16 Jan 16
【香港電台】A+專才 專訪Samuel ChanSamuel: I studied in the UK from primary school, and I actually went on to finish secondary school, university and postgraduate studies in Britain. I like the lifestyle there and boarding school brought me so much fun. This is the main reason why I got BSL off the ground.
Ka Ming: What were the reasons explaining your decision to study in the UK?
Samuel: Life in the UK had a positive influence on me in so many ways. Before heading to the UK, I was a typical Hong Kong student; very shy and I did not know how to communicate with others. My academic results were not good. My parents decided almost spontaneously to send me to the UK. I became a more open and grounded person after studying there. In my opinion, the most important factor of learning is fulfilling your own interests. I learned to love going to school because I had these interests and I was hungry for knowledge. In fact, if you enjoy the process of learning, you will do well at school.
Ka Ming: Can you describe school life in the UK?
Samuel: It’s quite special to study in the UK. In Hong Kong, all students seem to be working furiously in preparation for the public examinations, but in the UK, lessons have to end on time. After 4pm, there is a sport section. Though students have quite a tight timetable, it is necessary to maintain a work-life balance. UK boarding schools have three terms per year during which we have activities which Asian schools won’t spend much time developing, such as Rugby, Hockey and Cricket. Have you read Harry Potter?
Ka Ming: Of course yes.
Samuel: Students are separated into different Houses and there are many Inter-House competitions. This format benefits the students who do not have outstanding sport or music skills - just like me - and the competitions provide opportunities to take part and we can join in the categories that we are not good at. It is fun to take part in these competitions as you can learn lots of new things and there is time to play with your friends. You have to study on your own but you can’t play ball games alone; playing sports is as fun as going on trips - we played 24/7. Living in the UK is more satisfying than living in Hong Kong when it comes to the question of learning. In Hong Kong, the teaching environment is examination-centered, but in the UK interaction is at the heart of everything, possibly due to the small classes - seven students in a classroom, at most 15. Teachers can devote more attention to each individual, useful if students do not understand or they are falling behind with a task, they will be more willing to raise questions unlike when they are in a classroom with 30 other pupils. In this situation, you are afraid that you may disturb the teaching process.
Ka Ming: You may not dare to do that with such class sizes.
Samuel: Yes. And UK schools pay more attention to practical skills and observation. For example, Geography teachers may organize short visits to nearby rivers and students would have the chance to touch sand and stones.Through practice, touch and learning-by-doing, the learning process is simplified. In addition, it is more likely that students will become passionate about a subject so I believe there will be an improvement in regular classwork
Ka Ming: You did not establish BSL once you returned to Hong Kong, right?
Samuel: No, I did not. I entered this industry by writing some articles to share experiences which turned out to be a hit. I also helped parents to solve their children’s problems. Besides, I felt honored to sell “Education” in its brightest form. I studied Economics in the UK; most of my friends became bankers or threw themselves into financial industries, with Hong Kong being a financial center. However, I strongly believe that if you are going to market something, you must have total trust in the product. For me, it is my varied experiences with UK boarding schools. From my point of view, I can revel in and develop this industry as parents cannot get sufficient information about UK schools from existing agencies. By coincidence, I founded Britannia StudyLink.
Ka Ming: I heard that you have been working in Mainland China?
Samuel: While I was teaching at an international school in Yunnan, the school promoted me to the International Department to build relations with UK schools after the administrative department realised that I was familiar with British education and society issues. After working in the International Department, I learnt that Asian students were demanded by UK schools and that Asian schools need to know more about the education in Britain. I then returned to Hong Kong, and met my first mentor, Mr Cheung Man Ban. Mr. Cheung is a columnist - Cheung Man Ban is his pen-name - while his real name is Lui Hong. Mr. Lui views education in a unique way and I really admire this. We got to know each other over tea and lunch. We did not totally trust one another at the beginning, especially when we were talking about organizing a talk without any help from other parties. I was wondering if we could do that with only a 300-400 square foot office. It turned out that he was right as it only took three to four months to go from one parent to what felt like thousands. It felt like waiting to see a doctor - many parents were queuing to see us. Since other agencies only asked children to take the relevant exams and provided parents with the names of schools, it was very difficult to extract information from the agencies. If you wanted more information, you had to return later. In fact, there was not enough basic information for parents; they did not know the details about the schools which they were keen on. Urban schools and rural schools have wholly dissimilar environments. Schools in different districts are not the same either. Parents also need to know which type of school is suitable for children - co-education or single-sex. They should consider the percentage of Chinese students there too. However, the majority of parents were making school choices based on League Tables published in the media. As a result, we set out to provide lots of information to them and that’s the reason why our popularity has rocketed. By chance, we moved to Causeway Bay from Wan Chai and set up a branch office, and we are going to develop our industry in Mainland China next year.
Ka Ming: How did you build links with UK schools?
Samuel: I spent almost a year in UK in order to do that. As I grew up in England, school principals, academic teachers and I seemed to be thinking with the same mind. I understand that they do not like recruiting students from Hong Kong education fairs since they do not have enough time to get to know the students. Actually, the principals are managing hundreds of students in the UK; it is unreasonable to ask them to attend a fair and promote their schools. Why do they need to lower their standards? If BSL can be a kind of bridge between families and UK schools, schools will be willing to co-operate with us, but the prerequisite is for us to prove that we are familiar with the British education system. Fortunately, there are only a few people in this category who studied in the UK from the age of nine right up to postgrad level. Everything seemed to fall into place - in the right place, at the right time, that’s it.
Ka Ming: Can you tell me about some of the challenges or difficulties you encountered when starting the business?
Samuel: Well, there were plenty of challenges. In fact, visiting schools at the beginning was all in vain. Many schools questioned our abilities, and how I am so young. In practical terms, we could not offer sufficient students to them. Initially, five out of ten schools would refuse our conditions. Besides, we naturally made some mistakes as we did not have any experience in running a company. I recognised that it is crucial to recognise, and then rectify, your mistakes - which is a huge leap forward. For instance, at first I thought that UK schools were short of Hong Kong students. I just needed to tell them how many students I could offer each year. However, the truth is quite opposite. Some schools take in 8-10 Hong Kong students every year. They do not consider the quantity but the qualities and abilities of each student. If you cannot fulfill their terms, they won’t sign a contract with you. This is the first challenge, and it can be solved from two different angles. First of all we have to understand all parties’ needs. For example, if a school asks for a girl who is good at music and, coincidentally, we have a musical girl in our database, then we can match the pupil with the school. Another method is accommodating a school’s flexible demands. We can set up a portfolio and send it to the schools, as they have to take in students from other regions. After all, we do not want to occupy the school admin’s inbox, so a portfolio is better for us. In conclusion, saying the right things at the right time is the key to success.
Ka Ming: Any problems in recent years?
Samuel: I am sure that if I share the problems then the radio program would end. Staffing is an intriguing issue for new companies. I am too young to manage my team. I am a soft-hearted person who only knows how to employ someone but not really how to fire an employee. Some may say that it sounds great when your boss doesn’t dismiss subordinates, but in fact it’s not that good. I once had a colleague who worked for us for two months but I came to realise that she was not suitable for this line of work. It wasn’t related to her ability - she is a smart girl and very hardworking, but she could not speak fluent Cantonese. Knowledge of the local language is vital, particularly in consultancy. At the outset I thought that it did not matter, as long as the company had something for her to do, then everything would be okay. Well, it wasn’t quite like that. Because we were working as a team, some colleagues were diligent and worked overtime until 8 or 9 pm on a voluntary basis. However, this girl could not do anything even if she wanted to help. Sometimes she just sat in her chair and had nothing to do after 4 or 5 pm, which is rather imbalanced. This case was a real challenge at that time. As I did not solve the problem immediately, there was a somewhat unhappy ending for all concerned. Although she decided to resign and the issue was settled peacefully, my team devoted a lot of time and energy to the matter. I can only say that everything is about learning.
Ka Ming: Samuel frequently writes newspaper columns and informs readers about matters related to education. Would you mind giving a crash course to the listeners out there?
Samuel: Sure. The first thing is relatively old-fashioned, you must understand you sons’ and daughters’ thoughts as every person is unique. In Hong Kong, you may just ask your friends which schools they attended in UK. If that school is good, then everything is done. Indeed, everyone has their own “right” school. There are thousands of schools in the UK. We should not make a decision based on the percentage of Chinese students in attendance or the school’s ranking in League Tables. Some parents want their children to learn English, and then send them to schools which do not have any Chinese pupils. In fact, an absence of Chinese students may indicate that there are some problems in that school. Parents have to think over the issue from different perspectives. Co-education or single-sex? Co-education school is a miniature of society; there are numerous ideas, and opposite sexes think in wholly different ways. Your children won’t face such pressures in a single-sex school. Girls can do vigorous exercise and perspire and there is no need to do make-up. Boys can show their innocent side as there are no girls around - no need to be so cool. On the other hand, there are some solid suggestions for parents, such as reading ISI (Independent School Inspectorate) and Oftsed reports. ISI is a report compiled by the Department of Education; it provides detailed information about a school, such as the number of boarders, and areas which comply with the Department’s standards and which do not . Perusing ISI reports is boring but it is essential to read them. Ofsted is something similar to ISI. Apart from these, Facebook is a big help if you want to find out more about the schools, as each school has its own Facebook page. Marketing officers will definitely say their school is the best, such as being a leader in terms of pastoral care, providing endless acres of playing fields, monitoring students and having a well-run tutor system. You can test these criteria by following posts on Facebook. Do many students go hiking and do exercise on weekends? Do they go bowling frequently? Or are there only a few international students around at weekends?
Ka Ming: What should we do after checking a school’s Facebook page?
Samuel: We need to be fast. You need to apply to some of the most prestigious schools two or three years before your enrolment due to the fact that more students are applying to UK schools. For Eton College, you need to take the UKiset examination before the age of ten and a half. If you miss it, it is impossible for you to get into Eton no matter how clever you are. Apart from Eton, many other well-known schools set their own requirements. It is better to check these requirements, admission deadlines and whether schools may ask children to travel to the UK for an interview.
Ka Ming: Samuel also encourages everybody to visit schools.
Samuel: Now it’s convenient to travel to Britain; it only takes you ten hours. The best time to visit UK is during the Lunar New Year Holiday, as UK students do not have holidays at that time and you can observe how the school functions. It is meaningless if you just talk to the principal. People should listen to the conversations between students at breaktime and find out whether they respect the teachers. Are their uniforms neat and tidy? Is the length of girls’ skirts appropriate? These elements show a school’s values and style. We were once students and we understood that some students at certain schools would wear short skirts, while students at other schools are naughty. Therefore, parents need to have a clear mind about their kids’ needs. If an urban school is suitable for them, don’t send them to rural single-sex schools; or in contrast, if your children are going through a rebellious phase, don’t let them study in London, Birmingham or other large metropolises.
Samuel: It is quite interesting, my student recommended me the song, 無盡,by Supper Moment. At first I thought that it’s a pop song which I could not understand, but after listening to the lyrics, I found it really meaningful. Apart from helping my students to get through DSE and A-Levels, this song helped me to relax when there were complications with work. There is no harm in listening to it.
Ka Ming: The song 無盡by Supper Moment is Samuel’s choice. Although BSL is a young company, it won The Hong Kong Emerging Service Brand Award last year. What are the secrets for success? What has Samuel done for his company to achieve what it has to date? Before listening to these stories, Samuel would like to share with us the differences in the business model between BSL and other more traditional agencies.
Samuel: It’s easier to find a job than it is to find a suitable school. Apart from newspapers and job fairs, there are many methods. However, when it comes to education agencies, advertising in or on buses and on the MTR seem to be the only measures, and the advertisements will only promote education fairs. This is a big hurdle we need to overcome. Parents will go to the largest agencies every year, and then go to the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center and take a leaflet from every school. They are used to this kind of phenomenon, maybe their siblings and fathers went to the UK in this way. What we need to do is increase the transparency of reaching out to parents. Just like there are more than 30 schools in a fair, why there is only one in your center? From our point of view, as there is only one school, you can talk to the principal in detail, have enough time to understand the school’s values and what it has to offer and also join the seminar. This is the best way to find a suitable school. But from the aspect of the market, this is wrong as there are many more schools present at the fair. The second problem relates to budget. I can pump all of our capital into one advertisement and promote for a day if I invited 30 schools to a single event. It’s easier to staff too as I just need to recruit many part-timers. However, we aim to give talks every week or invite alumni to share their experiences, which means we have to promote 365 days a year. So how do we deal with this and stay on top? I think it proves why BSL is a success. We are willing to suffer a loss, such as writing newspaper columns and articles. I wrote two articles a month at the beginning but now I need to hand in four articles each week. In fact, writing articles just like doing homework. I need to hand in four pieces of homework without direct returns as I can’t leave our contact number in the articles. However, it has helped to build the BSL brand, and I have accumulated many followers this way, especially parents who are interested in the company. Although the content of the articles is not directly related to BSL, for example I talked about TSA this week and informed readers about how to apply for US schools, I can educate the public. And there is something rewarding and worthwhile about writing columns; most readers of English-language newspapers are well-educated. They are demanding people and want to know more about the UK’s education system, details about schools and even make decisions about whether a column is suitable for their children to read. This is enough for us. Despite the voluntary work we do, many parents come to our center with basic knowledge about British schooling. This actually saves us time.
Ka Ming: Samuel is an advocate of UK education, but some people do not accept it.
Samuel: There are some downsides of a British education. It claims that studying in the UK allows for freedom. Well I admit it is a much freer system than Hong Kong’s, but the US has the highest degree of freedom. Most new innovations are suggested by the Americans, maybe because of a tendency to stick to tradition in the UK. UK education may nurture lots of Nobel Prize winners and famous literary writers. By the way, the UK is more suitable for Hong Kong students. Local students often choose to board in the UK. Most boarders in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand are international students, with only a few local students. What are the benefits of boarding? In fact, students can broaden their horizons outside the classroom. We should not push them too hard with the curriculum, and the influence of one’s peers is vital. Students can learn a great deal by living with foreign youngsters, such as communication skills. On the other hand, students can certainly build their determination. It is very cold in the winter in the UK, especially when it rains, and pupils need to wear rugby shirts made from very thin material when training and competing. This is the essence of boarding school and long may it remain. Boarding schools are not five-star hotels, students sleep on small bunk-beds, just like Hogwarts. It is somehow charming but can be uncomfortable. Students do build their levels of resolve under such conditions and schools in other countries are not able to replicate these worthwhile experiences.
Ka Ming: How do you treat your company’s position in the market?
Samuel: I knew that BSL’s market share was not high enough. We did well by taking on UKiset, securing around half of the Hong Kong market. UKiset is an entrance examination for UK independent schools. Although it is a new examination, over 200 schools now use it and BSL first introduced UKiset to Hong Kong. Thousands of students around the world have taken UKiset since its initiation. Taking UKiset is one of the methods to study in the UK but there are some more traditional measures. Besides, we struggle to hold fairs which group all schools together at one time and there is a group of parents which require this kind of fast food service as they can get a lot done in such a short space of time. You cannot fight against the market, but our purpose is to have an in-depth knowledge of students. Some students may spend a great deal of time in our center - around 1-2 hours. We will play with them, eat with them, chat with them. We really want to make friends with them. Older consultants will treat them as nephews. We want to be the right match for them. However, from a business perspective, September, October and November forms the peak season with education fairs contributing to 50-60% of the company’s turnover. Even though we may organize education fairs in the future, the format will be different from the existing structure.
Ka Ming: Can you tell us the two turning points of your company?
Samuel: We started collecting data from 2012, moving to Causeway Bay in June. In fact we did not have enough capital to rent a 2000 square feet office. Why did we make that decision so hastily? It was because when I started my working holiday in the UK, I came across a new examination - UKiset - many principals were talking about it. UKiset had not been implemented in Hong Kong, and it was doubtful whether independent schools would adopt it or not. Nevertheless, a large number of well-known schools decided to introduce UKiset, such as Badminton College, Oundle, Wellington College and Eton. Eton College is the high school of Prime Minister Cameron. I contacted UKiset and asked whether BSL could become an official exam center as soon as I knew that many schools were going to use it. It would become a trend. It’s really hard to get the permission to become an official exam center at the beginning, as UKiset asked for 100 recommendations from school principals to prove my ability. Maybe my sincerity impressed them in the end, we set up the first UKiset center in Hong Kong in August. Parents were confused by the concept at first, but after 4-5 months, there were over 300 hundred candidates. UKiset expanded in Hong Kong very quickly. There are now 12 examination centers, and I do not think UKiset will no longer sign contracts with Hong Kong companies. 12 centres is enough. Due to the advantage of being the very first mover and shaker in the market, and BSL is the only neutral center in Hong Kong. We have established a great rapport with UKiset. This was the first turning point.
Ka Ming: In accordance with your willingness to suffer losses, the second turning point would be holding free seminars.
Samuel: We invited one of the best secondary schools in the UK - Cardiff Sixth Form College - the school gets excellent A-Level results. I was wondering why Hong Kong students could not enter the top UK universities with outstanding academic results and a reasonable attitude . Well, I found out later that it’s due to a lack of soft skills; they did not know how to write a personal statement. Maybe it’s because of a different system, because TSA does not place stress on such things. I really wanted to share this information with Hong Kong students, so I invited Cardiff Sixth Form College to La Salle College in Hong Kong and organized the first Oxbridge Seminar. The seminar was warmly received by all parents, and more than 30 media operations covered the event, including networks from Mainland China. Although we did not make any profit and event was expensive to put on, there were advantages in that we established our database and brand and secured recruitment for the coming years. If students want to study at Oxbridge, they need to start planning from 14-15 years old.
Samuel: Don’t be afraid of making mistakes, recognising the mistakes is the first step to success, especially for youngsters. I am quite sure that everyone has made some mistake, even Steve Jobs who is now considered to be a legend. Don’t allow mistakes to petrify you but just analyse your actions and make a careful self-examination.
Ka Ming: Many guests have said that it’s not that difficult to start up a business but it’s really difficult to get results and maintain this high level. Do you agree with what the guests put forward?
Samuel: This does resonate with me. I always tell my colleagues: it’s not tough to reach our steady current position; the challenge is maintaining the results every year and to keep branching out. There’s nothing to lose at the beginning, but now we are bearing heavy responsibilities. We have won competitions and constantly gain more followers so it’s our duty to monitor the products. However the disadvantage of rapid expansion is having limited time. At the start, I would check every school’s ISI and all students’ reports. I would remember all students’ and parents’ names too. Though I try to do so now, there had to be something that would not go to plan eventually with so many people visiting our center. I did not have sufficient time and energy to scan through all ISI reports, and found my colleagues might not have the time too. Luckily, most of the parents would were sympathetic towards this. All in all, I told my colleagues to be honest because they should not deceive people who have total trust in the company. So just try your best.
Ka Ming: Business is becoming more and more stable, clients are relying more on you too. Your company won The Hong Kong Emerging Service Brand Award last year. How did you achieve it?
Samuel: They came to my company and conducted an initial interview with me, and I went to their center for the second interview. Although the interviews went well, the interviewer said that the education industry is not really a completely new brand, so BSL may have some kind of invisible disadvantage. Also the winner of last year is Lab Made, it’s really special, but frankly speaking, an education agency is not attractive at all so winning the award truly surprised me. Some of the criteria are very strict and do not even relate to our business, such as being environmentally friendly and showing social responsibility. Even though we have gained some achievements in these areas, we do not fall into best category among all the new brands. Therefore, winning the award truly delighted us.
Ka Ming: Has winning the award helped your company?
Samuel: We have gained recognition from some large enterprises. Recently, several banks, shareholder institutions and media companies have showed a willingness to cooperate with us. As Kwan Gor said, gaining the Emerging Service Brand Award is a good start but there is still a long way to go. The award can be a milestone and memento, and helps in hiring too. We are achieving our dream and the award reminds us that BSL is only an emerging brand. We have a long way to go to becoming a Top Brand in Hong Kong.
Sincere words from a close friend
Ka Ming : What first comes to mind if I ask you to describe Samuel in a few words?
Hong Lui : Samuel is an energetic youngster with a deep appreciation for British culture. Hong Kong needs such rare talents in the future.
Ka Ming: I believe you know the identity of this secret guest?
Samuel: Yes, he is Hong Lui.
Ka Ming: As you mentioned, you two became friends over a cup of tea. What was your first impression of him?
Samuel: He is an optimist, you can tell him everything and he will always give you a positive response. I regarded his behavior with suspicion at the beginning, because even I did not believe in myself - but he did. In fact, I have never met a person as positive as him. I was a 24 year-old graduate at the time, and he encouraged me and said,” It is okay, we are going to make it. Let’s go.” I want to thank him from the bottom of my heart for the chance. For me, he became almost a father figure - I learnt so much from him. Without him, I would not have made it.
Ka Ming: I asked Mr. Lui this morning - what is the most unforgettable event during the course of your friendship?
Hong Lui: Well, in fact he broke up with his girlfriend, they had been together for many years and the relationship was very eventful and memorable. He told me about it but I did not know how to comfort him. It happened very suddenly.
Ka Ming: Oh, then what is the situation now?
Hong Lui: He still feels the pain and is trying to deal with it.
Ka Ming: But I believe with a little help from good friends around him, he can see the light.
Hong Lui: Yes, I believe so too.
Ka Ming: It sounds as if you two can talk about anything.
Samuel: Yes, we do talk about everything, that’s why I described him as father figure. Only in the face of difficulties do we learn who the most trustworthy and important people are. In reality, Hong knew I that had broken up with my girlfriend before my father. Hong is very young in effect, you can be friends with him and talk about anything under the sun. Although he is much older than me, we went to Clockenflap together.
Ka Ming: That’s so cool!
Samuel: Yes he is really cool. And he did something very touching. He spent with me once I told him about the breakup. We went to Karaoke, had dinner together, and he had the intention to introduce some ladies to me (haha). On the other hand, the breakup of my girlfriend and I had a serious impact to the company. She was my colleague and left because of personal reasons. Unfortunately, it was peak season at the time. For the company - it was like a kid had lost a parent. However, my team was amazing and handled the situation very wisely, not only the seniors but also the new employees. I really want to thank my team at this moment, you guys are the best.
Ka Ming: Do you have anything you’d like to say to Samuel?
Hong Lui: I hope that Samuel can bring his creative thinking to the fore and develop the business. I am sure that he will become a great man but he needs to elaborate more on originality and needs lots of people to help him with that. You will make it.
Ka Ming: Mr. Lui truly believes in you.
Samuel: Thanks. This part of the interview surprised me, everything was so unexpected. He is my partner, my mentor and my bosom friend. If the world were in my hands, It’d be my dream to build everything from scratchs with him. I will develop my creative thinking, take more risks and try new things, but I need guidance from him, thank you so much.
Ka Ming: It should be me saying thank you for the interview.