Part 40. Ashley Platts: First Needham, Then Helmy

How did Helmy manage to lose 80 out of 200 students in six weeks?
Through sheer foolishness and incompetence.

Care to elaborate?
Ashley Platts was pushing the line that the way to the future was Indonesian managers and teachers. If the best TBI could do in expats was Ashley Platt’s choice, Chris Needham, perhaps he had a point, but no one but Ashley Platts saw any potential in Needham, and everyone else was right. Ashley and Retty’s local candidate for TBI Kelapa Gading was Helmy V, Retty’s alleged relative. They also recommended that TBI Kelapa Gading start Combo classes and phase in 50% Indonesian, 50% Native Speaker classes. Helmy V. was tasked with introducing Combo classes to Kelapa Gading, and therein lay the seeds of the next TBI disaster.
Did you disagree with the notion of Combo classes?
No, I was in support of it as a matter of customer choice. I was never in favour of it being forced onto customers, especially in Kelapa Gading, which is an affluent area where most customers didn’t mind paying more for Native Speaker teachers. By the time I resigned, almost one-third of classes at TBI Kelapa Gading were Combo. However, these people elected to join these courses, which had a lower price point. The key to success was of course customer service. Helmy V had a tin ear to customer complaints and he forced half the entire school to suddenly become Combo within a space of weeks.
How did TBI customers respond to Helmy’s forced Combo program?
They were furious. Every afternoon there were half a dozen mothers at the front desk vociferously complaining about the forced introduction of Combo classes. Later, after I replaced Helmy, several parents spoke to me and told me that Helmy was extremely rude and arrogant. More than one mother told me she hated Helmy. This is not an emotion which is lightly expressed in Indonesian culture. He didn’t listen to their complaints and basically told them, “Well, it’s my way or the highway.” They voted with their feet and student numbers plummeted from 200 to a low of 120. It recovered a bit after that to around 140 to 150 students, but this was a loss of 30% of customers in a matter of weeks. It was sheer madness.

How badly did this impact on profits?
It slashed revenue. You see the cost of Combo classes was about 30% lower than the old Native Speaker classes. So not only had they lost 30% of students, they had lost 30% of the revenue from half the students which remained. By August 2009 teacher and staff salaries were approaching 100% of revenue, so all operating costs and rent were at a loss. In addition, by that point Helmy had allegedly began to embezzle money from Pauwsan Sutanto as well. Much later he learned that Nissa was also embezzling a percentage of the student payments. Pauwsan Sutanto told me that in his worst month in 2009, he lost almost Rp 80.000.000 in a single month. He said if it continued, he would have to close the school.
What was Ashley Platts’s excuse for his failed protégé, Helmy?
Ashley doesn’t need to make them really. He is the inner loop and so he is completely unaccountable for his failures. However, he the one pitiful excuse he made was that he hadn’t instructed Helmy to do ‘forced’ Combo. Helmy had forced it on customers unilaterally.
Why do you call this a pitiful excuse?
Imagine you run a supermarket. The regional manager comes in for an inspection and sees boxes all over the floor and half the shelves empty. She walks into the store manager’s office and says, “Why is this store so messy and under-stocked?” The store manager says, “I told the floor staff to fill the shelves and clean up; it isn’t my fault.” What do you think the regional manager would say? The store manager, in a proper company, wouldn’t get away with it and would probably be in a lot of trouble. It is a pathetic non-excuse. Business managers don’t just issue instructions and that’s the end of it. Professionals monitor, inspect, coach and do follow-up. Ashley did none of these things. “It isn’t my fault, I told Helmy how to do it,” followed by no follow-up is weak and ineffective management. In a proper company, people would laugh at Platts for his juvenile level of irresponsibility. The 2009 TBI Kelapa Gading debacle has Platts’s fingerprints all over it. I lost all respect for him at that point.

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