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SME Diaries: Covid-19 almost sank my swim school. My team willingly took drastic pay cuts to keep us afloat

In this instalment, Mr Tan Jian Yong, 34, recounts how the pandemic nearly scuttled his swimming school. He says he was on the verge of giving up, if not for his staff and coaches who volunteered to take pay cuts. Recovery has been slow, but Mr Tan says he remains committed to his mission to teach children how to swim.

SME Diaries: Covid-19 almost sank my swim school. My team willingly took drastic pay cuts to keep us afloat

Mr Tan Jian Yong, 34, recounts how the pandemic nearly scuttled his swimming school. He says that while recovery has been slow, he remains committed to his mission to teach children how to swim.

Small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which form 99 per cent of businesses in Singapore, have felt the impact of Covid-19 keenly. TODAY’s Voices section is publishing first-hand accounts from SME owners and managers on the highs and lows of running a business in the pandemic.

In this instalment, Mr Tan Jian Yong, 34, recounts how the pandemic nearly scuttled his swimming school. He says he was on the verge of giving up, if not for his staff and coaches who volunteered to take pay cuts. Recovery has been slow, but Mr Tan says he remains committed to his mission to teach children how to swim.

I have loved swimming for as long as I can remember. At 19, after a stint as a lifeguard and swim coach, I decided I had found my life’s mission — I hoped to reduce the number of drowning incidents among young children by teaching as many children to swim as possible.

I spent the next 14 years building Happy Fish from a student and coach matching platform to a school dedicated to training young children in aquatic skills. We were doing well and were on the cusp of taking our business to the next level with our very first premium offering, Happy Fish Home @ Bedok. Then the pandemic hit — and it hit us hard.

Honestly, we would not have started Happy Fish Home if not for the contractual agreement with our investors and landlord that we had to fulfil. We would have to forfeit our security deposit and pay a penalty. After a 10-month delay, we opened on Nov 27 last year. Our other six branches, which had also been closed for more than 10 months owing to the pandemic, could resume business.

But it’s been an uphill battle. We would not be able to achieve what we have today if not for the support from our staff and a Covid-19 relief bank loan. During our toughest months, our team of more than 30 staff and 60 coaches willingly went on survival mode with us, volunteering to go on a 50 per cent pay cut on average. If not for them, we would have given up on our mission.

Later on, as other industries were starting to make a recovery, we were still running only at 50 per cent capacity because of safe distancing measures and a slower enrolment rate.

Our recovery was also hampered by the growing number of Covid-19 cases as we moved towards an endemic era. As we operate indoor facilities, our students — who comprise mostly unvaccinated children — could not participate in group classes due to safe management measures. Thankfully, the situation is a lot better now as we can go back to class sizes of 10, which is about 80 per cent capacity.

Since the pandemic hit, we have been working to simplify our business processes and cut down expenses. We outsourced our administrative work so we could focus on customer service. We also took some lessons off the menu, such as platform diving lessons, competitive swimming lessons and lifeguard courses.

Despite the challenges, we are sticking to our guns about training children because we see a value in the classes we offer. Enrolment has still been conservative but thanks to the support of investors and our team, we’re taking this time to roll out some community programmes for underprivileged children in the coming months.

As tough as it is, Happy Fish is here to stay and will not be going anywhere. Hopefully we will be operating at full capacity soon and I’ll be able to return my team the favour they extended over the last two years. We are committed to riding through this challenging time while working towards equipping children with proper swim skills, one baby at a time.

ABOUT THE WRITER:

Tan Jian Yong, 34, is the founder of Happy Fish Swim School. It operates eight indoor heated pools in Singapore and five in Malaysia. He is also the father of two daughters, Laura, 7, and Hillary, 3.

If you are an SME owner or manager with an experience to share or know someone who wishes to contribute to this series, write to voices [at] mediacorp.com.sg with your full name, address and phone number.

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SME Diaries Happy Fish swimming Covid-19

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