A Monk and his Business Plan

SOMETHING’S NOT QUITE RIGHT AT REGENESYS.

Maybe it’s the lone beige candle that flickers on the otherwise standard office reception desk. Or the meditation room with signature Mr. Price burnt orange sheer curtains. Or perhaps it’s those posters of mountains and streams and crashing waves which cling the stark white walls, over lit in office florescence, and emblazoned with words like “ambition” and “goals” and “performance” and “destiny” which come straight out of a motivational coaching guide or a post card you’d pick up at your neighborhood spirituality shop.

Then again, maybe things are just the way they should be. Perhaps this is simply what you get when a former monk from a tiny village in Croatia opens a business management school in the bustling heart of Gauteng.

This clash of civilizations merges at the crossroads in Woodmead, at the head offices of the Regenesys School, which is situated in one corner of a leafy office park. The institution – one part business school and one part sterile office space, with a dash of spiritual enlightenment – was founded by Marko Saravanja in 2001 with the flagship School of Public Management, certainly based, at least in part, on Saravanja’s alma mater, the University of Witswatersrand’s Public and Development Management Programme, and borne of his frustration with mainstream academia.

Since its inception just a few years back, Regenesys claims to have taught more than 30,000 students on subjects ranging from basic computer skills to project management and organisational development, the vast bulk of which – up to 80 percent, says Saravanja – comes via government agencies that are racing to fill the skills gap in various departments.

But while the basics fill up the lecture halls, which, many times, are outsourced in off-site locations like client offices, hotels or game reserves, Regenesys is gearing up to become a full-fledged tertiary business institution. They have already handed out masters degrees in their School of Public Management and certificates . And in July, the Regenesys Business School’s MBA programme was accredited by the Council on Higher Education – a not-so-easily won battle which put local business programmes under scrutiny, shaving the number of MBA programmes from 37 offered by 27 institutions to just 19 MBA programmes by 15 institutions.

Saravanja says it’s his dedication to his clients – he notes: these are not students bound by educational tradition to keep quiet but rather clients who are buying an educational service – as well as the Regenesys ability to customise programmes that has brought them success so quickly.

“A university can afford to not have a happy student because irrespective of quality, they are still going to get their subsidy,” says Saravanja. “We don’t have that luxury. If we don’t perform, we don’t have a school.”

And his meritocracy approach – which includes a profit sharing model which hands out performance bonuses to staff, academic salaries which double those offered by traditional educational institutions and a scheme which helps employees go on institution-sponsored overseas visits to the Seven Wonders of the World – seems to be working. Their client roster includes Anglo American and Woolworths, and their laundry list of government departments served includes the offices of Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, who spoke at the school’s July graduation ceremony.

It’s a long and twisted road that took an engineering dropout from Croatia to found an African institution that trains government officials but Saravanja never was one to follow a well-traveled path. He joined the Buddhist-inspired yoga and meditation group Ananda Marga at 21, running away from his family and heading for India and Sweden for training. It was that same group that posted him to live his life as a monk in South Africa, where he ended up in 1991, living on an informal settlement in Orange Farm. There, he meditated part-time, worked in the community part-time and studied at Wits whenever he could. But at 29, something shifted. Saravanja wanted something more than the life of a monk could offer, even if he couldn’t name exactly what it was. So after spending a good part of his adult life owning next to nothing, he walked out of the Orange Farm settlement with the orange robes on his back and not much else.

But his resume detailed his work – Saravanja had helped to raise more than R20 million for projects in the area, and set up school and health centre. With that, he managed to land a job at Wits, working there for three years. That’s where he met his wife, Penny Lew CK, a lecturer in public health management, who helped him start Regenesys.

Saravanja held his first course in March 2000, four months after he quit his job at Wits. “I believed that I could create anything I wanted to,” he says. “I didn’t have any money but I had my spiritual knowledge.”

He was, as he describes it, the switchboard guy, the lecturer, the marketing head, the administrative department and the sales team until he convinced Lew to quit her job and join him on his quest for a better educational opportunity. He knew what he really needed was R100 million to make the dream of his university work but for the time being, meditation and visualization of what was to come would have to do.

Like the bulk of his courses today, his first one was held in an outsourced venue – a church in the Northwest Province where he trained 25 people from the local health department on “personal and team effectiveness”. Soon after, he signed a three year lease on a tiny office and placed an ad in the Mail & Guardian for R10 000 for what continue to be some of the school’s core courses: project management, strategic planning and business writing. They received 100 calls on that first ad – and things haven’t slowed down much since. A year later, William Vivian, a friend who Saravanja had studied with at Wits and who had worked for the health department, joined them. The three remain partners and the sole shareholders today.

Just over a year ago, Saravanja was offered R100 million to sell the school. He thought about it for a while. Then he decided he wanted to hold onto his dream – the one that came true through those visualizations he had in the early days when he started with next to nothing but had him standing with smiling graduates in long robes, and shaking hands with presidents.

Saravanja’s next goal: to become the leading management school in the world. Which would sound completely ludicrous if it didn’t come from a former monk who started a booming business school on not much more than a business plan and a prayer.

October 2007, Maverick

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