Laureate Education's founder and CEO to step down at end of year

Laureate Education Inc. founder Douglas Becker is stepping down as president and CEO of the Baltimore for-profit university system at the end of the year.

Two of Laureate’s most-senior and longest-serving executives have been named his successors, effective Jan. 1. Eilif Serck-Hanssen, 51, the company’s chief administrative officer, will take over as CEO. Ricardo Berckemeyer, 47, Laureate’s chief operating officer, will become president.

Becker, 51, will stay on with the company as non-executive board chairman.

"I am proud and grateful for the opportunity to found and lead this remarkable company which is helping so many students around the world achieve their dreams,” Becker said in a statement. “Laureate is a pioneer in demonstrating that quality and scale in education can go hand in hand.”

The company’s stock fell 16 cents per share Thursday to close at $14.66 each.

In an interview, Becker said the leadership transition was in the interest of ensuring Laureate — a company that has changed course multiple times over the years — would continue to evolve.

“When you create something you tend to obsess a lot on how to make sure it outlasts you and it’s durable,” Becker said. “The best way to be durable is through renewal and change.”

Headquartered in Harbor East, Laureate has grown into the largest global network of degree-granting higher-education institutions, owning and operating 71 universities in 25 countries, many in emerging markets. The firm employs more than 67,000 people globally and about 1,130 at its offices in Baltimore and Columbia. It is one of the few “B Corp” companies, those certified as meeting standards of social and environmental performance and accountability, to go public.

The company was born out of Sylvan Learning Corp., a tutoring company Becker and his business partners acquired in 1991. By that time, Maryland native Becker, who attended the Gilman School and was accepted at Harvard University but never attended, already had achieved entrepreneurial success. At 19, he developed the wallet-sized “LifeCard,” which was encoded with a person’s medical history and adopted by health insurers.

Over the years Sylvan became known as a pioneer in franchise-based private tutoring, and expanded to include other education services, including test preparation and a network of international universities.

“Playing a leadership role and taking chances is something that has always felt very rewarding to me,” Becker said. “You have to take chances. You can have a lot of conviction, but if you have enough doubters, they can sap your conviction.”

Becker is viewed as one of the early leaders of the ed-tech movement in Baltimore, said Frank Bonsal, director of venture creation in the division of Innovation & Applied Research at Towson University’s TU Incubator.

“What Doug has done, and some others in the early ’90s, was find Sylvan Learning Systems and basically bring it to Baltimore and build up a franchise of educational enterprises that have had huge ripples across the world,” said Bonsal, a former general partner with New Markets Venture Partners, which invested in ed-tech companies. “And they’ve done it in K through 12 and in postsecondary and dabbled in corporate training.”

In the early ‘90s, “Sylvan was really the premier brand for supplemental learning, and their model was very good,” he said.

Jeanne Allen, founder and CEO of the Center for Education Reform, called Becker a “cherished” member of the education community.

“He blazed a trail in public-private partnerships by showing that private enterprise plays a critical role in helping education succeed at all levels,” Allen said in an email

In 2003 Sylvan divested its eponymous tutoring company and a year later renamed itself Laureate Education to focus exclusively on higher education.

The company went public in 1993 and was taken private again in 2007. Laureate went public again this past February, raising $490 million in an initial public offering. In its most recent quarterly report, for the April-to-June period, the company reported a profit of $117.1 million on revenues of nearly $1.28 billion, a 3.7 percent increase as overall enrollment grew 2 percent year-over-year.

Laureate and Becker made headlines last summer during the polarizing presidential election, when Hillary Clinton’s campaign released tax returns that showed Laureate had paid former President Bill Clinton $17.6 million over six years to serve as its honorary chairman. During that time, Hillary Clinton was secretary of state and Laureate was acquiring universities around the world. The partnership with Bill Clinton had been announced in 2010.

In Thursday’s announcement, Laureate said Becker’s transition plan had been in the works for several years.

Both Serck-Hanssen and Berckemeyer were promoted in March 2017 to their current roles.

Prior to his promotion to chief operating officer, Berckemeyer served as CEO of Latin America for the company. He joined Laureate in 2002.

Serck-Hanssen joined Laureate in 2008 as chief financial officer, and previously held management roles at PepsiCo, Northwest Airlines and US Airways.

“The very good news is the legacy, if I can use that word, that Doug leaves behind is an incredibly strong foundation that is student-focused,” said Serck-Hanssen.

In the near term, Serck-Hanssen said, he wants Laureate to double down in its larger markets and invest in technology.

As for Becker, stepping away from the daily responsibility of running Laureate will free him up for other opportunities. He declined to elaborate on what might come next for him, but indicated he won’t be idle.

“I have a background as an entrepreneur,” he said. “It’s hard for me to envision not doing more entrepreneurial things in business and social enterprise.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Lorraine Mirabella contributed to this article.

sarah.gantz@baltsun.com

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