Meet the queen of childcare centres in Singapore, June Rusdon
Being pregnant with her first child was what gave June the idea to venture into early childhood education.
Determination. Discipline. Grit. Focus. These are just some of the powerful traits we associate with leaders in any industry. But, how many of them actually embody these strengths? June Rusdon -- the Chief Executive Officer of Busy Bees Asia -- certainly does.
As a luminary in the field of early childhood education in Singapore, the story of her journey to the top holds valuable lessons for all young people looking to carve their own leadership paths.
After losing her parents at a young age, June Rusdon spent ten years in the workforce as a stockbroker. Never did she think that she would spend almost 30 years in the field of early childhood education and end up as a market leader!
Being pregnant with her first child was what gave June the idea to venture into education. She didn’t have teaching experience, nor did she have the training to back it. A firm believer in learning through reading, June read all the books on parenting and early childhood education she could find.
Coincidentally at the time, the Singapore government announced that they were offering subsidies to working mothers to encourage them to rejoin the workforce after having kids. Compounded with the news that there weren’t enough childcare centres in Singapore, June’s interest in opening a childcare centre was sparked.
She read every piece of information she could find on setting up a childcare centre and talked to volunteer organisations to learn how to run one first-hand. Her research yielded a great deal of information, and this made June feel immensely encouraged and excited.
Her next steps were to find a location, get necessary government approvals and ascertain market interest. However, finding a spot proved to be not only an expensive affair but a tedious one. In the midst of all this planning, June gave birth to her first child - a little girl.
You could say that her new bundle of joy brought her luck too! Due to the high demand for childcare centres, the government released several Housing Development Board (HDB) void decks that weren’t previously opened to private operators to use as childcare centres. Zoning in on one in Bukit Batok, June and her husband together with their baby, set out to find out what the demand was like for a childcare centre there.
To this day, June fondly remembers the first flyer she printed. Adorned with a picture of Garfield, she added some necessary information about the centre and called it “Small Wonder Childcare Centre”. June also added her phone number to receive enquiries.
What happened next left June both elated and in a daze. Her phone started ringing non-stop. So much so that the telecom operator visited June to check if her phone was working as there were complaints that she wasn't reachable.
The enquiries kept pouring in. However, so did the parents’ queries. What was the curriculum like? Who ran the place? Was June Rusdon the owner? These were just some of the many questions parents had.
Due to the overwhelming response from parents, June realised that there was no turning back. She needed to make sure she hired the right people first. June was to handle everything related to operations and business. To make up for her lack of experience in the childcare arena, June didn’t compromise on the quality of the staff she hired. The team she hired needed to have the right amount of experience together with the right attitude.
Through the first principal she hired, June was able to learn all the more delicate details of running a childcare centre — from designing curriculums to how to set up the classrooms. To be awarded the licence to operate and pass the government inspection, June even got all her teachers formal training.
Almost 30 years ago in 1989, June was selected as the operator to run the childcare centre at Bukit Batok. Operations of Small Wonder Childcare Centre commenced in February 1990. As her first venture proved to be a success, June’s interest in opening more centres increased. So, when the government released more sites in 1990, June won two. She called the centre in Tampines “Whiz Kids”, and one in Pasir Ris “Small Wonder”.
Within the span of one and a half years, June had opened three childcare centres and had no intention of slowing down.
In the early 90’s the Singapore government wanted childcare centres established in government institutions in an attempt to make these workplaces more family-friendly. June saw an opportunity in this, and having a few years of experience under her belt, she bid for the first childcare centre at Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore (IRAS). With the help of the principals of her childcare centres, June won the tender.
With particular attention to aesthetics, design and customer experience, June made the centre at IRAS the model workplace childcare centre. Childcare centres at The Ministry Of Manpower (MOM), KK Women’s and Children's Hospital and Nanyang Polytechnic quickly followed.
In 1999, June saw the need to start enrichment programs for the kids at her childcare centres and opened Learning Horizon. June also began a teachers training college - The Apprentice - in 2000, since she noticed that there was a deficit in good quality teachers. In 2012, it was renamed Asian International College in order to take the concept out of Singapore.
In 2007, having opened more than 20 centres, June made the strategic decision to sell her business to Knowledge Universe. Seeing the progress she had and the human capital she had built, they had one condition for June– to stay on as the CEO. Also In 2007, Knowledge Universe bought Pat’s Schoolhouse and integrated Pat’s Schoolhouse and Learning Vision (previously known as Small Wonder).
Concurrently, June also looked at the various market segments she could cater to, and seeing that there was a need for a premium childcare product, Odyssey The Global Preschool was launched in 2008. Odyssey teachers received training in Italy in the Reggio Emilia approach, where self-directed and experiential learning through projects is carried out.
Targeting parents who wanted their children in the Montessori system, Knowledge Universe acquired Brighton Montessori in 2011. In 2014, seeing that the government wanted to make preschool fees affordable, they revived Small Wonder.
The business expanded regionally, and in 2010, they bought The Children's House in Malaysia. In 2014, Knowledge Universe sold their Asia business to Busy Bees UK. June is now involved in further global expansion and acquisition plans in Australia, Vietnam, China and Japan as her role as CEO for Busy Bees Asia.
June is also involved in two very new projects here in Singapore: Bright Path, which focuses on catering to kids with special needs, and Knowledge Access, an initiative that helps underprivileged kids the ability to get into any of the schools within the group, with the help of government subsidies.
Currently, in Singapore, Busy Bees own a total of seven brands and 62 centres, with a total of 7000 children enrolled. June says that none of this success would have been possible if not for the passionate people that work for her. Currently out of the 1700 staff that operate under the Busy Bees umbrella, 1300 are teachers.
As such, acknowledging that they take human capital development very seriously, June shared some nuggets of wisdom on the subject here:
Before developing your people, it is important to pay great emphasis to hiring the right people. As June mentioned earlier, one thing she didn’t compromise on was the quality of the employees she brought on board.
“When we were awarded tenders to run childcare centres in government organisations, the rent for the location was only $1! However, I put all the saving of the rent to recruit excellent quality teachers,” June reveals.
She continues, “How our business has grown, is a result of the people we have. So, getting the right people who have the highest integrity and professionalism is most important, and is one of my biggest achievements to date!”
June made use of the grants that the government provided and sent all their teachers for training. She says, “When we were committed to training our people, we saw their productivity increase.”
June further explains, “Throughout the early years, I saw that the challenge was going to be getting great teachers. At the time there were not many people out there who had proper training. So I embarked on teaching our teachers soft skills of managing children and parents, improving their confidence level, organisational skills and time management and also teaching them about responsibility which are all important skills to being a teacher.”
The right training also means teaching your staff the soft skills to get ahead in their careers. “When you are early in your career, you need to manage your expectations and have goals of what you want to be and do,” explains June.
She continues thoughtfully, “It is important for you to read, and only through reading would you know what is important in today's context. You can gain lots of skills and knowledge through reading. You also need to have intuition— when to say yes and when to say no. These are not things that you can learn through an MBA!”
“It is imperative to have empathy and be responsible— especially if you are a leader and have people reporting to you,” she adds.
“Another big achievement for me is when I can see my people growing within the organisation from being a teacher to the director,” June declares.
June learnt early on in her journey that making money is just part of running a good business. She shares, “It is managing to balance making money, maintaining excellent quality and having the best staff. You owe it to the people who work for you to make the business sustainable. I needed to do a business that can help the people grow with me and increase their value, and also increase their quality of life.”
Continuing about growth and empowerment, she says, “If you can get that done you will prosper because your team will do a good job for you. You must make your people look good then your people will make sure you look good too. That has always been my philosophy.”
The whole culture of the organisation June built was not to stay idle. That meant growing the business out of Singapore. Further explaining this June adds, “The beauty about our business is that we have so many brands covering the different market segments and we have many centres overseas. So, the staff and the teachers have opportunities of doing exchange programs working in the other markets we’re in.”
“What makes us different from the rest of the competitors is that we have centres everywhere and we have to make good use of it. We want to retain our teachers and one way we do it is giving them exposure by sending them on these exchange programs,” June points out.
We are all too aware that technology is fast replacing many jobs out there. However, that doesn’t mean organisations cannot use technology to improve the efficiency of processes, and make their employees’ lives more comfortable in the process.
“Just a few days ago, I briefed my team about getting someone to come and teach us about AI to show us what we can do in our business using technology. We need to learn how technology can make a business and people better and more efficient.”
June says that something she focuses on regularly is how thankful she is for her employees and their families. “You need to make sure to say thank you to their families for allowing their spouse or their child to work with us,” she says.
Work-life balance is a big part of that “You also want to make sure you give them a work-life balance because family is important. We are like a second home, But without their families it is impossible! Being a teacher isn't easy. Managing parents and children isn't easy. They need to get much support from their families to keep them going,” June stresses.
“I have been blessed with the people who trust me and believe in my vision. I won't be where I am without the support of all these people, and that is something that I'm very grateful for!” June smiles, concluding our discussion.