Finding the right note

30th May 1997 at 01:00
In an unassuming brick-built office block off Cheadle High Street in Manchester, Kevin McNeany presides over a voracious empire that is helping to revolutionise the way educational services are run. His company,Nord Anglia Education, is involved in almost every aspect of the education business. It owns the largest chain of independent schools in Britain (16) and has several abroad. It has established six Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) schools in this country, two in Russia, two in New Zealand and one in Washington DC. It is the largest private provider of careers guidance in the UK. It also supplies OFSTED inspectors.

Now the company is moving into the college sector: lecturing services; salaries administration and payroll; record-keeping and advising on legal issues and the administration of pensions. Nord Anglia also owns 18 all-day nurseries - a fast-growing side to the business. Its latest venture is to act as consultant to the World Bank, looking into the feasibility of successfully investing in private-se ctor education in the developing world.

A small, wiry man with an incisive humour, Mr McNeany has journeyed at breakneck speed into the virgin educational territory of providing outsourced services. He believes he is at the start of a development which is gathering unstoppable momentum. The company employs 1,200 and has more than 1,000 consultants on its books - and there is much more to do.

This former secondary teacher from County Armagh moved from Northern Ireland to take up a post at a Catholic school in Leeds. His principal reason was to take advantage of the city's lively music scene - he's a keen show band trombone player.

He began to promote shows and, several years later, when he moved to teaching economics in further education in Southport and then Manchester, he transferred his entrepreneurial energy to setting up private TEFL courses. He was also active as chairman of the Merseyside Labour party "at a time when it was very difficult to be a member because of infiltration".

In effect, these two aspects of his interests directed the path he was to take. He is an entrepreneur by nature with a keen political eye.

Under a government which has taken education into the centre of political life, he is passionate to show how the private sector and "genuine competition" can take education forward. "If you talk about competition you are labelled as an ideologue but I see it as an alternative mechanism."

This mechanism has made him a wealthy man; Nord Anglia was valued at #163;18 million when it began trading on the Stock Market in February. Mr McNeany, as its executive chairman, nailed his colours to the business by selling only #163;700,000 of the shares and agreeing to a two-year lock-in for his remaining 45 per cent stake, worth #163;8.1 million at the 140p-a-share placing price.

Not many teachers go on to make millions, but teaching was never enough for Kevin McNeany. Even before he set up his initial business in language courses he spent much of his spare time wheeler-dealing, largely on the fringes of the music business. He realises that many teachers give teaching their all, but he went into the profession without qualifications and admits that he probably wasn't "that good", though he was "entertaining". In any case he was restless to do other things, and as TEFL was in its formative stages in the late 1960s, there were many opportunities for a teacher with business zeal.

He began by setting up courses in Southport and quickly spread his net across the country.

He quit teaching after 10 years in 1977 and by 1980 his TEFL business had grown to 80 summer courses around the country. His business really took off when he began buying up private schools.

McNeany's real ambitions, however, lie in the state sector. Lecturing, personnel, careers education and guidance, record-keeping, cleaning, catering, security, childcare and grounds maintenance services have been bought in by up to 30 colleges.

He is determined to keep all doors open and is poised to capitalise on any initiative. For example, he believes Nord Anglia, through its careers services, is well placed to act should Labour's Welfare to Work proposals become policy. "We can find the young people, guide them, assess them and act as brokers for them with employers or colleges who may be attracted to the subsidy."

As with careers services, so with schools. Through the Private Finance Initiative, set up in 1993 by Kenneth Clarke to attract private funds to the public sector, Nord Anglia is acting as the

long-term operating partner for a consortium to relocate St Wilfrid's High, a grant-mainta ined school in Blackburn, to a greenfield site. The company will be responsible for the running and maintenance of the building, the catering, cleaning, providing of general equipment and IT to a specification drawn up by the school.

McNeany has used his experience of teaching in the state sector and his knowledge of education from the inside to the best financial advantage.

When he was teaching, he says, he always considered ways in which he could do things better. He still keeps up with teacher friends from his teaching days in Lancashire and is acutely aware of "the frustrations and vicissitudes. I have kept the contacts, I know what's going on."

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