people to respect the ocean in a particular way," says Mr Ng, who compares venturing underwater with going to space.

Of his first dive at the age of 24, at Dayang Island off the Johor coast, he says: "You suddenly realise that this thing in my mouth is the most important thing. The dependency makes you feel vulnerable."

Mr Ng has his finger in many pies - from dive shops to a motorcycle dealership - but became the owner of the scuba school only reluctantly in 2010, after a partner backed out of the project at the last minute.

He found himself the boss of a one-man show, with a $10,000 loan in hand.

"On paper, I'm not very employable. I only have a PSLE certificate," Mr Ng says with a chuckle.

PASSION BEFORE PROFIT

If we do things right, I think the profit will follow.

MR NG

Then he adds bluntly: "When you're put in that situation, you either die or you innovate."

Asia Dive Academy may have started in choppy waters, but it has since grown beyond selling equipment and offering diving instruction.

Besides business consultancy services for the diving industry, the company also has a travel arm that includes a boutique resort in Bali.

With a headcount of roughly 80, the company counts Malaysia, Indonesia and China as key growth markets, with operations in Thailand and the Philippines as well.

It remains based here, Mr Ng says, because "we have good people and geographically, we're connected to the top destinations in the world".

He dreams of growing the business to a point where all employees are comfortable diving - a goal that includes having resorts where "our chef or the lady who's doing the housekeeping is also an instructor".

MORE THAN A JOB

I realised the best approach to conservation is to put a livelihood to it. If you can't see corals, you won't know why you want to protect them. We want to have businesses... where we hire locals, but our main goal is not for them to just do laundry or housekeeping or cook for us. We want them to become divers.

MR NG

This would help to promote environmentally friendly behaviour in places where economic needs often take priority, he says.

"I realised the best approach to conservation is to put a livelihood to it. If you can't see corals, you won't know why you want to protect them.

"We want to have businesses... where we hire locals, but our main goal is not for them to just do laundry or housekeeping or cook for us. We want them to become divers."

At the end of the day, Mr Ng says, business "should be driven by meaning larger than profit - larger than ourselves".

"If we do things right, I think the profit will follow."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 30, 2017, with the headline 'Diving instructor braves sea of red for higher cause'. Print Edition | Subscribe