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The PIE profiles international education entrepreneurs

Understanding the link between education and workplace is the reason for global business school LSBF’s  success, according to its founder, entrepreneur Aaron Etingen. London School of Business and Finance (LSBF) was set up in one central London location in 2003 and has now expanded to teach 38,000 students across all its programmes, both those offline, delivered via various campuses in the UK, Singapore and Canada, and online.

David Brown and Robert Darell of ISIS Education, now a multi-million international operation, the company started life in a railway master's cupboard

"We focus on making sure our brand stands for and delivers what our customers need - transformative and relevant educational experiences"

Etingen trained as an accountant, but said he had entrepreneurism in his blood, plotting numerous business plans as he grew up. He explains that he approached the idea of building a business school by thinking about what employers would want from graduates – and ergo, what graduates needed to ensure they became employed.

“The first programme I ever launched was an MBA +ACCA [accountancy qualification], so the candidates would have both leadership skills and the strategy & critical thinking of an MBA and the training of a finance professional,” he explains. “It has been hugely successful.”

He says he continues to anticipate trends in demand by consulting the professional sector, finding out what employers are looking for in their future intake of employees. “We can stay a little bit ahead of the curve; we know that this is what the student needs because we spoke to their [future] employers. We want them to graduate today and apply tomorrow in the workplace.”

The idea of producing work-ready, global-ready graduates is a leap that HULT International Business School has also made, actively promoting the idea of “global rotation” in its strapline: 5 Campuses. Global Rotation. 135 nationalities.

HULT is part of the empire built by the Swedish Hult family, at the head of which sits Bertil Hult, original founder of EF, which grew from offering English language teaching holidays abroad to becoming a behemoth in the industry, operating 16 divisions such as language education, educational travel, cultural exchange and academic programs (business schools, high schools), as explains Co-CEO, Philip Hult, oldest son of Bertil.

Aaron Etingen of LSBF

Aaron Etingen of LSBF

“For each segment, we focus on making sure our brand stands for and delivers what our customers need – transformative and relevant educational experiences,” he says. “With 34,000 employees, faculty and teachers, we have grown from a family-owned business into a multinational business but maintaining our small-company culture and work ethic is key to making sure we stay entrepreneurial and focused as we grow.”

Philip inherited the entrepreneurial gene; from 2001 to 2006 he led EF’s growth in China and expanded its academic degree programmes. During that time, EF China grew from less than 100 employees to more than 5,000.

Moving into academic degree access has already been noted as a logical extension for operators in international education; for many Western companies, branching into Asia has been another inevitable move.

Jean-Marc Alberola is a good example of a diversifier; the founder of Bridge, a company of 80 employees and US$10 million turnover, Bridge started off servicing the corporate English language training market in Sao Paulo, under the name Linguatec. After then acquiring a US English language school in Denver, CO called Bridge International School, Bridge-Linguatec was formed and embarked upon a decade of diversification.

Today, under the shortened name Bridge, the company has divisions including BridgeEnglish, BridgeTEFL, BridgeVirtual and BridgePathways – university international recruitment and placement. Alberola sees future opportunity on campus and in Asia and the Middle East. He says, “ This year, we plan to open four new university campus-based intensive English Programs in the U.S. In foreign markets, our expansion will focus on new BridgePathways centers in China and Korea and continued growth of our newest Pathways center in Doha, Qatar a joint venture with Faisal Holdings.”

“We pretty much hit a pot of gold”

Making the move in the other direction is Hong Kong-born and Canada-raised Toby Chu, Founder of CIBT Education Group, who first started offering MBAs, delivered with a US partner, in China in 1994. In his words, “We pretty much hit a pot of gold. We became one of the largest MBA programmes in China.”

His company moved westwards, buying Sprott-Shaw Community College and King George International College in Canada. The company vision: “To become a global education player with Canada as our base, China as our hub, and expand across Asia.”

Expanding beyond national borders is also cited by David Brown and Robert Darell of the UK’s ISIS Education as an aim that they always had. Already a diversified business with outbound tours, inbound tours, inbound summer programmes, summer camps and adult language schools, as well as an academic preparation college acquired in 2010, Brown explains, “One of our main business principles has always been weather-proofing. If you do a number of inter-related things, then if one is hit by a problem, you are covered.”

ISIS Education acquired two schools in Canada in January 2013, marking their move from diversified national player to international operator – and emerging from under the radar as a significant business, turning over a predicted UK£40 million in its current trading year. More North American operations are in its sights.

Acquisition has become a very common feature of the private international education sector, and another entrepreneur who has amassed considerable scale through acquisition is Andrew Mangion, owner of Malta-based EC. Originally just one school, EC now has 15 adult schools in five countries as well as summer centres, turning over €64 million in 2012.

“One of our main business principles has always been weather-proofing”

Says Mangion, “From a very early stage it became clear to me that this was a very fragmented industry and that there were opportunities for companies to take what they were doing and export it into a number of countries around the world.” EC, unlike others, has not diversified and concentrates on English language training only. Mangion’s ambition? “To become the Apple of this industry.”

This article is an abridged version of a feature that first appeared in The PIE Review 2. To subscribe to The PIE Review 3, click here 

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