Steps to success: Jacky Chiu, chairman of the SDM Group, is expanding his reach in the regional dance and education markets
Jacky Chiu Ka-lok always dreamed of changing the world using science, but it was his forays into the education sector that ultimately laid the foundations for his ambitions. Now as the chairman and executive director of listed company SDM Group, he oversees the running of 22 dance schools in Hong Kong and China, where more than 5,000 students between the ages of 1 and 16 participate in a wide range of extracurricular dance courses.
“I am a dreamer,” Chiu says. “When I was at university, graduates craved jobs in the business or finance sectors. But I decided to pursue my dream to promote social change.”
Coming from a grassroots family in Tuen Mun, Chiu graduated from the department of electronic and computer engineering at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology in 1998, before going on to gain a master’s degree in electronic engineering. Then his path took a turn and he started to build online educational platforms for local schools.
“My final year degree project focused on artificial intelligence and involved collecting and analysing large amounts of data before reaching a recommendation,” he says. “I decided to apply it to education and so designed software for secondary and primary schools.”
Riding on the back of this idea, he started his first company, greatly helped by government funding of HK$2.5 million. Its software helped ease schools’ administrative efforts as it saved data and helped students submit their homework online. By 2002, Chiu had built up rapport with more than 400 schools, claiming over 50 per cent of the market share.
“Looking back, it was sheer luck, thanks to the booming tide of information technology that pushed government to support this rising trend back in the late 1990s,” he says.
Chiu’s dreaming didn’t stop there. He came to realise that there was a limit to the changes that could be made in Hong Kong’s huge education system, given the sheer number of stakeholders involved. To gain more autonomy, he set up his own school, SDM Jazz & Ballet Academie, in 2006, with the encouragement of several school principals.
Chiu says activities at SDM – which stands for “smile, dancing, memory” – help children build confidence, friendships and team spirit. As well as holding more than 300 performances a year, the schools also help young dancers take part in international competitions and get involved with volunteering work.
“I love kids and my philosophy is simple – to get them out of the classroom to learn joyfully and not be confined in any way. Every human being is an individual. The homogenous educational approach in Hong Kong can’t suit all kids. I want to set an example – to unleash kids’ potential through courses like dancing and painting,” he says.
“Kids perform better with applause and encouragement. They need praise to have the courage to perform in front of a crowd. Our mainstream education system doesn’t do enough to nurture these extra activities to enrich children’s life experiences and social engagement. We try to give them fond memories of their childhood.”
Chiu explains that it took SDM around three years to win the hearts of parents and gain a real foothold in the market. He attributes the success to an ever-changing world and the rising trend of social media.
“It’s an era when everyone is a creator and contributor with their own channel and autonomy. That’s why we give every kid the chance to perform on stage in various community activities and shows from small to big. With the help of burgeoning social media, our online event posts can flood the market. And, of course, this wouldn’t have happened without a team sharing the same philosophy.”
Chiu is responsible for formulating and positioning SDM’s corporate strategy, and is always on the lookout for partners who share his vision and ideas. “What sets SDM apart is that we believe every human being and company has their own uniqueness and versatility. We have found our niche rather than following what the majority do.”
Chiu’s next dream is to venture into kindergartens. Backed by a good pool of talent – including a number of retired school principals as advisers – the company plans to open two kindergartens in Shenzhen this September, followed by locations in Hong Kong and Singapore.
“We are seeking a 60 per cent interest in the Shenzhen-based Octopus Group, which shares our business philosophy,” Chiu says. “We have also bought a college in Australia specialising in training kindergarten teachers, which will serve as a breeding ground to fuel future expansion. Building on the success of our first decade, I hope to expand the footprint and philosophy outside Hong Kong and China in the next 10 years.”
Hong Kong still has a special role to play thanks to its strategic coastal location, Chiu adds. “It acts like a zone lying between sea water and stream water. That becomes our advantage, because it translates into East meets West culture. We can export Chinese-style education, while bringing international educational institutions into China. We have already secured Singapore and Australia, and see further opportunities to enter China.”
TAKING THE LEAD
Jacky Chiu’s top tips for career success.
See silver linings “Attitude determines how well you will succeed when faced with a challenge. Positive attitudes are more likely to lead to positive outcomes and career advancement.”
Go the distance “While it’s vital to have your dreams, passion is another key ingredient for success. Apart from being a dreamer, one should have great determination to make their dreams come true.”
Be the change “As a leader, one should always appreciate what one has achieved and what one possesses. Once you feel contented, it’s important to contribute to the community and be a change maker. Take Google as an example – this free search engine is a kind of contribution that places a wealth of knowledge at the finger tips of everybody.”
Appreciate diverse abilities “Every human being is born with their own talents and strengths. Each of us is unique in his or her own way. Be a strength founder and figure out your team members’ capabilities and strengths.”
Foster freedom “Let your team dream and develop a passion for their job – this will help to build a loyal and sustainable team.”
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Steps to success.