Online Entrepreneur

With 24 years in business at age 41, the head of Laureate Education sets his eyes on Asia -- but says the company intends to stay in Baltimore

Q&a -- Douglas L. Becker

August 19, 2007|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,Sun Reporter

Douglas L. Becker, the 41-year-old Baltimore entrepreneur who built a billion-dollar business operating online and foreign universities, is facing the next big challenge of his nearly 25-year career. With a $3.82 billion buyout of Laureate Education that closed on Friday, Becker, Laureate's chief executive officer, is moving to Hong Kong, where he plans to oversee the newly private company's expansion in Asia.

It's a risky venture, but one with significant potential opportunities, as East Asia and the Pacific are seeing the fastest enrollment growth in the post-secondary education market, according to analysts. Becker is eyeing markets such as China, South Korea, Japan, India, Vietnam, the Philippines and Singapore.

"Creating a company that has international in the DNA has been incredibly interesting," Becker said. "It's very much the way the world is moving. ... It's been an incredible experience to really build a truly boundary-less, colorblind company in every sense."

Becker was only 17 and attending the Gilman School in Baltimore when he and a friend started a technology business. Two years later, they sold the company.

Several years later, the pair bought Sylvan Learning Systems Inc., the predecessor to Laureate.

In 2003, Sylvan sold its pre-kindergarten-through-12th grade tutoring business to focus on higher education and became Laureate. (The tutoring business became Educate Inc., which also became private this year.)

Laureate operates Walden University, its U.S. flagship online institution, and about two dozen colleges and universities abroad in countries including Spain, France, Mexico, Chile and Brazil.

Becker overcame opposition from large shareholders such as Baltimore's T. Rowe Price Group and complaints of conflicts of interests to take the company private. Becker said the move was necessary because it allows the company to pursue aggressive expansion plans without quarterly pressures from Wall Street.

Becker and his family were set to leave for China yesterday.

Between packing and preparing for his move, Becker sat down for an interview with The Sun last week at Laureate's new headquarters in Harbor East. He talked about the company's evolution and his own as an executive and his goals for relocating to Hong Kong for the next year. He also talked about the mini-controversy involving city tax breaks for the company's new digs and Laureate's future in Baltimore. Your U.S. business essentially consists of Walden University. Do you have plans to expand in the United States?

I do think there are specific niches in the U.S. market that are interesting. And so you will find us continuing to invest and grow in the U.S. But the majority of our activity will be outside the United States. ... There are some specific niches in the U.S. even in the campus-based arena that do interest us -- areas that we feel are more difficult for traditional competitors to get into, or maybe a little bit small for our U.S. competitors to care about. I think I probably won't go into the details, only because we have competitors. I don't want to say this is exactly what we are going to do. Speaking of your competitors, a lot of them are also looking to expand overseas. What differentiates Laureate from the rest?

We have done it and other people are just talking about it. That's the whole thing in a nutshell. We built the company to be an international leader from the beginning. ... And our competitors are U.S. companies that I think are going to find the international markets to be very different. That's not to say they won't make investments or be successful. But it's one thing to try to change your company to move into the international market. It's another to build a company from scratch to be a leader in the international markets. Does it help that you'll be on the ground, so to speak, in Asia?

I'm used to being on the ground anyway. I travel a lot and [have] been to almost every place where we've invested. The challenge for Asia is the time between trips is too long for me. I think we'll be able to react much more quickly by having me on the ground there. ... We have strong management everywhere. The delays in attending to Asia [are] holding us back. What are your specific goals for your time there?

I have three goals that will tell me a year from now if I've accomplished what I hope.

The first is that we should have a clear strategy for how we're going to develop in Asia. We have a strategy, but I want to refine that strategy, I want to test some assumptions, and I want to come back with something that we could fully commit to.

The second thing is I would like to have a platform of some core higher education businesses. This could be partnerships or acquisitions. That will give us a base to work from.

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