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SEA English Academy: A Global Franchise Business

Kim is the founder and co-owner of SEA English Academy, a business that has grown over the last 5 years into a string of international franchises. Kim is driven by a passion for high quality education and equally by the desire to make a positive impact through her business. She is a high profile business woman who seeks to leverage her experience and success to make a difference in her community and in the nations.

A long road to business

Over 30 years ago Kim had a dream which started her on a journey. Her dream was of a woman in Muslim dress, veiled from head to toe, standing in the desert of the Arabian Peninsula. She knew it was herself she saw in her dream, living amongst and serving a Muslim community. The dream was so vivid that she knew it was an answer to prayers she’d been praying, asking God to show her what she should focus on, what she should be praying for. It was a seed sown that would eventually take her to places and among people she had never imagined. Through these experiences a love and respect for Muslim peoples would grow in her heart. That passion is still at the core of everything she does.

Thus started a voyage that has taken Kim and her family around the world. As part of a Christian mission organisation for 22 years she found herself serving in rural Cyprus, war-torn Beirut, trekking through the Himalayas and immersed in the turmoil of Northern Iraq in the immediate aftermath of the Gulf War. She helped pioneer ministry to Muslims in Australia and headed a global prayer initiative for Muslims, for many years writing and editing the 30 Days Muslim Prayer Guide.

As Kim travelled among other peoples and cultures she began to see the potential of teaching the English language as a bridge to serving and building relationships with others. Determined to equip herself with the knowledge and skill that would open up opportunities, she enrolled in one of the first TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) Courses ever to run in Australia.

The seeds for growth

It was the mid-90s and the Language Teaching Industry was changing. Teaching was becoming much more regulated and at the same time the demand for learning English was only increasing. The number of opportunities for professionally qualified English teachers was growing exponentially. Kim fell into TESOL training just as this surge was happening.

After taking her own TESOL course, Kim then trained to be able to train others. It was 1995 and within a few short years she had written a curriculum that was accredited by the Department of Education in Australia and had taken the TESOL course all over the country and then on to New Zealand, Jordan, Israel, Singapore and the USA.

However, this training initiative was firmly set up as a not-for-profit operation. Despite visiting many of her former graduates who had gone on to start language schools in Asia and the Middle East, Kim didn’t see the work functioning as a business. The goal was to stay in the black and to use the training as a tool to equip and open up opportunities for other ministries. Kim saw that English Teachers could go into areas and among people otherwise closed to Christian witness, with a skill that could practically bless communities. Over following 5 years they partnered with 14 partner agencies to deliver the TESOL training around the world, with over 600 successful graduates during that period.

Jumping into a Learjet

Kim likens being in business to jumping into a Learjet after being on a slow train. For her the destination remains the same: to deliver high quality English language training, open up opportunities to bless communities around the world and help to mobilise those that have a heart for mission to those places. However, the vehicle to reach that destination has radically changed. Kim reflects, “Before we started I couldn’t imagine the impact we could have or how we could grow as a business. But all of a sudden I realised that with my business card in hand, there was no need for caution. Wherever I went I could say ‘this is who I am, I am a business women!’ ”.

The SEA English Academy was registered as a business in Queensland, Australia in the earliest days of 2003. During the previous few pivotal years, Kim had left the mission organisation she had been part of, continued to conduct TESOL courses around the world and while doing so had met her future business partner, Ingrid.  Now the work of establishing an English teaching business was about to accelerate and take Kim to places further and faster than she had ever dreamed of.

Early days

Ingrid and Kim started the business on a shoe-string with initial start-up costs kept to an absolute minimum and provided largely by Ingrid’s salary. They didn’t have any money for advertising their first course, so they put on free monthly information nights about what the TESOL course involves, getting their contact details into as many places as possible. To generate income they hosted 2 day ‘taster’ seminars, running 4 core sessions from the full-course as a demonstration. Those who went on to sign up for the first full-course held in June 2003 would get their seminar fee refunded. Gradually, little bits of income came in and the business took off. Kim shares, “Some of the seed money for the business came from the first students who signed up and paid their deposit!”

Within the first 2 years, the brand new SEA English Academy had run courses training hundreds of new English teachers and they have not looked back.  Part of their success is down to the way Ingrid and Kim complement each other, “Ingrid is great for me, she is a very detailed person and an implementer, whereas I am much more of a visionary and an entrepreneur. We make a great business team.”

Overwhelmed by growth

Huge markets for English Teaching have opened up as countries have changed their policies, an example is China insisting all their air traffic controllers must learn English.  “The demand for the English Language is growing and growing, it’s difficult to keep up with the pace!”, Kim shares.

Although the SEA English Academy does offer 1 year language learning programs to those learning English as a second language, their core focus has always been on training teachers.  These days they offer the original 4 week full-time TESOL Course, as well as 11 and 18 week part-time options.

In the early years, as new teachers graduated and went off around the world, Kim and Ingrid were invited to run TESOL courses elsewhere. In the first 3 years of the business they conducted training in Jordan, USA, New Zealand, South Africa, Morocco, Israel, China, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Thailand. They began to build their brand through the relationships they established with their graduates and then in each locality as they conducted the training.

Despite having built up a core group of trainers, the courses were still largely reliant on Kim and Ingrid. Business was booming, but there was the very real threat that they would burn out. Kim says, “The business was growing so fast that we didn’t know how to manage it. Until one day I was having dinner with a friend and as I shared my dilemma he responded by saying, ‘I have just one word for you: FRANCHISE!’. Around that time a couple in Dubai asked us if they could buy a franchise to start a SEA Academy. It got us thinking and as we prayed about it, the idea took root.”  That was the catalyst for Kim and Ingrid to register a new company, SEA English Franchising Pty Ltd on the 1st January 2006.

Franchising the Business

At first developing the franchise business slowed everything down a bit. “We needed a framework in order to multiply,” says Kim, “We had to document everything and somehow capture the culture of the company into something written down and systematised”. Although it slowed them down, this process was exactly what was needed for the business to continue to flourish. Kim and Ingrid brought in two minor partners as shareholders in the new company, both of whom shared the ethos and vision of the company and could also bring essential expertise and legal advice.

A SEA English Academy Franchise costs US$60,000 to buy into and then each year 11% of gross income is paid in Royalties. In the first 5 years, there have been 9 Franchises launched with 3 subsequently closing and 6 currently in operation, in addition to the original SEA English Academy that Ingrid and Kim still own outright.  Kim shares, “It’s a shame because the 3 Academies that had to close were profitable, but failed because of local mismanagement issues. One of the risks that you have with franchising is that once you’ve handed over the materials and the systems, some can be tempted to run off with the business. To minimise that risk, we have really focused on building a strong brand, with a strong culture and values. But sometimes things just don’t work out and from these experiences we have learnt much more about the kind of people we are looking for in our franchisees.”

Kim describes what is happening as the SEA English Academy family grows around the world. “Some of our teachers have worked on several campuses and we come together at our annual conference each year. We learn from each other, support each other and spur each other on to success. There is a real sense of community within our organisation. We also build in incentives and awards that motivate our staff to great business performance and foster a sense of team. We are much less vulnerable because together we can help all our parts succeed.”

Kim and Ingrid definitely see the future of the business to be in multiplying their Franchises. “We want our focus to be on mentoring new business owners and providing ongoing support to help them succeed. We are targeting the Middle East, India and South America as next locations for our Academies”.

Being Daniel…. or Esther!

Kim describes, with genuine amazement, the impact she has been able to have through her business life, “Doing business well has brought me a whole new level of credibility in my community and this region. It has opened up doors of favour with politicians and the media, as well as with my peers”.  Kim is often asked to speak at functions and conferences and now serves on the Board of Education of her region. “I suddenly have a much more prominent voice to speak into society and I can take Christian values into those arenas”, she says.

Kim has also won awards for business excellence. In 2007 she beat 13 other finalists to become the Sunshine Coast Outstanding Business Person of the Year and in 2008 SEA English Academy were the winners of the Queensland Small Business Champions Education Services Award. Kim went on to win the Sunshine Coast Outstanding Business Woman of the Year Award in 2009 and the Sunshine Coast Excellence in Business Award for Knowledge Industries in 2010. Kim has used her profile to promote causes close to her heart. After her Mother suffered from Alzheimer’s, Kim began throwing herself into raising awareness of the disease, organising fund raising events and appearing in the media to talk about it.

As Kim sees it, business excellence and integrity is a powerful combination. “Esther was just who she was, she was a woman of integrity, but she was also in a prominent place and so she was able to change the fate of a nation. Daniel is also a good biblical example of someone who had both integrity and a respected position in society. There was no tension, he was just honouring God and being himself in that place and as such he was able to have tremendous influence”, describes Kim. “As well as being Christians in business, we are also led by a passion for mission, especially to be a blessing to the Muslim world. However, that has to happen through the natural growth of the business, as an integral part of the business strategy. It’s not a compromise, we are are absolutely committed to the success of our franchisees and the business”.

Later this year Kim has been invited to be part of an Australian Trade Delegation to a prominent country in the Middle East, to those desert sands she first saw in her dream over 30 years ago. She could not have conceived in her wildest imaginations that she would ultimately be welcomed to that nation as part of an honoured delegation of successful business people. Nor could she have imagined the journey she has taken to arrive at this moment. The motto of SEA English Academy is “Inspiration – Education – Destination”.  There are no better words to sum up Kim’s story so far and in particular God’s faithfulness to accomplish more than she could have ever asked or imagined through her life.

 Jo Plummer is the Editor of the Business as Mission website, with thanks to Kim. Kim is an award winning business woman based on the Sunshine Coast of Australia. She is the founder of SEA English Academy, a business that has grown over the last 7 years into a string of international franchises.