Entrepreneur Sunny Varkey has his hands full building bigger and better schools. Katharine Slowe speaks to the GEMS chief executive.
He didn't study much throughout his school years, admits Sunny Varkey, the CEO of Global Education Management Systems (GEMS). "I finished my A-levels and went into business. That's why I have a passion to make schools," he says.
And he makes them well, judging by his dazzling diamond cufflinks. The tiny trinkets not only reveal Varkey's love of gems, be it jewellery or his education empire, but also the generous returns on offer for operators of schools.
The cost of running a school is going up each day, but our schools get first choice from parents.
In three decades, the businessman has overseen construction of more than 100 schools worldwide, operating under the GEMS umbrella. It's an achievement that few would have predicted when his parents left Kerala, India, for a new life in Dubai almost 50 years ago.
Following the move, Varkey's parents wasted little time putting their teaching skills to good use.
"We are from Kerala in the south of India and in those days you came to Dubai for better prospects," Varkey says. "They were doing private tutoring and there was demand for a school in the expatriate community."
In 1968, Varkey's parents opened ‘Our Own English High School', a modest teaching facility with basic amenities, for children of expats living in Dubai. But by the early 1980s, the school's ramshackle premises had attracted the government's unwanted attention.
According to Varkey, his parents were given an ultimatum - either develop purpose-built premises or shut down. Varkey, who by this point had opened a small trading company and part-owned Dubai Plaza Hotel, decided to get involved.
With the school's future in jeopardy, Varkey agreed to invest in and manage a new facility. "I was supporting my parents and got involved with the first school," Varkey explains.
"I guess one tends to get close to the profession and then develops a passion for that industry. I started liking what I was doing and the rest is history."
While he's never been to university, the driven entrepreneur says that attending the "university of life" more than makes up for his lack of formal education: "I always tell people if I was to be marked [in an exam] I'd do well. I went through the university of hard knocks. I have run schools myself - as a businessman, a teacher, a manager; everything. I think I am very much an entrepreneur."
Under Varkey's tutelage, one school quickly became two, with several more added soon after. The rapid expansion, which reflected Dubai's boom, was partially due to Varkey's ability to combine education and business.
Describing how this was possible, Varkey says: "Once we were running one school, we received demands from different communities. Custom keeps coming to you, so you try and make sure you use your business acumen and close the gap between demand and supply."
After more than 20 years at the helm, Varkey says he is still inundated with requests for places at GEMS schools. He claims that not even 17% school fee increases in 2007 has dampened interest. Varkey attributes this demand to his refusal to compromise on quality.
"Today, to run any business the costs are going up and I guess we are on the same level," he says. "The cost of running a school is going up each day, but our schools get first choice from parents. We always have a waiting list."
As more people move to the Middle East, the need for quality education in the region continues to grow. GEMS, which caters to both expats and locals, is benefiting from an influx of workers with children.
Varkey is already responding to this demand and has at least six new schools planned for Dubai alone. He realises that for most parents finding good schools for their children is often the crucial factor behind moving abroad or staying home.
Varkey says: "One of the most important things when parents come into Dubai is to make sure their children have the right education. When I first came up with the GEMS name, it was based on looking after the most valuable thing that you have - your children. You are giving your children, your most valuable gems, to us to look after."
An ambitious man, Varkey wants to ensure parents can live in any country, safe in the knowledge their children will be attending a good school. This, he believes, is a realistic aim as GEMS continues to expand and evolve into a global brand.
He says: "We want to be a global company. We do have parents who keep inviting us to go to different countries. In the years to come, we might be in each country, or many countries certainly, which would help parents universally, so they could just go from GEMS school to GEMS school around the world."
It's a monumental task, that typifies Varkey's grand vision. But he admits having schools in different countries already poses several challenges. For example, management has to ensure different curricula are in place to cover several nationalities.
Yet Varkey claims a school's curriculum is by no means the most important component of a good education: "The most important thing in education is probably the delivery of the curriculum. The content of the Arab, American and British curriculum at each level is probably the same, but it is about how you deliver it and the way the children learn. The Americans are not exactly like the British and the British aren't exactly like the Arabs; they have different cultures. It's about delivering to these kids in their own particular community. For example, the systems here are very different to the English system. It is about rote learning here, whereas in England it is all about creative learning. It varies from country to country and community to community. You have to reflect that in your programme."
Secondary in importance, Varkey asserts, is infrastructure, which is necessary for providing the right atmosphere and surroundings. Offering the ideal learning environment is a crucial aim, with Varkey spending US$70million on his newest school GEMS World Academy.
Facilities include a 400 metre athletics track, 660-seater auditorium, a huge library as well as Discovery World, a study area with a robotics lab and planetarium.
Having commented on curriculum delivery and infrastructure, Varkey makes teachers his next subject.
He says: "You have to ensure that you have good, quality-trained teachers. More attention has to be given to training, recruiting and retaining teachers. If these things are taken care of, the children will be able to come out with flying colours."If a school is judged by its students' success and the universities they attend, then GEMS academies are leading the field. Many of their students have obtained places at some of the world's top universities; an achievement that Varkey is particularly proud of.
"We have lots of children going to some of the best Ivy League universities in the world, from Oxford to Cambridge to Harvard. Some of the children have the option to go to five or six of the best Ivy universities."
Emphasising his faith in GEMS, Varkey sent his own children to one of the schools when they were aged between 11 and 12. They then studied at Winchester College in the UK, before moving to the University of Sheffield and the University of Edinburgh respectively.
Varkey claims sending them to schools abroad provided a more rounded education.
"You want your children to have the best. The Winchesters of the world are six or seven hundred years old so I can't say my schools are better than those - at least I couldn't when my children were sent to GEMS."
If faced with the same choice today, Varkey insists he wouldn't send his children anywhere else but GEMS. His statement is backed by his claim that GEMS schools can compete with the top 5% of UK faculties for exam results.
Having completed their education, Varkey's children now work with him, making GEMS a third-generation business. The chief executive says he is keen to ensure the business retains its family spirit, insisting profit isn't the only driving force.
To a degree, this is reflected in GEMS schools' fees, which despite being pricey still offer cheaper rates than many US and European faculties.
The company's newest school, GEMS World Academy (GWA), is reasonably expensive at US$15,000 to US$27,200 a year, but there are several scholarships available to children whose parents can't afford the fees.
"We have lots of scholarships in our schools," says Varkey. "We have approximately 300 children who receive free education and we're a big supporter of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed's initiative for ‘Dubai Cares' [a charity that helps provide education to the poor]. If we have any parent who comes to us in need of support we take that very seriously."
His efforts to provide a superior education service have been noticed, with Varkey receiving the Rajiv Ghandi Award. He describes the accolade, given in memory of one of India's former prime ministers, as a great tribute.
"Being selected was a big honour and being acknowledged in this industry makes one proud and humble at the same time," Varkey says. "Also, these recognitions help people to strive even further for excellence. It was a great honour and a special award."
He may be picking up awards, but Varkey isn't about to rest on his laurels. Indeed, with regular challenges keeping him busy, relaxing is the last thing on his mind.
For instance, a typical issue involves ensuring newly-built schools are ready for the start of an academic year. Failure to hit the deadline would result in the schools staying closed for the following 12 months - not that it's ever happened to Varkey.
Throughout his tenure at GEMS, Varkey has prided himself on overcoming all obstacles and developing the family business. Much of his present success he attributes to an unflagging buoyancy and self belief.
"I am a big believer in God, so I think that is the first thing. Thank God for that," Varkey laughs. "This is about having a good team, hard work, being focused, thinking positively and being optimistic. I always say, ‘be humble, be simple, be sociable and be charitable'. If the world has been kind to you, be kind to it. I always say, ‘where there's a will there's a way'."
With more than 100 schools across the globe, GEMS has made a significant impact on education. And while Varkey has orchestrated the company's development, he believes Dubai's government should take some of the credit.
Indeed, Varkey is grateful for the UAE leaders' vision, claiming he has played a minor role in developing Dubai's education sector (a modest suggestion considering he runs more than 20% of the emirate's schools).
Varkey's attempts to bring schooling into a capitalist world may draw criticism from those who believe education should be free. But he insists parents willing to spend money to ensure their children receive the best education will disagree. He also explains how even his least expensive schools offer an excellent standard of education. "Traditionally, the education has been not-for-profit and totally not customer driven," Varkey states.
"The governments own 98% of the schools in the world and the not-for-profit schools go to parents for donations by holding fundraisings and so on.
"The industry that I am in is very different [to how it was]. Today, you see more people coming into the private sector. In fact, today the growth sector is the private sector, which is growing much faster than anything else. We at GEMS are totally customer driven and focused on excellence."
A capitalist and yet active humanitarian, Varkey is seemingly ruled by contradictions and conflicting interests. Faith and circumstance have contributed to his success and happiness, with the self-acknowledged optimist relying on just his business acumen from an early age.
Varkey's father died in 1984 when he was in his mid-20s, though he describes his mother as being ‘still very much with him'. Does Varkey think his mother is proud of his achievements? "I guess so. I guess so," he says quietly.
"I put my heart and soul into the business. With both my parents being teachers, I guess it's in our genes," Varkey asserts.
"But if you look at what other people have achieved in other industries we still have a long way to go."