You are visiting Oman for the inauguration of the A’soud Global School. Can you share a few details on the school and Al Najah Education’s future plans?
The opening of the A’soud Global School (AGS) in Muscat is one of the most important events in the life of Al Najah Education, as it is our first greenfield project in Oman and first major school outside Dubai. AGS starts operations from September 4, 2016 and it is a momentous step for Al Najah Education’s business.
AGS Muscat is a project of the English Education Management Company (EEMC), a joint venture of Al Najah Education and Al Tamman Holding, a Muscat Overseas Group Company. While discussions for the project started about two years ago, Al Tamman Holding finished the actual construction in 11 months, which is quite an achievement for a school of this magnitude. This is our second venture in Oman under EEMC, the first being Horizon Kids International Nursery located in Al Mouj. We are expecting AGS to enroll 200 students this year building on the capacity to reach 1,000 students in the next few years. Over the next three years, EEMC looks to expand in Oman including schools in Duqm and Salalah. We also look forward to opening a teacher training institution providing international certification programmes to shorten the gap between the educational programs offered and the job market requirements.
Al Najah Education has plans to expand its education platform further across the GCC. With 36 institutions across the GCC and Singapore, we look forward to launch nurseries and schools in Kuwait and Qatar. In the UAE, we are currently in negotiations for a school acquisition in Abu Dhabi. Furthermore, the ethical British education provided by our Iman brand for kindergarten schools in Singapore has many similarities amongst the local communities in Oman. We will be launching the Iman Arabia franchise in Muscat soon with an aim to partner with franchisees to launch 30-40 nurseries under the brand.
There are a number of international schools in Muscat. In what ways is AGS differentiating itself from existing institutions?
The school in Muscat is a British independent preparatory and senior school, which is the first of its kind in Muscat. The facilities provided in the school are surely one of the best in Muscat including the Mac labs and state-of-the-art laboratories. We look forward to obtaining all necessary international accreditations for the school. Through collaborations with Drama Scene and Brooklyn Melodies Music Centre of Al Najah Education, we plan to bring international certifications in music and performing arts.
What makes you confident about the prospects of the education sector in Oman?
I see a demand supply gap for the right kind of education in the Sultanate. I have been coming to Oman for the last 13 years and we used to own businesses here, including pharmacies and a partnership with Al Jazeera Steel. On our visits to Oman, we realised that there is a real gap in terms of the education delivery and the holistic development of kids. Al Najah Education has extensive experience in the field of education. Since there was an opening in the market which matched with the company’s skill sets, we thought we should try and fill this gap.
How is the fee structure of AGS, compared to other international schools in the market and are there any projections on the duration for a break even?
We were going through the fee charged by schools in Muscat and found that though AGS is positioned in the higher end of the market, it is a shade lower than some of the more expensive international schools in the market. We have outstanding schools in Dubai and Singapore and though we are ranked high in terms of quality of education, our fees are more reasonable. Usually a Greenfield British school takes three years to break even, for AGS it could potentially be the fourth year.
You have identified alternative areas like education and healthcare for investment. What is the rationale behind this decision?
A lot of people make money, but the social goal is what attracted me to the business. It is not essentially an either or choice. I thought healthcare and education have a lot of gaps. The idea was to give people a service that they need and also to make a business out of it. This is the best of both the worlds as it gives you the satisfaction of contributing to a social cause, while investors are happy about making good returns using the right means.
You established Al Masah Capital Limited in 2010 and today it manages a fund in excess of $1.1bn. What accounts for this meteoric rise?
I think it is because of the time when we started operations. In investments, the norm is that 50 per cent of the return that you make depends on the time that you invest while the remaining 50 per cent is a combination of hard work, luck, knowledge and skillsets. So when we started in 2010, everything seemed down and out and it was easy for us to build confidence from there. When we were able to survive the first two to three years, people recognised that these guys are serious and they are here to make a difference. Whenever we created a financial product, we came up with an offering that met the needs of our investors. The idea was always to create products that investors wanted. This has helped in attracting and retaining our clients. Till date, we have not launched a private equity fund and all the businesses are owned and run by investors directly, through board of directors. They take our advice in what to buy and how to build a business as that is our competence, but the ownership of the business remains with our shareholders. This model is different from giving money to a fund manager and ceding all decision-making authority to him.