You've heard the story about a man who liked the product so much that he bought the company. Well this is the story of Phil Dunne, once a teacher at a very well known Bangkok language school, and now the proud owner of Island TEFL on Koh Samui.
Phil, welcome to the hot seat as always. Now you were something of a successful stockbroker back in the USA?
Thanks for having me, it's a pleasure to be here Phil. Yes, I went to the United States to do my MBA, but I loved it so much I became a U.S. Citizen and never went back to the U.K. You are correct, I was a stockbroker for over 20 years and had my own hedge fund, but "successful" well success is a relative term. I made lots of money for my clients and myself, and had a ton of fun spending it, but I also lost my shirt on numerous occasions.After seeing what has transpired in the international capital markets over the past couple of years, I consider myself lucky to have gotten out of the industry when I did.
When did you turn your back on the bulls and the bears and head out East?
Funnily enough I think I turned my back on Wall Street over 6 years ago after I visited Thailand for the first time. I remember going back to the States, sitting in my office and constantly daydreaming about how I was going to get back to Thailand to live. Subsequently, I came over here on a few more holidays. The holidays became longer and increasingly more frequent.On my last holiday I was at my Thai wife's village in Isaan and was asked if I could go speak to the young kids in one of the classes at the local school. I obliged, and am so thankful that I did. It changed my life forever and I knew there was no going back. One hour turned into a whole week of volunteer teaching at the school. It was such a rewarding and enriching experience. I went back to the U.S. to wrap things up, packed some belongings and headed East to do a TEFL/TESOL and begin the next chapter of my life in Thailand. That was about 3 years ago.
You taught at a very well-known Bangkok language school whose name consists of three letters. What was your role?
I was an English Language instructor teaching young adult learners.
Did you enjoy your time there?
In the beginning I had a ball. It was so much fun and so rewarding. I was teaching about 20 hours a week there and I was doing a lot of corporate training for multinational corporations in Bangkok. But in my second year the school changed their curriculum and it was not fun to teach and enrollment subsequently suffered tremendously. I certainly gained a lot of invaluable experience and am happy to have had the experience of teaching there.
You then went on to do a brief stint at Khon Kaen University. How did that compare to the language school gig?
This was actually a Language school on the premises of Khon Kaen University serving the needs of the Khon Kaen university students. This outfit also had a lot of external corporate training contracts which appealed to me because of my prior business experience and corporate training experience in Bangkok. Student and instructor morale was a lot higher at this school which made for a more enjoyable teaching environment.
You told me that you had looked at several EFL businesses before you made your final decision. Did you make your mind up that you wanted to run your own business and get out of the teaching itself? And what kind of businesses did you look into?
Phil, I loved teaching and I didn't want to give this up but I wanted to do something bigger than "just" teaching. I wanted to make a difference.If I could have made that difference within either of the organisations I worked for perhaps I wouldn't have opted for going out on my own. However, the degree of red tape, politics and intransigence that I encountered made this next to impossible.
I come from a strong business background and not just singling out the organisations that I worked for, I can honestly say that I have not been impressed with the management, or dare I say lack of management, organisation and vision that is characteristic of the EFL businesses that I have encountered, up until coming across Island TEFL. I first looked into purchasing an existing ESL school or establishing a new one, with the intention of adding a TESOL/TEFL training centre and a corporate training division.
Then I stumbled upon islandtefl.com when I was searching for EFL businesses for sale online. I gave them a call and spoke with the owner and founder, Sue Howlett. She is a great lady, and comes from a strong educational background in Australia. I flew down to meet her and check out the Island tefl operation first hand. I was most impressed with Sue, her vision, and the company she had built. So, it was an easy decision for me to purchase the company with the intention of franchising it and adding an ESL language school and corporate training division later.
Why did she want to sell the business?
Sue has a real passion about teaching children and teaching others how to teach. She knew what she had achieved in creating a most excellent TEFL training centre but she also knew that she could not take this company to the next level without making some serious sacrifices in her personal life. Her partner in life had his own business which was growing rapidly and Sue was providing a lot of managerial and administrative support for this company. She also knew that for her to expand Islandtefl.com to new locations would require a lot of travelling so she had to balance this opportunity with the needs of her partner's business and consider the effects on their relationship.
After a lot of soul searching Sue made the decision that it was time to let go of Island TEFL. Luckily for me and all of our trainees Sue has stayed on with the company in a part time role and I am hoping that she will join us in the near future as a course trainer.
Since taking over the TEFL course, what changes have you made?
I made a number of changes. First, I increased the class size from 6 students to 8 students and added an extra class during the year. I then changed the website and introduced a global marketing campaign directed largely at the U.S. market.
We have since added additional courses such as Teaching General Business English and most importantly by forging alliances with recruitment agencies we are now able to offer our trainees job placements in schools, resorts, restaurants, and other businesses in Samui and throughout Thailand.
What other projects have you got involved in on Samui?
At Islandtefl.com we strongly believe in not only providing training, but also contributing to the community we live in. This is why Sue originally set up a TEFL course with a subsequent one months volunteer teaching assignment. We have now taken that a couple of steps forward. We have created a sponsorship program, and the response from corporate sponsors and magnanimous private individuals has been unbelievable.
This has allowed us to offer English lessons to underprivileged children practically free of charge. This will allow many less fortunate children and students to have a fighting chance for entrance to a university in the future.
You're also doing something up in Khon Kaen I believe?
Yes, that is correct. We are introducing a pilot volunteering program in Khon Kaen and Udon Thani. This program will allow fluent English speakers from around the globe the opportunity to come and assist an English language teacher in the classroom. Volunteers will have the choice of staying with a host family and they will be assigned a coach/mentor. We also envisage adding one Island TEFL, ESL language school in Udon Thani and one in Khon Kaen. We will operate a TEFL training facility out of both locations. If this volunteer program is successful we will roll it out to other areas in Thailand.
I only wish I had half your energy mate. That said - you're something of a city boy. You miss the bright lights of Bangkok already?
Yes, I miss Bangkok. For me there is only one city in the world like Bangkok but happily for me, my wife and I will be moving back there next summer. We will base the head office of Islandtefl.com there and we will operate a TEFL training center as well as an ESL school and a corporate training center under the same roof.
We will probably convert Island TEFL, Koh Samui, to a franchise operation if we find the right owner or failing that we will hire a manager to oversee it.
Any plans to expand the Island TEFL brand into other countries or other regions in Thailand?
Within Thailand, in addition to the expansion plans I described above, we will be opening an Island TEFL franchise in Krabi in the near future. We are also seeking franchisees for Phuket, Chiang Mai and Koh Phangan.
Internationally we have plans to add four new Island TEFL training centers over the next 18 months. We will be announcing the opening of the first of these locations within the next two months. If there is anybody out there interested in running your own franchise, we will be happy to hear from you.
Would you describe yourself as a 'live to work' or 'work to live' kind of guy?
Although I "work" about 18 hours a day, I would describe myself as a work to live type of guy. To me life is about learning and teaching others. I love to have fun, lots and lots of fun. To me teaching and educating others is not work, it is pure fun.