Interview with Tom Collin

Interview with Tom Collin

Tom Collin is the CEO of GEMS Maju Sdn Bhd, a Malaysia-based joint venture between GEMS Education, the world’s largest operator of primary and secondary schools, and Maju Holdings, one of Malaysia’s preeminent conglomerates. GEMS Maju is developing a portfolio of world class primary and secondary schools in Malaysia at a variety of market segments, from affordable to premium.


What has been the best advice ever given to you?
"Never be the smartest guy in the room.” Surely it’s riling to others, as well as not befitting, to show off, especially when you are in a position of authority. But even more importantly, I believe that value is created by teams leveraging each individual strength and insight. Executives must apply themselves to coaxing it out and nourishing it, rather than preening and breeding resentment or worse, reverence. It takes humility and a good ear to achieve that. The smartest executives know when to speak, and when not to. You squander these opportunities by hogging the spotlight.

What has been the most important takeaway from your career so far?
Constantly, relentlessly, push against the limits – of one’s ability, self-confidence or imposed by others. Carve out new spaces and develop new competencies. Think of your professional life as mining a seam of precious ore. It takes a combination of thoughtful analysis and relentless hacking at the rock face to find and follow the seam down its random path.

What are the traits that you look for in a leader?
Humility, an insight into people and situations, drive.

What keeps you motivated every day?
My job is about influencing future generations’ lives, and, indirectly, countries’ futures. There is no greater factor of change than primary and secondary education. That bracing realisation keeps me driven and looking forward to each day, month and year that I create durable value.

Is there anything that you wish someone told you at the start of your career?
Be attuned and sympathetic to your peers’ and superiors’ sense, even concealed, of vulnerability. Always help them identify and deliver value, and seek not to cost them any political capital.

What book(s) are you reading at the moment?
Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Nobel Prize winner in Economics Daniel Kahneman which summarizes his research on cognitive bias, prospect theory, and on happiness. The book asserts there are two modes of thought: a fast, instinctive and emotional one, and a slower, more deliberative, and more logical one. It delineates cognitive biases and highlights academic research to suggest that people place too much confidence in human judgment.

Crazy Rich Asians, by Kevin Kwan is about rich, pedigreed Straits Chinese families and the gossip, backbiting, and scheming that occurs when the heir to one of the largest fortunes in Asia brings his American-born Chinese girlfriend home. It is quintessential “chick lit” but engaging, funny, and an accurate and instructive portrayal of established Singaporean, Malaysian and Hong Kong families.

What is your typical weekend like?
As a young dad, my weekends are filled with tending to the needs of my two year-old son and 3 months-old daughter. We seek to entertain as much as educate our children, and create the lasting emotional bonds that will sustain them for a lifetime. We try and keep “kiasu-ism” in check and not sign them up for too many enrichment classes and instead take full advantage of what Singapore and the region have to offer, from wonderful hawker food to libraries, playgrounds and museums.

[Kiasu comes from the Chinese, meaning 'fear of losing’. It is used by in Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan to refer to anxious, selfish behaviour characterised by a fear of missing out. "Kiasu parents" anxiously and overbearingly seeking their children's advancement, is a very common trope here. A good example would be Amy Chua's Tiger Mom].

Brief career history (dates / role / company / location)
Tom Collin is an education expert and K-12 education specialist with extensive experience operating and developing schools in the Americas, Europe, and Asia.

Tom is currently chief executive officer of GEMS Maju Sdn Bhd in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. His previous role was as COO and Board Member of BE Education, a premium Shanghai-based education firm, where he set up and ran unique international boarding schools for Chinese students on Chinese soil. He has contributed to starting and developing the Meritas Family of Schools, where he was responsible for the acquisition and integration of schools in the US, Mexico and Switzerland, as well as starting a school in China. He has worked as an investment banker with ING Bank in France and Poland, and in private equity with BBH Capital Partners. He is a graduate of the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College.

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