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For entrepreneur Douglas Becker, business is a real pleasure INVENTING SUCCESS

He doesn't have a college education, but he runs the country's largest after-school tutoring company. He's single and childless, but he's heading the effort to build the new, $30 million children's museum in downtown Baltimore.

"Kids, don't try this at home!" Douglas Becker says with a laugh.

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They might be tempted to try. Despite his untraditional route, Mr. Becker has hit upon traditional success.

As president of Sylvan Learning Systems, whose 500 franchises are familiar sights in suburban strip shopping malls, he's led the tutoring company into new and lucrative directions. And, with his name turning up on seemingly all the important cultural boards in town -- among others, the Baltimore Museum of Art and the new children's museum being built in the Market Place complex east of the Inner Harbor -- he seems primed to become one of those influential, behind-the-scenes movers-and-shakers in the Robert Embry and Walter Sondheim mold.

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Here's the unconventional part: Douglas Becker is only 28 years old.

Hasn't he heard? He's supposed to be a slacker. Generation X. Assistant manager, at best, at the Gap.

Mr. Becker doesn't even look as though he shops at the Gap.

After being in business for more than 10 years, he has the settled look of his chosen milieu, comfortable in suits and boardrooms and with people a generation or more older. He doesn't seem particularly young -- well, if you look past the "Star Trek" memorabilia in his office at Sylvan's headquarters in Columbia -- probably because he got such a big head start.

"Now, 17, that was young," says Mr. Becker, who was indeed that young when he started developing "LifeCard," a credit card-sized device encoded with a person's entire medical history, which eventually would make him his first million. "If I'd taken the time out and gone to college and business school, those extra six years would put me in my 30s now, and no one would think I was too young to be doing what I'm doing."

Now, 8 -- that's even younger. There's a story about 8-year-old Doug Becker that, if you didn't hear it so often from so many people, would seem to have the too-perfect sheen of manufactured biography. Concerned about pollution-emitting smokestacks, he came up with a way to scrub and filter all that gunk and keep it from entering the environment.

He got his father to lend him a briefcase and take him to one of those rather suspect inventors' seminars. He's not sure what happened to his invention -- someone could have stolen the idea and been making millions all these years, he jokes -- but it turned out to be the start of a running theme in his business life.

"I guess I've always been intrigued by the business opportunities related to big social problems," Mr. Becker says.

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Through his various business and civic ventures, he's plunged into several major social issues -- from health care to education to welfare. He seems to have found the ideal middle ground for the kind of businessman who has social concerns, or the socially concerned person who wants to make some money.

"I honestly can say that money has never been a driving force for me, but then, I've also been fortunate that the things I've done have worked out economically," Mr. Becker says.

What seems more important than money is influence. While he says he's currently not interested in political office himself, he clearly relishes knowing all the players at City Hall and influential groups like the Abell Foundation, and taking on clearly defined projects and making them work.

"I remember thinking he was awfully young, but extremely bright and extremely intense," says Baltimore school superintendent Walter G. Amprey, who has worked with Mr. Becker in bringing Sylvan tutoring into several public schools. "The mayor [Kurt L. Schmoke] had told me about him, and said he had some good ideas."

A modest lifestyle

While Mr. Becker does have some of the requisite spoils of success -- he drives a black BMW and is planning to move into the plush HarborView condominium tower overlooking the Inner Harbor -- he doesn't seem to live outrageously high on the hog. He's lived for six years in the first home he ever bought, in Federal Hill, and works the kind of hours of someone aspiring to rise out of the mailroom rather than someone who already has made it.

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"We have very much a growth culture here," Mr. Becker says, sitting in the bustling offices of Sylvan, where the phones seem ++ to ring continually. "The only time there is job security and fun is when a company is growing. If it's shrinking, it's no fun. It's a great environment for feeling like you're contributing. We're not making widgets. We're educating kids."

Those kids, of course, largely come from more privileged households, the kind that can afford to buy extra tutoring. But Mr. Becker, citing what he thinks might be "pre-emptive guilt," has sought to broaden Sylvan's reach.

Sylvan began tutoring students in Baltimore public schools last year under a federally funded program for remedial education for disadvantaged children. Sylvan has received contracts totaling $2.7 million to tutor Baltimore elementary and middle-school students, as well as a $2.65 million contract for Washington students. At a recent press conference in Baltimore, Mr. Becker announced results showing most of the students who were tutored by Sylvan for a year had improved reading and math scores.

'One piece of the puzzle'

While proud of that accomplishment, Mr. Becker is careful not to sound as if he has all the answers for the problems in public schools. "To some extent, they get a bit of a bum rap. The problems being addressed by public schools are so broad, it's unfair to expect them to solve them all," Mr. Becker says. "We're just one piece of the puzzle."

With many officials increasingly open to letting private ventures into public schools, Sylvan stands to benefit if Mr. Becker can parlay his Baltimore results into similar contracts in other schools.

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The federal government has committed more than $7 billion this year in Chapter 1 funds that have paid for programs such as Sylvan's tutoring of Baltimore students.

While Mr. Becker went to public elementary school in Owings Mills, he attended the private Gilman School for the rest of his education. He planned to become a doctor -- he had volunteered at Union Memorial Hospital since he was 12 -- and had been accepted at Harvard. He seemed well on the track you'd expect for a bright, curious youngster of his background.

"People would call him the little professor," his mother, Rheda Becker, says of her then-bespectacled and now contacts-wearing son. "He was always very talkative, very loquacious, very curious. He was a wonderful listener, and loved it when you would listen to him."

He became interested in computers as a teen-ager and would spend hours at a time clicking away on his keyboard.

"I would say, 'Son, I don't know if this is healthy,' " recalls Mrs. Becker, who recently celebrated 20 years as the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's narrator of children's concerts. "He said, 'If I was sitting in front of a Steinway all this time, would you feel the same way?' It really was a passion with him. He would say, 'I'm doing work, I'm thinking some things through.' "

While working part time at a computer store in Towson during high school, he began working on a way to use laser optics to encode as much as 800 pages of a person's medical history into a sort of credit card that would be deciphered whenever he or she sought health care. That became LifeCard.

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He worked on the concept with Chris Hoehn-Saric, a Gilman friend then attending Johns Hopkins University. They linked up with Mr. Becker's older brother, Eric, as well as Eric's friend, Steven Taslitz, and Dr. Frederik Hansen, a surgeon Douglas had worked with at Union Memorial, to develop and market the card.

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Maryland was intrigued, and eventually bought out the partners in a multimillion-dollar deal in 1985, when Mr. Becker was a mere 19. (The exact price was not disclosed.) LifeCard, however, was never implemented, and instead turned into a financial bust for the Blues, according to congressional investigators who looked into the stability of the state's largest health insurer.

Mr. Becker says he still believes LifeCard could have worked, but once he sold it, he lost control of his "baby." The concept continues to have validity, he argues, noting how President Clinton during a speech last September to a joint session of Congress held up his proposed "health security card" that every American would carry, guaranteeing health care benefits whenever needed.

No time for college

The invention and the story of the Wunderkind inventor proved irresistible, and Mr. Becker was featured in local and national media. He kept meaning to go to Harvard, but business kept getting in the way.

"I don't see Douglas going to college now, unless it's to teach," says his brother, Eric, who is four years older and who dropped out of the University of Chicago in his final year to work on LifeCard.

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Since then, the Becker brothers -- yes, they sometimes get called the "Fabulous Becker Boys" -- have worked together, along with their other two partners, Mr. Hoehn-Saric and Mr. Taslitz, whom Eric began working with while at the University of Chicago.

The brothers speak of their business partners as family. Douglas considers Chris "a second brother" as well as a best friend, alter ego and partner. And they attribute their entrepreneurial spirit to their father, Gordon Becker, whose own Baltimore-based company, the Becker Group, is the nation's largest provider of shopping-mall decorations. As kids, Eric says, they used to love going to the office with Dad -- especially because his "office" included a showroom of Christmas and other seasonal displays.

All work, little play

After selling LifeCard, the partners enjoyed themselves a bit, but almost immediately got back to work.

"We had a good party. When I look back at that time, we had a great lifestyle -- we were all living in the same apartment, we

were all single, unattached guys," says Mr. Hoehn-Saric, who is Sylvan's chairman and chief executive officer.

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But other than treating themselves to new cars, the guys remained serious businessmen. They took the money from the Blues and pursued other business ventures. While Mr. Hoehn-Saric and Douglas Becker run Sylvan, Eric Becker and Mr. Taslitz, who works out of Chicago, handle Sterling Capital, their investment company that seeks out new businesses to acquire.

One of those ventures turned out to be Sylvan, which was something of a sluggish company when they first became involved with it in 1991. Although the company only began showing a profit this year, its future seems promising: In addition to the inroads it has made into public schools, Sylvan has joined with Educational Testing Services -- the people behind the SATs, GREs and the rest of the alphabet soup of standardized testing -- to computerize their current, fill-in-the-ovals-with-a-No.-2-pencil paper tests.

Mr. Becker is not above the hyperbole of the classic entrepreneur when he talks about Sylvan.

A Sylvan vision

"Maryland has a treasure in being home to Sylvan. Sylvan is the Microsoft of education," he declares. "It will engender a whole series of spinoffs. Maryland can be the Silicon Valley of the education industry."

That, of course, remains to be seen. With 500 Sylvan franchises operating in the United States and Canada, some believe the company has run out of places to expand, and thus its future success depends on its computerized-testing and public school ventures.

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Mr. Becker feels confident his company is secure. So much so that he's spending more time on other parts of his life that have been squeezed out by his day-in, day-out devotion to the bottom line.

"I've always had a lot of friends, but it's been hard just making time for them, and for my family," he says. "But I'm working through that. It's only been in the past couple of years that I've felt like I'm able to develop more time for them. The business has gotten to the point that I feel it's not going to go away if I take time off."

In earlier years, when Mr. Becker and his partners were using their cash from Blue Cross and Blue Shield to buy and build up a range of companies, things did not always run smoothly. At one point, Mr. Becker had to borrow money from his father to meet payroll at one of their companies.

"He handled that adversity well," Gordon Becker says. "I felt quite good that we were close enough, I could share with him a lot of my experiences. I've had my ups and downs in business as well."

Because business concerns have cut into his social life, Douglas Becker says he could be "years away from being married." Still, marriage and children are definitely in his plans. Meanwhile, he's an enthusiastic uncle to Eric's two -- and soon to be three -- children, as well as to his friends' children.

"I think Douglas is at the stage in his life where he'd like to settle down," Gordon Becker says. "I just want him to be happy and healthy."

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Civic responsibility

Douglas Becker says he's had more time in recent years to devote to civic activities, to the point that he's just about "philanthropy'd out." It's in the family tradition -- his mother, besides her work with the BSO, has been active in various arts groups over the years, and his father was one of the founders of Center Stage.

Among the boards Douglas Becker currently sits on are those of Baltimore Reads and the Pratt Library, and he was recently named chairman of the new children's museum, which will be located in the Market Place corridor. (The museum originally was planned for the Brokerage building, but recently city officials started considering the adjacent Fishmarket as well.)

The museum has made Mr. Becker more prominent in city affairs, and he's also considering moving Sylvan downtown. Mr. Becker says he's willing to move from Columbia even if it means a bit of a financial hit, but not if it's too big of one. "I have shareholders to consider," he says.

Does that sound like someone setting up a base from which to run for city office?

"I have kind of an interest in politics," Mr. Becker says. "But I think I've come to the conclusion there's more I can do from outside the system than from inside."

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For now, he's busy with two big city projects: American City Manufacturing is a pilot program he is working on with the Abell Foundation that hopes to train people on welfare for jobs in private industry. And, of course, there's the children's museum, where he's currently trying to transfer his skills in getting financing for various business ventures to fund raising for a nonprofit institution.

Making things happen

"Doug is such a great find," says Janet Marie Smith, a former Orioles executive who had served as interim chairman of the children's museum before Mr. Becker was named. "He quickly )) analyzes a problem, breaks it down into parts and delegates. He has a real vision and can make things happen."

Mr. Becker, of course, has no experience in museums -- but that's a plus rather than a minus because organizers want the facility to be unlike any that have preceded it, says Ms. Smith, who currently splits her time between Baltimore and Atlanta, where she is vice president of sports facilities for TBS Properties, Ted Turner's sports and entertainment company.

"In fact, one of the missions is to come up with a different name, because it's not just going to be for children and it's not just going to be a museum," Ms. Smith says. "That's why Doug seemed so ideal; the work he's done with Sylvan seemed very much akin to what the mayor and the governor wanted us to do with the museum. No prototype exists, we have to define ourselves."

Eric Becker thinks he knows what at least one part of the museum will look like.

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"When Doug and I were kids, he used to insist we play this game he called 'the imagination game.' Every time we played it, it was different. Like one day, I remember, we were dolphins," Eric Becker says. "So it wouldn't surprise me if, when the children's museum opens, there's an exhibit called 'The Imagination Game.' "


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