Partners routinely exceed expectation

Teamwork: Sylvan's two principals are considered innovators in for-profit education.

August 26, 2002|By Andrew Ratner and Stacey Hirsh | Andrew Ratner and Stacey Hirsh,SUN STAFF

Joseph D. Duffey walked into the DC Coast, a popular restaurant in Washington where a constant stock ticker beamed the latest from Bloomberg and CNN. This was 3 1/2 years ago, when everyone at the bar glanced at the ticker every minute or two because the stock prices jumped one way - up.

Duffey was there to meet Douglas L. Becker, who wanted to recruit Duffey for his company in Baltimore, Sylvan Learning Systems Inc.

Duffey qualified as a capital insider. He was head of the U.S. Information Agency and a former president of American University. Duffey had known Bill Clinton for 30 years, dating back to protests at Yale University against U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton had done volunteer work for Duffey's unsuccessful campaign for a U.S. Senate seat in Connecticut.

Clinton had told Duffey a little about Becker and Sylvan. The president knew of the company because its relocation to downtown Baltimore from the suburbs was a coup for his "empowerment zone" tax-credit program to aid cities.

"Young company run by a bunch of kids" was how Clinton described it, Duffey recalled.

Upon meeting Becker, then 32, Duffey silently concurred with that description. But as he listened to Sylvan's fresh-faced chief executive describe his plan to amass colleges overseas, he was impressed by the depth and maturity of the vision - not the first person so struck by Becker.

Becker emphasized that his was not an attempt to export American higher education or to create little American universities around the world. He described how developing nations were under pressure to provide college opportunities to a growing middle class and how they were turning to for-profit providers to help.

Duffey had spent most of his adult life in higher education. He was chancellor and president at the University of Massachusetts before running American University. He had watched other respected universities - Maryland, Michigan, Temple - establish overseas programs or partnerships, with mixed success.

He saw vast potential in Becker's idea, and not only through his experiences in academia.

His father was a West Virginia coal miner who had lost a leg on the job and despaired before he died that he had no property to leave his five children. Duffey envisioned parents in Mexico and Spain and China with similar hopes that education would offer more prosperity for their children.

"The Sylvan plan intrigued me," said Duffey, who became an executive for Sylvan's international universities a few months later. "I was trying to understand this new generation, this new economy. It struck me as a good business venture, but more than that, it was based on some insights that I was sympathetic to. I saw it as an idea that nobody had put forth before."

After-school project

Becker, with business partner R. Christopher Hoehn-Saric, had surpassed expectations before.

They bought Sylvan in their 20s after making millions in an after-school computer project. They quickly built it into the largest tutoring company in the world. And they moved its base from the suburbs to downtown, the first new corporate headquarters in Baltimore in a generation.

But their latest maneuver might be the most astonishing to date: transforming Sylvan from a tutor for children to a global network of universities.

Becker "is a great example of a 21st-century leader in the knowledge business," said Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "No one is better at asking the right question at the right time than Doug."

Sylvan's two principals are considered innovators in for-profit education - perhaps a result of their having spent relatively little time in education and never having worked professionally in a school setting. With an early start in business, Hoehn-Saric didn't finish college, and Becker never started.

Becker was 17 and a junior at the Gilman School in Baltimore when he met Hoehn-Saric, then a 20-year-old junior at the Johns Hopkins University, in 1983. Hoehn-Saric was friendly with Eric Becker but hadn't met his younger brother until they began working at a computer store in Lutherville.

The two didn't know a great deal about computers, but most people understood even less because personal computers were fairly new to the market.

Becker spent a lot of time at home pecking at a computer keyboard, to his mother's dismay. She finally suggested that he go outside and get some exercise rather than waste a sunny afternoon in a dark room.

"If I were sitting in front of a Steinway, would you say the same thing?" Becker pointedly asked his mother, a symphony narrator. Rheda Becker never questioned him on the subject again, she recalled.

Couple of standouts

"They were definitely people who, when we first met them, particularly Doug, really stood out from the crowd," said Bob Roswell, then co-owner of the Computerland store where they worked.

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