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Family first: Timothy Wong

Timothy Wong is not usually one for regrets. But now, as he nears a decade of working in the early childhood education and care (ECEC) sector, he admits that if he did have one, it would be not enrolling his own children in child care when they were younger. “I’ve got two children; one is 21 and the other is 18,” Timothy says.

Timothy Wong, CEO of Evolve Education Group New Zealand

“The funny thing is, because of my Chinese heritage, child care was never really thought of as an option. The mentality – especially during those early years – tended to be children should only be raised by family. But the piece of the puzzle that we didn’t understand at that time was the education aspect.

“And now, having been in the industry for quite a while, I see the value in the kind of wide-ranging start in life for children that early childhood education and care provides. I think, unfortunately, my kids really missed out by never getting that opportunity.

If I had that time again, I’d absolutely put them into child care. Now, by drawing on my own experience, I’m using that knowledge in areas where there are high concentrations of people with Asian heritage.

With a Bachelor of Commerce and an MBA from The University of Queensland under his belt, Timothy spent his formative years fine-tuning his commerce, strategy and leadership skills at a number of multinational companies in retail, property and construction.

However, when he decided to buy three childcare centres as an investment with his brother, cousin and a family friend in 2011, he had no idea that this decision would ultimately shape the next chapter of his career.

At the time, Timothy was with PTW Architects as the Sydney firm’s COO, but when it became apparent that the childcare centres he’d bought weren’t in such great shape, he realised he’d have to step up and take on the businesses full-time.

Timothy spent close to three years as CEO and Managing Director of Creative Garden Early Learning Centres before establishing Cubby Care Early Learning Centres in 2014. Five years later, in October last year, he took his wealth of knowledge to New Zealand, making the move to Evolve Education Group.

Although the first to admit that his first year as Evolve’s CEO hasn’t been perfect, thanks to COVID-19, Timothy is far from admitting defeat, and is keen to use this turbulent time as an opportunity for further growth.

“Granted, I wish it had never happened,” he concedes. “But it has happened and, as an individual, my belief has always been that this is a journey. Things like COVID-19, the GFC, those are just bumps on the road to get to where we need to be. Yes, I wish it wasn’t so, but is it manageable? Absolutely. In fact, it’s important to look out towards the other side and think, ‘Well, maybe this can be a positive.’”

When COVID-19 first hit and lockdowns were put in place, Evolve Education was forced to close the doors to all 120 of its centres in New Zealand for four weeks. Now, as things slowly begin to return to normal, Timothy says the business is conscious to keep adapting and adjusting to the ever-changing environment.

“It’s a really tough time at the moment; families have lost jobs or they are now working differently to how they were before,” he explains. “It’s our responsibility to work out the ways in which we can offer additional support to them.”

Thankfully, Evolve was already well versed in tailoring the childcare experience to fit the varying needs of its customers, with Timothy’s many years in ECEC having taught him that there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all framework.

Timothy Wong, CEO of Evolve Education Group New Zealand_2

“We’re all different people with different values, so we can’t be generic in the way we do things,” he says. “It’s a sector where decisions really need to be made on a community level – the ground level. It can’t be a corporate system where you make a decision and fan it out to everyone, because there are always numerous factors at play. From high to low socio-economic areas, to ones with certain ethnicities, people require and want different things, and those differences need to be fostered and enhanced – rather than having a generic, corporate, head-down, conformist attitude.”

In part, it’s an insight that’s been learned as a result of Timothy’s attitude to leadership – hands-on and heavily staff-invested – which is why he’s so focused on cultivating a culture of inclusivity with an emphasis on teamwork.

We’re all different people with different values, so we just can’t be generic in the way we do things.

“I’m a people person,” he says. “I’ve personally been to 90-plus% of the centres, and I spend a lot of time on the road – more so, I think, than previous CEOs at Evolve. But I feel that because the sector is so driven by community and people, to get consistency of messaging – what I want to portray and create as a culture within our company – I need to be out there doing it, speaking to the educators and having the right conversations with managers.

“I really can’t think of another industry that relies so heavily on people making the business work. Having the weight of responsibility to look after children below the age of six resting on your shoulders is very heavy – you have to earn that trust. I don’t see myself as a person that makes all the decisions; I see myself more as an influencer. I love for employees to be curious, to question things and know that we value their input and ideas. To me, the end goal is not as important as the journey.”

Timothy Wong, CEO of Evolve Education Group New Zealand_3

If employees are the lifeblood of the company, then suppliers are the lungs. Timothy credits trusted, long-term relationships with key suppliers for ensuring that all elements of Evolve Education run seamlessly on a daily basis.

“If you have the right partnerships and suppliers, it solves so many problems,” he says. “We have partnerships with companies like Production Co-Op, who focus a lot on our brand management, uniforms and signage; and NZ Facilities, who handle maintenance. Because we can’t spend a lot of time wrangling these kinds of things, it’s amazing to know that when something needs doing, you can hand it over to them and it’s going to be done right. You can’t put a value on that.”

Drawing on his extensive expertise in the industry, Timothy has already set the wheels in motion for a number of positive developments at Evolve. While the bottom line in ECEC ultimately remains the same – caring for and educating children – he is a firm believer in the benefits of innovation.

“We do a lot of research into understanding the brain development of children, and make sure we incorporate the findings into our programs,” Timothy explains. “We do things like music lessons – things that have been proven to enhance brain development at that age. Some of these studies are brand new, so we’re still formulating ways to integrate them, but there are plans to be a lot more innovative while adhering to regulations and compliance.”

There’s never a truer saying than, ‘It takes a village to raise a child.

Looking to the future, Timothy has no doubt that if they continue to nurture the philosophy built on trust, teamwork and respect for which the business is renowned, the Evolve family will only continue to flourish. With over 2,000 employees and close to 9,000 children in its care, that’s one big clan.

“There’s never a truer saying than, ‘It takes a village to raise a child,’” he attests. “We’re all working together to create the best possible experience for these children and their families. First, we make sure that our teachers and educators are the best on offer, and second, we make sure that they’re well looked after. This is of the utmost importance because, really, they’re the ones that can make or break our business.

“We’re not only striving for families and children to want to be at Evolve, but for our employees to as well. Those are the two factors that we really try the hardest to achieve. They go hand in hand, because by having the right educators who want to come to work every morning, who are enthused, who know they’re supported by us and who know that we’re providing the absolute best learning experience for the children in our care, that really shows. The pieces all fit together – it’s the people who make this company what it is.”

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