By Lorna Tan
Mr Atul Temurnikar, 44, shocked his family and friends when he left his cushy country manager job at IBM Singapore in 2001 to set up the first Indian international school here.
A year later, he co-founded the Singapore-headquartered Global Indian Foundation, parent of the Global Indian International School.
With no background in running any foundation or school, he was venturing into unknown territory. Unable to get loans from financial institutions here, he coughed up $500,000 of his family's savings as a personal loan to kick-start the foundation.
'I saw the demand and the need for an Indian school for expatriates. My decision to leave IBM at the height of my career was a shock to my family and friends, but I convinced them that I should try. For me, it was time to give back to society,' he said.
'The local educational system here is different from that in India and many Indian families had to leave Singapore when their kids reached the secondary school level. Now they don't need to and they can make longer-term plans to stay in Singapore.'
To lower the running costs of the foundation, he took a modest stipend of $2,000 a month for the first three years.
From the start, he was clear in his intention of keeping the school fees affordable for the Indian expat community. Up to 85 per cent of the community have an annual household income of $50,000 to $100,000, according to Mr Temurnikar. That was why he opted to set up the school under a non-profit foundation structure instead of as a company.
'The annual cost of education should not be more than $10,000 a year,' he said.
The school has attracted many Indian Americans and other nationals, with Korean students forming the second-largest population segment after the Indians. Monthly fees range from $475 for the kindergarten level to $500 for the primary level and $600 for high school students. This is much lower than other international schools which charge about $20,000 or more a year for secondary school levels.
Mr Temurnikar's efforts have borne fruit. From its humble beginnings at Mount Sophia, with barely 50 students, the school has developed into the largest school education institute with 17 campuses in seven countries in the Asia-Pacific region. It boasts a total enrolment of 18,000 students.
His initial loan was returned in tranches over four years from 2003 onwards with no interest, as he decided to forgo it. From 2005, he started receiving a four-figure monthly pay but it was half of what was offered by the board, whose president is India's leading scientist, Professor M.G.K. Menon.
The list of patrons of the foundation reads like a Who's Who list and includes prominent people like former Indian foreign minister Karan Singh, Indian software firm Infosys Technologies founder Narayana Murthy, Singapore Member of Parliament Inderjit Singh and former Malaysian minister Samy Vellu.
Mr Temurnikar is married to Aparna, 41, who is a senior manager at IBM worldwide manufacturing's procurement business transformation and technology division. They have two children, Arjun, 17, and Arohee, three.
Mr Temurnikar has been based in Singapore since 1991 when he was posted here by Indian IT firm Far East Computers, a division of Indian IT services firm HCL Technologies. He joined IBM in 1997.
Q: What are your money habits?
I used to save more than 50 per cent of my income. I have reasonable spending habits and my expenditure is mainly household-
related, although I have a weakness for gadgets. I have had absolutely no savings since I started the school. To make ends meet, I take the basic compensation from the foundation.
Q: What financial planning have you done for yourself?
I have a mid six-figure sum that is invested in safe instruments like fixed deposits, bonds and guaranteed mutual funds. About 60 per cent is in mutual funds, 15 per cent in government bonds and 25 per cent in fixed deposits.
I have an average target return of 8 to 10 per cent per annum. My fixed deposits in India yield about 8 to 9 per cent per annum with some up to 11 per cent per annum. Last year, my mutual funds generated about 9 per cent returns. They are managed by the largest private bank in India, ICICI, and the portfolio is equally divided between Indian equities and bonds.
Q: What about insurance planning?
I have a basic life cover of $200,000 and a group medical cover which I pay from my pocket. I don't buy insurance savings plans as the returns are not good.
Q: What are your property investments?
In 1994, after I obtained my permanent resident status, I bought a four-room HDB flat in Jurong West for $170,000. I sold it for $190,000 in 2003. If you want to live here long term, it is better to buy rather than spend money on rent. When you leave, you can always sell the property. Before I bought my flat, I evaluated my exit options and learnt that the HDB resale market is robust and transparent.
In 2003, I bought a 99-year leasehold 1,375 sq ft, three-bedroom condo unit in Jurong East for $525,000. It is now worth more than $900,000. It is my current home.
When I have surplus cash, I would rather pay off my mortgage. That explains why I have only $30,000 left on my home loan. After all, there is no such thing as a guaranteed income. If your house is fully paid up, no one can kick you out and you can sleep easy.
I also have a 3,000 sq ft, five-bedroom semi-detached home in Nagpur in central India. My parents live there.
Q: Moneywise, what were your growing-up years like?
I am the eldest in a family of five. My father was a mining engineer working for Coal India and my mother was a doctor. However she opted not to practise when her kids came. She became a homemaker. I learnt how to be conservative, the importance of saving for a rainy day and planning for the future. One should not always depend on siblings to support you but should be financially independent. I grew up in Nagpur in a two-bedroom apartment. I completed my bachelor's degree in engineering in Visvesvaraya Regional Engineering College, Nagpur in 1985.
Q: What has been a bad investment?
In 1997, I invested about $200,000 mainly in shares in IT and banking. It was the first time I had invested in equities. I cashed out in less than 12 months, just before the market crashed during the Asian financial crisis in 1997/1998. I was uncomfortable with the way the share prices were fluctuating and I wasn't used to the value of my portfolio falling 30 per cent. Overall, I almost broke even.
Although I didn't lose money, I consider the shares a bad investment as they distracted me from my profession and were not able to give me peace of mind.
Q: Your best investment to date?
It is the foundation. No financial institution wanted to lend the money when it was set up. The risk was mine. Had this not taken off, I would have lost my entire family savings. My family and friends felt I was taking a big risk and that I was better qualified for other options like a corporate job. It took me three to four years to convince them that it will work. But I believed that if you provide a proper service, there will be takers for it. There was a strong need for an Indian international school. In 2005, we began expanding overseas, firstly to Malaysia and now we are in Japan, New Zealand, Thailand, Vietnam and India.
Q: What's your retirement plan?
There is no retirement age for me at the foundation. Thanks to my past lifestyle, I get by with $3,000 to $5,000 a month. I consider Singapore my home now. In fact, my son will be doing his national service this year.
Q: And your car is...?
A black 2.4-litre Lexus RX300. It was two years old when I bought it two years ago for $91,000.
This article was first published in The Straits Times on January 04, 2009.