Education is a business. You build schools to make profits and, like airlines, segregate them based on affordability. There's economy class, business and first. The analogy may make educational purists cringe – but that doesn't bother Sunny Varkey.
As Chairman of Global Education Management Systems (Gems), his philosophy is simple: He must preserve his bottom line and losses are not an option. If that means sinking approval ratings, fine.
Let parents scream injustice at fee hikes. Let the authorities scorn his constant call for changes to the system. Let idealists talk about putting education before profit.
"Any business, if it is not bottom line driven, will not be a success," Varkey, 50, told Emirates Business. "At the end of the day you can call it a surplus or profit, it's all the same thing. Even a not-for-profit school reports a surplus. In our case, we call that profit."
He does not flinch, hesitate or look away when talking business – that only happens when the conversation moves to his personal life. But, when talking shop, he's enjoying himself.
"People have a misapprehension about this industry. When we build a school we invest Dh50 million to Dh100m. We don't take donations, charity payouts or deposits. So before the first child is enrolled, we have already put the investment in," he said.
"From the time the school is built, every day we have to ensure that we are giving children and parents value for money because they are not compelled to be in our schools. Almost 100,000 children come to our schools every day because we deliver.
"We take the risks and believe in long-term investment. This industry is not about quick money, it has taken us 50 years to reach this point.
"So when we go through our figures and realise existing models are not feasible, we have to react," he said.
"We can't cut staff salaries because the authorities already ensure they don't get paid much, so we're forced to hike fees. It's the only option."
Varkey's parents were schoolteachers who came to Dubai in 1959 and his passion for the profession is natural and understandable. He adores his parents and hopes to make teaching a more prestigious occupation.
"Teaching should be the mother of all professions," he said. "Unfortunately it is one of the worst we have in terms of respect and compensation. That's why very few people want to become teachers.
"Our ambition is to make sure that over a period of time we make teaching the most sought-after profession. Teachers play a pivotal role in everyone's lives and we need to value them."
This is an odd statement from a person who is accused of underpaying teachers. Well aware this would come up in our conversation, he said: "Today, 99 per cent of the schools are dictated to by the authorities. They set fees and salaries. In a sense, teachers are like public sector employees and that's why they are being paid less."
To prove his concern for teachers' welfare, Varkey last year announced, with much fanfare, the Guruvar Awards in India. The programme covers more than 3,000 schools, 144,000 teachers and nearly six million students in 45 cities of India.
"It is the most valuable teacher's award in the world. In the US they pay $25,000 to the country's top teacher – ours is $100,000," said Varkey, who last week received India's highest civilian honour, the Padma Shri.
His father, KS Varkey, and mother, Mariamma, founded Our Own English High School in 1968 after spending years teaching English to students in Bur Dubai.
While Varkey moved from India to Dubai to England to complete his education, his parents ran their little institution until the local authorities delivered an ultimatum in 1980 – build a purpose-built facility or close down.
Varkey had returned to Dubai three years earlier. He had completed his A-levels and chose not to study further.
"I never liked studying so I went into business when I was quite young," he said.
In Dubai, Varkey dabbled in everything from banking and trading to acquiring a 50 per cent share in Dubai Plaza Hotel – now the Rydges Plaza. His parents' predicament and his belief in their school drew him into the education industry... and he never left it.
"I took over the school and once I started gaining a passion for the industry I stopped doing everything else, from then on it was only education. I wanted to build and manage better schools with the best teachers and curricula. Nearly 30 years later, this still drives me," he said.
A decade later, he entered the healthcare sector with his first Welcare hospital, but there he brought in partners to ensure he could focus solely on education.
"You can't concentrate on many businesses, it must always be just one. At the hospital my partners make it possible for me to stay with my passion. It's in my blood," he said.
His guiding philosophy is being a good human being and his mantra for success is perseverance.
"Apart from blessings from the Almighty, you must have a good team and that doesn't happen overnight. You build your team until you get it where you want it," he said.
"As the leader you play the role of giving them a global vision and the drive and guidance to achieve it. It's about never giving up. If you have common sense and work hard it pays off." Every lunch and dinner is work-related, whether he is dining with clients or family. His sister, Susan Mathews, runs pre-schools and his two sons, Dino and Jay, play vital roles in his business. His wife and mother play devil's advocates.
"We tend to discuss business a lot," he said. "My wife and mother work behind the scenes and pose tough questions. They play an important role in the business."
As Varkey adjusts his pink Gucci tie, which goes perfectly with his beautiful silver-grey suit, I wonder if the Italian design house is one of his favourite brands.
"Oh no – Gucci, Versace, Armani, those are too common for me. I'm all about tailor-made suits. I prefer Savile Row in London, that's where I get my stuff done."
This is one multi-millionaire who is very particular about fashion. It's borderline obsessive and he admits it is his weakness.
But like all things Varkey, it comes with its own solid defence.
"I believe that in life presentation is very important. Just imagine that you are given five minutes to see a VVIP. In that five minutes you have to create an impression," he said.
"Presentation is very important. I always try to dress up to the occasion and as a result I make sure the schools follow this and our students are very smartly dressed. You must wear a tie properly and tuck in your shirt. I push my teachers to do this."
Looking around Varkey's office, it is hard not to notice his catalogue of perfect attire in the antique-framed photos of him with His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, former US president Bill Clinton, Boris Yelstin, Bill Gates and a host of other global leaders. He smiles.
"Which was my proudest moment? We have a great leader and each time you meet His Highness it's a great experience," he said.
"Whenever I get the chance I look forward to just having an audience with him because the wisdom you get is fantastic.
"You meet different people from different parts of the world but you give priority to the people and leaders who you have seen with your own eyes transform Dubai into a global brand."
We have many cars in the house for the family to use on different
occasions but I'm not a car person. I drive a normal Mercedes four-wheel-drive G55.
I have a 72ft yacht, which my children, parents and principals take out. It's a company thing. With Dubai Creek and Dubai's beautiful environment, it's nice to have a boat. A dinner on the Creek is really quite special.
The UK is my favourite destination, it's like a second home. On vacation, I am fortunate to travel with a sheikh friend of mine. We go every year to different places like South Africa.
I spend about 90 minutes a day on fitness. Typically that would involve 70 minutes in the gym and 20 minutes yoga.
Music and movies
I love music and am a great fan of Abba (pictured). I like songs with meaningful lyrics. I'm not a movie buff.
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