In this part, we look at the poor advice and guidance which Ashley Platts gave his supposed friend Chris Needham and explore whether Chris was really a victim of his supposed ‘mentor’.
One of the victims of Binsar mentioned that TBI “always speaks so highly of itself.” Would you say there is a culture of self-congratulation and self-adulation at Head Office?
That’s true, without a doubt. The Ashleys and Mariams are firmly convinced of their own greatness, which is one of the real problems for that company. They love to refer to themselves as ‘a premier ESL provider’ and ‘an elite language school’. It is a huge no-no to go against this idealized image they have of themselves and this was one reason I was so controversial within the company. They don’t want to hear that they are less than perfect and so if you criticize their performance in marketing, customer service or any of the other areas where they are under-performing, it is greatly resented. My whole thing with the company was that it drastically needed to reform itself in many, many areas. The reason I was close with Luke in my first year was because he told me he shared my values and was keen to support some of the reforms I wanted to push through. As far as I can tell, Mariam just wants to walk around and have people kowtow to her. She does not want to deal with the problems in TBI or even acknowledge they exist.
But what is this sense of their own ‘greatness’ based on?
Nothing. It is completely delusional as far as I can see. The company is a small chain of language schools which is losing market share rapidly. Most of the franchise schools are loss-making and some have had scandalously low standards. The company hasn’t been growing, despite massive growth in the ESL market in Jakarta. They do very little marketing, their didn’t even have academic policies until 2009 and most people in Jakarta have never even heard of the company. If there is anything ‘great’ about TBI, it has been the achievements of individual teachers and there have been some very good teachers passing through that company, but the management is just awful.
I have often heard it said that Chris Needham had an unhealthily high opinion of himself. What is your experience of this?
Chris Needham had delusions of grandeur. He would say things to me like, “I want to make TBI Kuningan the gold standard of TBI schools”, with a straight face. He was very much caught up with the prestige of being a school manager and thought that he was above everyone else. But honestly, Ashley and Luke are no different. They all have such high opinions of their capabilities, but once you start investigating it, it’s all hollow- it’s just hot air. For example, both Chris and Luke have never missed an opportunity to put themselves on banners and brochures. They loved seeing their face on TBI merchandise and marketing tools. Chris refused to do any teaching hours whatsoever- he thought it was beneath his dignity- but he would insist on being photographed with students if there was a chance to get his face on a pamphlet. You are dealing with some very inflated egos there.
Neither Chris nor Luke has a degree. In what in particular is this sense of ‘superiority’ based?
I think it is based in race and culture. They thought Indonesians were incompetent and so they were somehow superior. There is definitely a trace of racism in Luke Preece, though he usually hides it well.
Do you think it would have been very easy to manipulate Chris Needham just by stroking his ego?
I know that for a fact. He was a very nasty boss and would often try to humiliate me with personal attacks. Sometimes it was pretty unbearable working for him. He liked to tell me that only Ashley, Luke and Chris himself were up to managing TBI, so I shouldn’t get any ideas. Eventually I learnt to tell him he was a good manager so he would stop trying to humiliate me. He swelled with pride if you praised him and he was more pleasant to be around for a while.
I keep hearing this strange idea that only Luke and Ashley are fit to manage TBI. Where does this come from?
From Luke and Ashley, of course. Luke used to include me when he spoke to me, but I didn’t believe it. I’d heard him include Scott Martin when he Scott around and drop his name if he wasn’t. It was just a trick to win people’s trust I suppose. But Chris believed every word of it. I think it must have been Ashley who was the one who introduced the idea to Chris, because Luke was still in Bandung at that stage and Chris any socialized with Ashley outside work.
How else did Ashley contribute to Chris’s unrealistically high opinion of himself?
He kept giving him promotions. He went from Actel to School Manager of three different schools within 12 months and every time Ashley gave him the promotion without even inviting other candidates to apply. Chris became more and more convinced that he was destined for greatness in TBI and became more and more arrogant in his treatment of everyone below him. Eventually he thought he was unstoppable and lobbied Ning to fire Mariam and make him TBI Director.
Do you think it is possible that Ashley had no idea that Chris was about to demand that Mariam be fired?
Chris mentioned it to Luke and he mentioned to me that Mariam might soon be fired. I was very dubious. If he dropped hints to me, who he hated, of course his best ‘buddy’ and mentor Ashley knew. The two of them were out drinking all the time.
Could Ashley possibly have believed that Ning might fire Mariam and make Chris the TBI Director?
He would be a fool if he believed that. It is Indonesian company. The Director is never going to be an Englishman.
How likely do you think it is that Ashley Platts encouraged Chris Needham to commit career suicide?
I’ve never heard anyone suggest it before now, but it makes a lot of sense and explains why he didn’t lift a finger to defend Chris after it happened. Chris’s failure was so complete that it spelt the beginning of the end of the ex-pat school manager. This was Ashley’s agenda all along. Having Chris self-destruct actually helped him to get his way. Everyone else knew Chris was a buffoon. Knowing how underhanded Ashley is, it is really in character for him to betray someone to advance his own cause.