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He traded hedge fund job for pre-school business

Mr Ng Yi Xian, seen here at the EtonHouse school in Thomson Lane, says the challenge now is how to take on a more regional role while looking after the Singapore operations. EtonHouse now has some 100 schools in 12 countries with 12,000 students.
Mr Ng Yi Xian, seen here at the EtonHouse school in Thomson Lane, says the challenge now is how to take on a more regional role while looking after the Singapore operations. EtonHouse now has some 100 schools in 12 countries with 12,000 students.ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

EtonHouse co-founder's son aims to shape future through education

Pre-school operator EtonHouse International Education Group executive director Ng Yi Xian had no qualms leaving a six-figure annual salary hedge fund job in Boston to prepare to take over his family's business in Singapore.

Mr Ng, 32, had been working at North Run Capital in Boston, and before that, Credit Suisse in New York, when a minor accident involving his mother, Mrs Ng Gim Choo, co-founder of EtonHouse, triggered a bout of soul searching and his move back home.

"If you make $4 million in one day, what does it really mean? Sure I felt great, but it's not as if I had made a difference. I had to consider what has more meaning - continue doing what I was doing, or continuing my family's legacy and shaping the future through education," he said.

Joining the family business was a no-brainer for Mr Ng, whose mother and her brother, Mr Jimmy Oh, founded and helped grow EtonHouse from just one school in Singapore in 1995 to about 100 schools in 12 countries with 12,000 students. This includes 13 international pre-schools and one primary school with 3,500 pupils in Singapore, which Mr Ng manages, and 10 local pre-schools managed by his father, Mr Ng Hark Seng.

Mrs Ng and Mr Oh are in charge of EtonHouse schools in China and globally.

The idea for EtonHouse was born when Mrs Ng became a parent volunteer at a pre-school called Pembridge Hall in London.

MEANINGFUL WORK

If you make $4 million in one day, what does it really mean? Sure I felt great, but it's not as if I had made a difference. I had to consider what has more meaning - continue doing what I was doing, or continuing my family's legacy and shaping the future through education.

MR NG YI XIAN, pre-school operator EtonHouse International Education Group's executive director, on giving up a hedge fund job to join the family business.

"There, she saw how kids were respected, and the problem of speaking at children rather than to them. She wanted to build an environment where children's voices were respected," Mr Ng said.

Today, the group's turnover has been growing at an average rate of nearly 20 per cent year on year over the last five years, and it has added new brands including E-Bridge pre-schools under a scheme by the Ministry of Social and Family Development. Last year, EtonHouse Group launched Middleton International school, an affordable education option for expatriate families.

As the executive director and a board member of EtonHouse, Mr Ng advises the group on legal, IT, brand, finance and business development.

After graduating with a Bachelor of Science in commerce from the University of Virginia, he went on to intern at Credit Suisse during the height of the sub-prime mortgage crisis when most investment banks were cutting back on recruitment.

"The investment bank analyst class I joined was half the size of the normal class. Because of the crisis, they even gave options where we could volunteer at charities and get paid a quarter of our salary," he said. Fortunately, the economy recovered, and he began working full-time for the firm in August 2009.

But another problem arose. Because the investment banks had under-hired, it was normal for an analyst to work 100-plus hours a week. "During my worst week, I worked 130 hours. There were nights where the only rest I got was a one-hour nap beneath my desk, or in the prayer room at Credit Suisse's basement, and a quick shower in the gym."

Mr Ng came home after he realised his family business needed him. "I'd spent several years building a career in finance for myself, but coming back was a decision I felt I had to make. It was a calling."

His background in finance helped prepare him for the challenges of running a family business. "We are no longer an SME (small and medium-sized enterprise) in size. We are going to hit $100 million revenue annually because of our expansion in Singapore and China. Now, we have to spend a lot of time reorganising the business as a regional MNC, upscaling our accounting and HR processes," he said.

Succession planning is also on the cards. "Every family business needs to find its own rhythm... Succession planning is something few want to talk about because no one wants to talk about death. But my mum and uncle are quite rational about it. My challenge now is how to take on a more regional role, while taking care of the Singapore operations," he said.

In China, EtonHouse set up its first school in Suzhou in 2003, and today has 30 schools in 18 cities there. "China is the future. The Singapore brand is respected in China and Chinese parents are more open to best practices in progressive education probably because the country is growing so fast," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 23, 2017, with the headline 'He traded hedge fund job for pre-school business'. Print Edition | Subscribe