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The PIE profiles international education entrepreneurs

From a birthright in international education to a chance encounter with the industry or sometimes just a bold leap from employee to entrepreneur, many business owners started their journey. These innovators are helping shape and direct the industry, and The PIE spoke to many success stories from the education sphere to find out how, why and what next.
August 9 2013
8 Min Read

“We would never have guessed that we would be so successful with something that we simply love to do,” relates Alberto Sarno, who with his brother Marcello started Sprachcaffe – now a global language teaching empire – as a way of financing their studies and inspired by the Italian tradition of the Caffe Letterario, political debate over coffee.

Thirty years later, the two Italian brothers head up an empire that is based out of Frankfurt, Germany, where their company began. Sprachcaffe teaches around 50,000 students, has 31 schools teaching seven languages – including the GEOS chain, acquired in 2011.

The Sarnos set up their business over a kitchen table, and many others have interesting start-up tales. Richard Brown is co-founder of award-winning BROWNS English Language School in Australia, established in 2004. He explains that he and his sister sought to flee finance and find an industry that they could feel passionate about, and it was a chance encounter with a language school on holiday that set the wheels in motion for them.

He reminisces: “BROWNS started with 4 students, 2 classrooms and a grand total teaching staff of 1. My sister [co-founder] appointed herself as the Office Manager and I was Activities Manager. Unfortunately however I was made redundant from this position for not being bringing the students back to class on-time from surfing lessons.”

Since then, the school has grown and gone on to build an impressive reputation and win a prestigious export award.

Others had a commitment to community-building, such as Paul Zysman, founder of Canada-based ILSC, which now teaches almost 10,000 students per year and has operations in four countries. Prior to start-up, with “sweat equity” as capital, he had worked in Africa training community organisers and found himself at the helm of a growing business that originally started with philanthropic aims.

“There was one classroom, with one teacher in it – me. There was one cleaner – me. There was one secretary – me. There was one marketing person – me.”

An original pioneer of the English language teaching industry, Frank Bell, who set up UK-based Bell Language Schools – now the Bell Educational Trust trading as Bell English – also had intercultural cohesion as his motivation for setting up a school in 1955.

Captured as a prisoner of war during the Second World War, in the harsh conditions of the camp, he taught his fellow prisoners Spanish and French, a simple act of defiance that quickly led to the creation of a secret university. After the war, Bell returned to England and, reflecting on his experiences, became convinced that the route to international co-operation and understanding lay in learning.

The swimming pool at Sprachcaffe's Malta school

The swimming pool at Sprachcaffe’s Malta school

Quite often, too, motivation can be simply a belief that one can do it better. Cesar Rennert, founder of Rennert in the USA, explains, “I was inspired by how badly languages were taught at the university where I was teaching for many years. I just wanted to do it my own way.”

He continues – “It was very, very difficult. There was one classroom, with one teacher in it – me. There was one cleaner – me. There was one secretary – me. There was one marketing person – me.”

Johannes Kraus, German founder of Kurus English in Cape Town, was a disgruntled student who determined to blend language learning with experiencing Cape Town. “I had at times found it rather annoying to remain seated during somewhat lengthy communication classes, whilst just outside, and tantalisingly so, Cape Town was waiting with so many opportunities and experiences.”

One product of the state sector, and now arguably one of the most significant entrepreneurs in the industry, is another Antipodean, Rod Jones, now CEO of Navitas, which turns over AUS$702m and operates in 27 countries.

Jones explains that after running the secondary education authority for the Western Australian government and then helping set up institutions specifically for the international market, he realised that “there was a high failure rate amongst international students in the first stage of their studies, not through lack of academic ability but due to transitional and adjustment issues (new country and culture, different education system and language of instruction, homesickness).”

With a colleague, Dr Peter Larsen, he set up PIBT in Perth in 1994, on the campus of Edith Cowan University. It offered pre-university and university level programmes to both international and Australian students.

“There is an inevitability for language schools to move up the value chain into higher education for the international market”

PIBT evolved into Navitas, which now teaches 80,000 students a year and has three divisions, offering university prep programmes, professional training and a raft of various English programmes.

One of the other “big names” in the entrepreneurs enclosure, is Andrew Colin, who started out buying a private college also focusing on access to university, Bellerby’s College. He went on to develop language schools under the Embassy brand name, and in 1994 a company called British Study Group was formed that incorporated both businesses.

After selling to the Daily Mail group completely by 1999 for a documented UK£44 million, Colin then went on – after a spell in property – to set up INTO, working in tandem with university partners to set up on-campus foundation programmes that are jointly owned. INTO has since expanded its repertoire, offering Chinese language programmes in China, for example.

This company sold a 25% stake in its business to Leeds Equity Partners in December 2012 for UK£66 million.

As gaining a degree abroad became a much more marketable reality for students globally, many traditional language teaching businesses also eyed this leap up the food chain. Larry Finnegan, who operated general English and junior summer programmes along with his wife under the International House (IH) brand in Dublin, sold to Ireland’s Independent News and Media in 2011 because he could see the opportunities presented by running IH Dublin and INM’s private tertiary college, Independent College, under the same roof.

“In an era of global education it seems to me that there is an inevitability for language schools to move up the value chain into higher education for the international market,” he says. [more>]

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.

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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