International House Sydney, From Sinking Ship in 2011 to 4 Campuses Today, How Was This Possible?
Do you want to keep wondering how to grow your college, or are you willing to learn from others who can help you get there? Let’s learn from those who made it! For the February page, we interviewed Tim Eckenfels, CEO of International House Sydney.
I am Michelle Lee from CRICOS Consultancy, welcome to CRICOS Blog!
In this blog, I will be uncovering how you can save a CRICOS college and make it a successful CRICOS college. What is the secret of succeeding in the CRICOS industry if you are not from this industry? If you have been running an RTO and wanted to enter the CRICOS market what you need to know? Let’s reveal the secret.
Michelle: Please introduce yourself to our audience.
Tim: Good morning. My name is Tim Eckenfels. I’m the owner of IH Sydney Training Services. It is made up of four English language colleges: International House Sydney, International House Bondi, International House Darwin and our latest college International House Melbourne. In addition to the English language courses, we do teacher training. And we also run IH business colleges from each of those campuses.
Michelle: From my memory, there was only one International House. How long did it take you to grow from one campus to multiple campuses in Australia?
Tim: International House Sydney has been in existence for 30 years. It started in Manly, operated its International House Sydney on Manly Beach. In 2001 they opened a second campus, the IH Teacher Training Centre on York Street. This is what brought the company into the city. In 2012 I purchased the company from the owners at that time Julie Styles and Leoni Greenwood. Since that time, it’s been a real dedication, a lot of hard work. Just because of the amazing staff we’ve been able to turn it around. It had been heavily impacted by the global financial crisis and the industry crisis that took place in 20008, 2009 and 2010. So, it’s been quite a journey since that time.
Michelle: You said, you turned this company around, what did you have to do? What was your secret?
Tim: When I came in 2011, the company was losing money very rapidly, and the owners wanted to retire. They’ve been in the industry since 1997. Unfortunately, we had to really change what the company was offering. Which meant, losing employees or making them redundant, renegotiating contracts in terms of the lease, photocopy contracts and IT contracts you name it. It really took a good two years for the company to fully returned to a profitable state and then growing the organisation after that.
Michelle: Looking back, what lessons have you gained through this process of expanding?
Tim: Sure. The company took off in terms of expanding in 2016. We had an opportunity when Navitas decided to leave Bondi Junction. We were able to take on that property as a second college. So, we opened IH Bondi in January of 2017. In November 2017 we opened the IH business college. In January 2018 we opened up international Darwin. That was tremendous growth within about a year’s time. That was actually all funded by one college International House Sydney. It funded that was an absolutely massive expansion. We opened in October last year International House Melbourne. We did that in the campus of ALG in Melbourne. Both companies have grown so fast that now we’re opening our own Centre on March 4th in Melbourne. The great thing about opening an International House Melbourne is that it’s now funded by four profitable parts of the company. Sydney, Bondi, Darwin, and IH Business College. So that’s what I’ve learned. Be careful how fast you grow! It made for some tight times, but the nice thing is we’re past that point.
Michelle: In your opinion, what is the key ingredient to growing a CRICOS college?
Tim: It’s a dedicated staff. I could not do this on my own by any means. Right now, the company has around 110 employees, and the amazing part of it is, very very few of my employees ever leave the company. That includes teachers. There’s just culture in this company. Amazingly talented hard working people that work incredibly well together and just love being here. So, I’m incredibly fortunate to have that. There’s no way we could have done what we’ve done in the last three years without the support and the dedication of talented teams.
Michelle: What did you have to do to create this culture?
Tim: You know what? I get that question all the time. I really don’t know. I think it’s a vision. Since I came into this company in 2011 and when I purchased it in 2012, I’ve always had a pretty clear vision of where I wanted the company to go. I think it’s conveying that to all members of staff. So through either weekly staff meetings, every department has weekly meetings that we go into. I go to the teacher’s meetings every one to two months, and I share with everyone what is going on in the company the good and the bad, where we’re going, why I think it’s the right decision. It’s also taking on that feedback from every member of staff. When someone says “well, have you thought about this or what you think about this or there’s a problem here.” We really have a culture of people communicating. I have an absolutely open-door policy, and everybody in the company can approach me at any time, and they do.
Michelle: International House is known for its quality brand and quality students. What was the strategy behind this excellent result?
Tim: Thank you for that because actually, the strategy behind it was when we sat down in 2012 and said: “What do we want to be known for in the industry?” We had an excellent reputation for the teacher training, and we decided to take that excellent reputation over to the ELICOS side of the company. It even went further when we opened IHBC. I said the same thing. I’m not going into the VET sector unless I can be known for quality because I didn’t want to tarnish the other areas of the company, but I thought there was an opportunity for a high-quality provider. So, it’s that reputation for quality. We actually made a decision to focus on what’s in the classrooms. Truthfully, this company does an agent survey every December, and for the last four years, the number one reason agents sell International House is the quality in the classrooms and the excellence of the teaching. I couldn’t buy that if I had to. It’s amazing that’s what’s come back just by focusing on that.
Michelle: What advice would you give to start-up CRICOS business owners?
Tim: Yeah focus on the quality. Deliver what you say you’re going to deliver. I think in this industry there’s a lot of business people look and they see the cash the student payments and things. So, they look at it as a huge opportunity. What I realize is they forget you have to deliver on that promise of what you’ve sold to that student. I think anyone coming into this industry has to be much more mindful of that. Yes, there is money to be made. The margins are not huge by any means, but you need to deliver on that promise of anything you’ve sold.
Michelle: What’s change would you like to see in the CRICOS industry?
Tim: I want to see government and in particular the Immigration Department working much closer with the industry bodies. There are large plans by the government for huge student numbers by 2025 and beyond. The only way we’re all going to achieve that is to maintain the quality reputations of the providers in Australia but also then align our goals with the Immigration Department. One of the biggest threats right now is the Immigration Department not listening to what the industry is telling them, and the government is also kind of trying to be on both sides of that. We all three got to sit down and really come up with a sustainable plan for moving forward.
Michelle: What is your goal for International House?
Tim: I want to continue growing the organization and really being one of the top providers throughout the country. Yes, I look at growth opportunities basically as opportunities. When the right opportunity comes to open for example Perth or the Gold Coast or up in Cairns, it has to be the right opportunity. So, I’ll probably continue doing that. Hopefully at a slower pace than I have these last two and a half years while maintaining the high-quality employees and all that keeping everyone happy.
Michelle: What advice can you give to someone who comes into this industry with no previous experience in this industry?
Tim: I have 25 years of experience in this industry. If I were to go out and try to open a 7-Eleven or a bookstore I’m going to fail. I don’t know anything about those industries. Yes, there are business skills that are transferable, but you better know the industry you’re going into inside and out in order to be successful. I don’t think you can do it otherwise. That’s actually where we see unfortunately we call the shonky or poor providers because all they’re looking at is the dollars. Then when you get into it, you have rent, you have staffing costs, you have an accreditation costs, you have so many different fees in this industry and the accreditation and everything else that’s involved. They don’t have a clue. That’s actually when ASQA gets to go in and clean it up. It’s unfortunate because it tarnishes the industry.
Michelle: If such business owners want to get into this industry what do they have to do to reach their success? If you were to open a 7-Eleven store what would you do?
Tim: I would make myself an employee of a 7-Eleven for two to three years, and I would do every job in that small shop, so I fully understood what it was, how to run that business. Then you can take the risk and then open a business like that. My background is in marketing and sales, and that’s what I was doing until 2007 when I was recruited by the owner of Ability Education at that time. He had an IT training company then sold it off. He then decided to get into the English language because it was a nice industry. It’s not such a nice industry when you don’t know what you’re doing. The great thing is he realized very quickly that he didn’t have the expertise. That’s when he approached me to become a business partner with him in Ability Education. So, I could at least come in and take a big step for marketing and sales up to the CEO position. At least bring the whole industry knowledge side and everything else. He had the business skills and knowledge and actually was a great combination. We grew the Ability Education from 2007 to 2009 very very fast. It went from one location down in Chinatown to adding multiple levels to that location plus a second location on Wentworth Avenue and a third location in Melbourne. So that’s probably been a little bit of my history with growth. Because again the industry was growing very fast during that time and we took full advantage of it by opening these new centres.
Michelle: How about if an RTO owner wants to get into the CRICOS market. What do they need to do to succeed?
Tim: If they are an established RTO let’s say in the domestic market, all they need to do is to find staff or business partners or someone who has that knowledge on the international side. I’ve actually watched this with a few of schools and been approached recently by a couple of providers who are doing exactly that. They tried to do it themselves, but without any knowledge, the needs are very different for an international student versus a domestic student. The requirements that go with that are also is very different. So, I think they better bring in that expertise and find someone to support them or be a business partner or a key employee to make that transition.
Michelle: Wow another amazing information for our listers. Thank you so much!
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