Why helping kids is so important to Tutor Doctor CEO
Frank Milner is on a mission to change students’ lives. And following the study struggles he faced after his father’s death, you can bet it’s personal.
Despite having already drained a bin’s worth of coffee cups, Frank Milner has poured a fresh one by the time he sits down to speak with us. “It’s been a very intense week,” he explains. “I flew over from India yesterday.” Sipping the hot brew in The Cavendish Hotel in London, the Tutor Doctor president reveals that the trip is part of the franchise’s push to become a global household name. Speaking over the faint sound of the construction work outside the window, Milner can barely contain his excitement about joining India’s fragmented supplemental education market. “I really loved it and, from a business point of view, I had a really great time in India,” he says. “From a personal point of view it was well beyond my expectations. So yeah, it’s been a little hectic but that’s how we like it.”
But the push into Asia is hardly the only effort from the Canadian franchisor to reach its goal: over the past two years the company has been on a mission to rejuvenate and reenergise the network. “We went through a rebranding process because we had all these great things happening in the business and lots of success stories from students but I didn’t feel like we were doing a really good job telling that story,” Milner says. Having enlisted the help of the branding agency McKee Wallwork + Co, Tutor Doctor has spent considerable efforts to better showcase franchisees’ passion for improving students’ lives. As a result, the franchise today sports a new logo, a bolder colour palate and has had franchisees collaborate to write the book The Academic Success Formula. It also sports a new tagline: ‘How learning hits home.’ “It really helped us define who we are and what we are all about,” Milner says.
The rebrand also represents Tutor Doctor’s ambition to stand out in an increasingly competitive industry. From app developers spitting out e-learning tools to other tutor franchises, the educational industry is booming. Global Industry Analysts, the research firm, expected the global private tutoring market alone to be worth $100bn in 2018. So showing the ethos was really important for the franchisor. “We care about our students like they’re our own kids,” Milner says. “I think that really sets us apart and it really paves the way towards this bright future that we see for the company and our franchisees.”
An outsider may consider his passion to be the just another sales pitch from an executive with a keen eye on the bottom line. However, nothing could be further from the truth as Milner’s teenage years provided ample reason to believe in the model. “I certainly have first hand understanding of the power of tutoring,” he says.
His recognition of this began when Milner’s family first moved from Johannesburg, South Africa, to Toronto, Canada, in 1977. “It was really challenging,” Milner remembers. “We went from a very comfortable lifestyle where we had a nice house, a swimming pool, a big garden, cars and private school to emigrating to Canada where we had absolutely nothing.” Despite struggling with having to occasionally eat from paper plates, Milner still believes they had good reasons to leave. It had been his brother who first decided to exit South Africa. During his military service, the brother had been stationed close to the Angola border and experienced his fair share of fighting. Once he came back he never wanted to put on the uniform again and decided to depart. “My parents said, ‘wait a second, we are a family and if you are going to move, then we are going to move together as a family,’” Milner recalls.
But good reason or not, the family still faced considerable challenges in the new country. “Shortly after we emigrated to Canada, my father got very ill,” Milner remembers. However, instead of going to the doctor’s, Milner’s dad kept working in order to build up his new business to resemble the one he’d left behind in South Africa. “He waited a lot longer than he should’ve to seek medical attention and I think that he really gave up a huge part of his life, literally, because of that,” says Milner. “It turned out that he had cancer and had he sought treatment earlier, he would’ve lived much longer.” His father passed away in 1981.
Looking back, Milner believes the combination of losing his father and living in a new country almost derailed his life. “Dealing with that was extremely challenging,” he says. As a result, his schoolwork started to suffer and he found himself lashing out against the people around him and hanging out with the wrong crowd. “I was angry, I was frustrated and I was sad,” he remembers.
The turning point came when his mother pushed him to accept tutoring from a woman living down the street. “I was still very much confused and all those sort of things,” he says. “But it did give me the seeds of belief that I referred back to in my future education.” Not only did it help him regain control of his own life and awaken a passion for lifelong learning but it also had benefits for his future franchise. “My tutor’s daughter is now a franchisee of ours in Toronto and has done very, very well and it’s just interesting that it kind of went full circle,” he says.
Having graduated from York University with a degree in business administration, he first worked as a stockbroker for about a year before joining an educational company called ProMaths. “And that’s where I met the original founder of Tutor Doctor – John Hooi,” Milner reveals. For a few years they worked side by side before their individual careers sent them on different paths. “I didn’t see him properly for ten or 15 years,” he says. And when he did, Hooi had a business opportunity too good to miss out on.
In the two decades before they bumped into each other again at a Toronto restaurant, Milner would sharpen his corporate chops in a number of executive roles. “I learned a lot of big lessons during those years,” he says. Milner picked up one particular piece of wisdom when he started butting heads with a senior manager at one of the firms he worked for. At the time, Milner had developed into an awesome salesperson and his ego had grown accordingly. So when his manager tried to keep him grounded, Milner misread it as if he tried to hold him back rather than attempting to nurture his talent. “I was very frustrated and quite angry with him and I remember going to the driving range at the golf course and writing his name on some of the golf balls,” Milner laughs. While they’ve since made peace with each other, the lesson taught him the importance of listening to learn as opposed to just waiting for his turn to speak.
By 2004 he found himself having his first brush with franchising working at WSI, the digital marketing franchise that today has franchisees in over 80 countries. “It was a tremendous learning experience for me,” Milner says. “I got my MBA in franchising in my WSI days.” As the vice president of channel development, he acquired marketing skills that, together with his newfound understanding of franchising, would prove very useful in his future franchisor role. Moreover, he also grew close with WSI’s leadership and to this day they still meet up and share ideas from the forefront of franchising. “It was quite exciting and [provided] extremely valuable lessons for me,” Milner says.
He’d soon have reason to put his new skills to the test when he happened to bump into Hooi in a restaurant in 2007. “We hadn’t seen each other for many years and it was, you know, claps on the back and that ‘great to see you and what are you doing’ kind of thing,” he says. And as Hooi answered, Milner for the first time heard the story of how Tutor Doctor came to be.
After leaving ProMaths back in the 1990s, Hooi’s career had seen him sign up as a franchisee for another tutoring company. “As he was building his learning centres he had no problems attracting customers to his business but he was having a lot of problems making money out of it,” Milner explains. The obstacle preventing Hooi from making a profit was the huge overheads attached to keeping the centres open. Eventually, he had to close shop. However, rather than calling it a day, Hooi began to send off his tutors to students’ homes. “And that’s how Tutor Doctor was born,” Milner says.
By the time of the fortunate happenstance at the restaurant, Hooi had already recruited six franchisees. “But he was really struggling to get this business off the ground because he’d learned that running a franchise system was very different from running a tutoring business,” Milner says. “And that was when I stepped in.” He offered to inject his understanding of the franchising sector into Tutor Doctor and Hooi was happy to oblige. Not one to rest on his laurels, Milner quickly launched an online marketing campaign in October 2007 that was supposed to run for three months. But by November they’d been so inundated with leads they had to close it down. “I remember one morning when John walked into the office, reached into his briefcase and just pulled out a wad of cash a family had paid the night before at one of his consultations,” Milner says. “And we were just laughing. It was then that I knew that we had something special.”
However, while Hooi certainly enjoyed the new success, his heart wasn’t in it anymore. “He was very open about it because he had a lot of frustrations and struggles with the franchisees,” Milner remembers. “Quite frankly, he wasn’t having that much fun at all.” Recognising Hooi was a bit fed up with the company, Milner saw an opportunity and offered to buy Tutor Doctor from him. Hooi accepted the offer. “We completed the transaction in December of 2007,” he says.
What Milner refers to as the “new 2008 model of Tutor Doctor” was quite different from the one that proceeded it. “It was very loosey-goosey at the time in the way of infrastructure,” he explains. “There was very little in the way of tools for franchisees and as a result the franchisees were really frustrated.” Recognising that all franchises are only as good as their structures, Milner’s new team set out to write up an operations and franchising manual. The company also invested in new training and support systems for franchisees to ensure they could become profitable. Although, by then it was already too late for the six existing franchisees. “There was a lot of baggage,” Milner shrugs. In the end, the franchisees agreed to be bought out of the network and Tutor Doctor started afresh with a clean slate.
Eager to repopulate the network with best in class of franchisees, Milner began recruiting new people for the network. “We wanted people who were really passionate about the difference they could make in the life of the kids,” he says. However, the franchisor has learned that being passionate isn’t enough unless it’s combined with soft skills, keen business acumen and an eagerness to put their backs into growing the franchise. “We need people who are willing to work hard, probably harder than they’ve ever worked in their lives before,” he adds. “So that must be a commitment they need to make before they join us. They need to understand that this is not easy money.”
But while demonstrating grit is important, he’s also adamant that they must celebrate their victories along the way. “I definitely encourage franchisees to do that throughout the journey because there has to be balance,” he says. “Don’t wait until you’ve achieved great success before you can start rewarding yourself.” A quick glance at Milner’s Instagram account reveals just how seriously he follows his own advice. From riding hot air balloons in Phoenix to casual dining in Portugal, he seems to be living his best life. And it’s hardly a secret why this is so important to him. “My father never allowed himself to enjoy the fruits of his labour,” Milner says. “He was working incredibly hard his entire life and literally worked himself to death in my opinion.”
But while Milner encourages franchisees to be happy with their achievements, he also says you should never be too satisfied. “The comfort zone is the enemy of business,” says Milner. This attitude is part of the reason to why Milner has been able to push the company into expanding first to America and then across the pond to the UK in 2009. “It just seemed very natural to us that the UK would be our first bona fide foray into becoming an international organisation,” he says.
Expanding the business abroad was far from easy. “There were lots of challenges” Milner says. To break into not only a new country but also an entirely new continent, Milner had to evolve the model to the nation’s culture and educational system. What made it even more challenging was that the company didn’t have any support systems in place for the people joining the network. “Fortunately, we opened in the UK with a great franchisee, Alex Scotchbrook, who’s still a franchisee today,” Milner says. “She understood that she was a pioneer. When we hired her we didn’t have anything close to the support structure that we have today. We had no one on the ground here in the UK to support her and the franchisees that came after her.” But proving herself to have loads of the kind of grit Tutor Doctor wants from its franchisees, Scotchbrook proved herself able of building the business from scratch and to lead the way for the 56 UK franchisees that would follow in her footsteps.
Today the company has 300 franchisees that operate 560 franchise territories in 16 different countries. But as his trip to India demonstrates, this number is sure to grow in the years to come. “Our vision for 2020 is to have 1,500 franchisees operating in 50 different countries around the world,” Milner says. Having recently completed the rebrand and introduced new launch support specialists to help new franchisees get off the launching pad, he is confident and almost giddy about Tutor Doctor’s ability to realise its goals. “I’ve always been excited about the business,” he concludes. “But we’re at that place now where I feel like we are going into the next stage of the journey as a brand.”