CHICAGO (Reuters) - Kent Holiday was just looking to start his own education business. In the process he also helped turn around the fortunes of a school in a rural Wyoming community.
In late 2005, Holiday got serious about launching an English-language training venture he had been kicking around for years. He left a successful telecoms career in Korea and moved his family back to his wife’s hometown of Ten Sleep - population 304.
He enrolled his two daughters in the local school, but the move to Wyoming was supposed to be temporary, as Holiday ultimately intended to establish his business, Eleutian Technology (www.eleutian.com), in Utah, close to Salt Lake City.
Those plans were altered when he dropped his kids off at school one morning.
“‘What’s it going to take to make you stay here?’” Holiday recalled being asked by the chairman of the school board, who informed him that his departure would push public school enrollment down in the tiny district, a trend that brought worries of consolidation. “There were some people that were very, very concerned.”
When Holiday took a closer look at the cattle- and sheep-ranching community he found that Ten Sleep was among the first communities nationwide to install high-speed fiber-to-the- home phone lines. Good news, as Eleutian required state-of-the-art technology to deliver its mainstay product - real-time video-conferencing that lets U.S. teachers connect with foreign students across multiple time zones.
He initiated a pilot program inside the school - Washakie County District 2 - initially hiring six teachers looking to pick up extra hours.
“We started in a utility closet off the teachers’ lounge,” said the soon-to-be 41-year-old. “That allowed the teachers to teach early in the morning and late at night.”
Educators in Ten Sleep said the school was never in danger of closing. Terrill Mills, former school board chairman and local rancher, said the community was trying to “stabilize” enrollment.
“Kent and I spent hours talking about this,” said Mills. “He didn’t really save our school, but he did help. He had an impact on the enrollment climbing.”
In 2007, the year after Eleutian’s arrival, fall enrollment at the school had risen to 96 students from 84 in 2006, according to figures provided by Wyoming state government. In 2002 there were 104 students.
In rural Wyoming every job counts, said Le Ann Baker, executive director of the Washakie Development Association, a local business development group.
“We only have 8,000 people in the whole county,” she said. “We all appreciate anybody who comes to a small community and impacts the economy.”
To date, Eleutian has hired more than 500 certified teachers throughout the state of Wyoming, primarily to serve the Korean market, where it has a presence in more than 400 elementary and junior high schools, Holiday said. The business is on track to retain 750 teachers by year’s end with a lofty goal of 5,000 within two years.
“It’s really changed their lives,” said Holiday, who has worked out arrangements for training and recruitment with local community colleges. Holiday added Wyoming has proved a great resource for ESL teachers, as they generally have no discernable accent.
The teachers, who staff nine call centers in Wyoming and one in Utah, are mostly employed on a part-time basis and are paid $12 to $15 per hour. Holiday added each receives benefits and can augment their income through merit bonuses.
“When I had gone through my third layoff, I thought, what am I going to do?,” said Eleutian employee Candace Marie McMillan, a former elementary school teacher and mother of three from Powell, Wyoming. “I was able to have my daughter, raise my daughter, take her to work with me if I needed to.”
AN $83-BILLION MARKET
Holiday, who started Eleutian with less than $1 million, has since attracted investors. In January, he raised $10 million in financing from Cheyenne Capital, a private equity group headed by Robert E. Grady, a former managing director with the Carlyle Group who sits on Eleutian’s board. The money will go to sales and support, helping Eleutian to push into newer markets like China and Japan.
Building a base in Korea was a natural progression for Holiday, a Mormon whose first exposure to the country came during a religious mission. Before pursuing a subsequent telecoms career that included stints with Cisco Systems, Ericsson and Korea Telecom, he taught English, where he noticed flaws in traditional ESL training.
“Bringing U.S. or UK or Australian teachers to Asia to teach English at a very high wage is not bringing the results,” he said, adding that imported teachers often have no formal training in education. Eleutian’s method is roughly 70 percent of the cost with three times the impact, he said.
Alexander Paris Jr., an equity analyst with Barrington Research who covers publicly traded education companies such as Rosetta Stone, said Eleutian appears to be focused on a “sweet spot” of ESL - instructor-led training, which comprises about 60 percent of an $83 billion worldwide market.
That comes as no surprise to Holiday, who earlier this year moved his family to Cody, Wyoming, the site of Eleutian’s new headquarters. He said he needed to be closer to an airport with international flights to current and future customers.
This time, though, he wasn’t worried about impacting the local school.
“We still have a number of team members down in Ten Sleep,” he said.
This is part of a monthly series about "Accidental Entrepreneurs" running on Reuters.com. If you think your company qualifies, please email Deb Cohen at smallbusinessbigissues @ yahoo.com