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Dreaming big, expats open hagwon chain

From humble beginnings, franchise grows to 47 schools in just 18 months


The huge English-language education industry in Korea has inspired many expats to dream of opening their very own “hagwon,” or private institute.

But for Jason and Yeonghwa Fowler, owning one hagwon wasn’t enough. Almost 10 years after opening the Gwangju You and I Language School in 2000, they decided to take a step many thought impossible for non-Koreans ― they franchised.

Within an 18-month period, their company, Whiz Education, has opened nearly 50 schools across 13 cities. They are also set to become the first franchise to begin teaching the TOEFL Junior program.

“(When) we started to look at the franchise industry, we thought there was a window there. It’s still risky, but we thought that if there was a window there we should get in there,” Jason said.

Their story began in familiar fashion. Yeonghwa had decided to spend a year teaching in Gwangju in 1997, exploring her heritage. Jason came to Korea for a year away from his studies, and was posted to a teaching job in Gwangju in the same year.

He soon met Yeonghwa and together they began thinking a little more critically about how English was being taught in schools, universities, and hagwon.
Yeonghwa and Jason Fowler (Whiz Education)
Yeonghwa and Jason Fowler (Whiz Education)

“We decided to stay one more year, then we decided to stay six more months ― you’ve heard that story before, right?” Jason laughs. “I had been accepted to a dental school in New York, so at that point Yeonghwa moved back but I had I think six weeks left on my contract.”

Left to his own devices, Jason started noticing openings in the language-teaching market. After three weeks of discussing business ideas, Yeonghwa was back in Gwangju, Jason had put dental school on hold, and they opened a hagwon.

It wasn’t easy. Despite her Korean ancestry, Yeonghwa had grown up in the United States and did not have Korean citizenship or speak Korean fluently. And both Jason and Yeonghwa, at 27 and 25 respectively, were considered young to be starting a business in an age-conscious society.
Jason Fowler holds a seminar for a new school that will open next week in Daegu. (Whiz Education)
Jason Fowler holds a seminar for a new school that will open next week in Daegu. (Whiz Education)

The one advantage they did have was being able to offer a completely foreign-owned school, with a strict approach to students, parents, teaching and learning. Rather than complying with parental requests for special treatment for their children, they made a decision that English education would be their top priority.

“Parents came to me, and my job was to make sure we teach excellent English. We can’t really worry about the parents’ role of determining what they are doing outside my class. All I can worry about is that the parents want me to do this, and do it well, then I have to do it well.”

To supplement this straightforward approach, teaching was standardized to ensure consistency in every classroom, and emphasis was on conversational English skills, rather than grammar.

By the end of their opening month in 2000 they had 64 students, a number that nearly doubled after two months of classes, before reaching a peak of about 600 students. You and I Language School quickly became one of the biggest hagwon in northern Gwangju.

But in 2009, after running the school for nearly 10 years, Jason and Yeonghwa planned to sell the business and return to the United States.

“We thought it was time to go home, because we thought the golden period was clearly over. Lots of schools were still making money, but it wasn’t as easy,” Jason said.

Only a week after deciding to resume his studies in dentistry and medicine in New York, Jason and Yeonghwa were approached by Park Jong-shik, the owner of an ECC Language School in Gwangju, and their biggest competitor.

Park also thought that market trends were changing, and that franchising was the best way to remain competitive.

“He thought now was the time ― whenever there’s a little chaos in the industry is always the best time to start something new,” said Jason.

Franchising was something that Jason and Yeong-hwa had thought about in the past, but never seriously. With a Korean business partner, it became a genuine possibility.

The three agreed that offering something different would be the key to success.

“What we did was come up with a business model where we could keep foreigners in our schools but could still go local,” said Jason.

The first franchise began classes in September 2009, and by the end of the month seven more schools had opened up. In October 2010 the first school in Seoul opened. Now they have almost 50 schools across Korea.

“Before this franchise I had not seen a lot of Korea. I was turned off by the traffic,” said Jason. “But in the last year I have seen every nook and cranny of Korea!”

While operating a business in a foreign country has been difficult, Jason believes it is also one of their key advantages that helps set You and I Language Schools apart from the competition.

“I am certainly sure that there are no foreigner-owned franchises in Korea. I can tell you from meetings in Seoul that we have found many executives to be shocked to learn that we are the owners of the franchise,” he said.

Jason and Yeonghwa have no regrets about their decision to stay on.

“It certainly was daunting,” said Jason. “However at the same time we saw it as an amazing opportunity and challenge.”

By Hamish Boland-Rudder (hamish.bolandrudder@gmail.com)
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