Toby Chu doesn't waste any time. The efficient and affable president and CEO of CIBT Education Group Inc. (MBA-X) strides into the company's boardroom at the appointed hour, equipped with an armload of brochures, press clippings and analysts' reports.
My opening question about his business in China triggers a well-rehearsed five-minute synopsis of CIBT's history, business strategy and growth prospects.
Chu has had ample opportunity to hone his spiel. As an entrepreneur who has seemingly had the inside track on cracking the massive China market, he has recently delivered his elevator pitch to investors, analysts, prospective business partners and the media – including Maclean's, which featured him in a full-page profile last spring.
Chu doesn't export tech gadgets or building supplies or any other B.C. products targeted for China's rapidly expanding middle class. His product is education.
Having started a successful company selling office products in 1986, Chu began looking for opportunities in China around 1994. Simply expanding the business wasn't an option.“As an emerging country, there was a problem with receivables," Chu explains.“You were unable to collect money quite often.”And then there was the problem with inventory: "Inventory tends to go missing, walking out the back door or falling off the back of the truck.”
The solution Chu hit upon was education: clients paid cash up front, and inventory was entirely intangible. With China's economy opening up and foreign investment pouring in, the country would need to train legions of executives and middle managers to handle all that money. And the hot commodity in Chinese education was foreign degrees, which students saw as the ticket to higher salaries.
Chu took his company public, raised some capital and rebuilt CIBT to focus on exporting education to China. His first move was to strike a partnership with City University in Bellevue, Washington, which allowed CIBT to offer a U.S.-accredited MBA degree in China. Since then he has forged partnerships with various North American schools and acquired others, including Vancouver's Sprott-Shaw Community College and the Tourism Training Institute.
The ninth-floor boardroom at CIBT's head office, with its sweeping vista of False Creek and the North Shore mountains, attests to Chu's former life selling office automation equipment: it's tricked out with twin flat-screen monitors and all the communications paraphernalia needed for direct video links with CIBT's 24 schools in China. Chu himself is packing a holster bristling with wireless devices.
At 47, Chu is far from stepping back and delegating any part of his hectic workload. ("Retirement is not in my blood,”he says with a laugh.) He reports spending about half to two-thirds of his days on the road and often works 18-hour days when he's home in Vancouver.
When Chu decided in 1994 to put all his eggs in the China basket, he turned his back on the U.S., which at the time was his company's biggest market. Today, having successfully conquered China, he has set his sights on an even bigger market. "China has a population of 1.3 billion,”Chu says.“Great.”He pauses for effect. "Asia has three billion.”