For entrepreneur Douglas Becker, business is a real pleasure INVENTING SUCCESS

August 14, 1994|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,Sun Staff Writer

He doesn't have a college education, but he runs the country's largest after-school tutoring company. He's single and childless, but he's heading the effort to build the new, $30 million children's museum in downtown Baltimore.

"Kids, don't try this at home!" Douglas Becker says with a laugh.

They might be tempted to try. Despite his untraditional route, Mr. Becker has hit upon traditional success.

As president of Sylvan Learning Systems, whose 500 franchises are familiar sights in suburban strip shopping malls, he's led the tutoring company into new and lucrative directions. And, with his name turning up on seemingly all the important cultural boards in town -- among others, the Baltimore Museum of Art and the new children's museum being built in the Market Place complex east of the Inner Harbor -- he seems primed to become one of those influential, behind-the-scenes movers-and-shakers in the Robert Embry and Walter Sondheim mold.

Here's the unconventional part: Douglas Becker is only 28 years old.

Hasn't he heard? He's supposed to be a slacker. Generation X. Assistant manager, at best, at the Gap.

Mr. Becker doesn't even look as though he shops at the Gap.

After being in business for more than 10 years, he has the settled look of his chosen milieu, comfortable in suits and boardrooms and with people a generation or more older. He doesn't seem particularly young -- well, if you look past the "Star Trek" memorabilia in his office at Sylvan's headquarters in Columbia -- probably because he got such a big head start.

"Now, 17, that was young," says Mr. Becker, who was indeed that young when he started developing "LifeCard," a credit card-sized device encoded with a person's entire medical history, which eventually would make him his first million. "If I'd taken the time out and gone to college and business school, those extra six years would put me in my 30s now, and no one would think I was too young to be doing what I'm doing."

Now, 8 -- that's even younger. There's a story about 8-year-old Doug Becker that, if you didn't hear it so often from so many people, would seem to have the too-perfect sheen of manufactured biography. Concerned about pollution-emitting smokestacks, he came up with a way to scrub and filter all that gunk and keep it from entering the environment.

He got his father to lend him a briefcase and take him to one of those rather suspect inventors' seminars. He's not sure what happened to his invention -- someone could have stolen the idea and been making millions all these years, he jokes -- but it turned out to be the start of a running theme in his business life.

"I guess I've always been intrigued by the business opportunities related to big social problems," Mr. Becker says.

Through his various business and civic ventures, he's plunged into several major social issues -- from health care to education to welfare. He seems to have found the ideal middle ground for the kind of businessman who has social concerns, or the socially concerned person who wants to make some money.

"I honestly can say that money has never been a driving force for me, but then, I've also been fortunate that the things I've done have worked out economically," Mr. Becker says.

What seems more important than money is influence. While he says he's currently not interested in political office himself, he clearly relishes knowing all the players at City Hall and influential groups like the Abell Foundation, and taking on clearly defined projects and making them work.

"I remember thinking he was awfully young, but extremely bright and extremely intense," says Baltimore school superintendent Walter G. Amprey, who has worked with Mr. Becker in bringing Sylvan tutoring into several public schools. "The mayor [Kurt L. Schmoke] had told me about him, and said he had some good ideas."

A modest lifestyle

While Mr. Becker does have some of the requisite spoils of success -- he drives a black BMW and is planning to move into the plush HarborView condominium tower overlooking the Inner Harbor -- he doesn't seem to live outrageously high on the hog. He's lived for six years in the first home he ever bought, in Federal Hill, and works the kind of hours of someone aspiring to rise out of the mailroom rather than someone who already has made it.

"We have very much a growth culture here," Mr. Becker says, sitting in the bustling offices of Sylvan, where the phones seem ++ to ring continually. "The only time there is job security and fun is when a company is growing. If it's shrinking, it's no fun. It's a great environment for feeling like you're contributing. We're not making widgets. We're educating kids."

Those kids, of course, largely come from more privileged households, the kind that can afford to buy extra tutoring. But Mr. Becker, citing what he thinks might be "pre-emptive guilt," has sought to broaden Sylvan's reach.

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