Curriculum Associates to Be Owned by Iowa State University—For Now

column | Adaptive Learning

Curriculum Associates to Be Owned by Iowa State University—For Now

By Betsy Corcoran (Columnist)     Jan 12, 2017

Curriculum Associates to Be Owned by Iowa State University—For Now

When one of today’s hottest edtech companies was founded, Intel Corp., the kingpin of computer chip companies, was barely a year old, and the microprocessor had not yet been invented. This week, Curriculum Associates, in North Billerica, Mass., pulled off another intriguing move: Creating a way to support a public university without losing its edge as a private company.

More than 6 million students in all 50 states use products offered by Curriculum Associates, which sells research-based print and online instructional materials, assessments, and data management tools, including its flagship tool, the adaptive assessment and instruction package, i-Ready. Over the past five years, the company has been following a hockey-stick growth curve: It had $39 million in sales in 2012; last year’s sales topped $190 million.

It has achieved that growth, says company chief executive Rob Waldron, precisely by not paying attention to sales but by taking a “long view” on education. “We weren’t trying to win short term gains,” he says. “We’ve taken a 20 to 30 year view. That’s huge.” Because Curriculum Associates has been privately held and not forced to take cash out of the business, Waldron adds, “We’ve been able to grow. We’ve reinvested our money.”

The privately held company is laced with a strong sense of mission around providing teachers and classrooms with powerful materials to support learning. Continuous improvement at Curriculum Associates means doing “thousands of little things. Every little thing matters. We’re just tuning, tuning, tuning,” Waldron says.

But in addition to building products that schools around the US have been snapping up, Waldron and his predecessor, Frank Ferguson, chairman emeritus who ran CA since 1976, wanted to find more ways to “put the value of the company to work for the public good,” Waldron says.

After considering a number of options, the pair decided that the majority of Curriculum Associates shares would be donated to the foundation that supports Iowa State University. The school gets a yet-untapped wellspring of funding, estimated at close to $100 million in value. It will only get cash, however, when those shares are sold. Waldron, who is the company’s second largest shareholder, gets to choose the buyer.

And he’s definitely not interested in selling to just any bidder.

“We’re really focused on finding someone who wants to buy and hold,” Waldron says. “We’re not interested in being part of a large publishing company.” He’s similarly cautious about the kinds of organizations “who want to flip” a sale. “We have a deep interest in social change—the 20 to 30 year time frame. We’re not interested in shorter time frames.”

And at the least for the foreseeable future, nothing will change about Curriculum Associates’ roadmap of products, about its strategy or management team, Waldron pledges. “There will be no difference in what we’re building,” he declares. “Everything is the same.”

“Our business strategy is not about working one or two levers but to be outstanding at the 100 levers that schools need us to do well,” he adds. “I’m interesting in maximizing impact, not my own economics.”

That said, Waldron is a fan of the for-profit model. He believes that being a company instead of a nonprofit organization has enabled Curriculum Associates to grow and build product. The profits the company has generated have been reinvested in building better products. “Great organizations are simply great organizations”—their tax status shouldn’t matter, he asserts.

“What’s not healthy is people with short-term return horizons who create one-hit wonders and suck customers dry,” Waldron adds. “I’ve seen that in spades and I don’t want to be one of those,” he adds.

As Waldron considers potential acquirers of the Curriculum Associates shares, he'll be trying to gauge if those partners plan to stay in education. For the long, long haul.

“I’m going to take my time. I’m not doing this right away,” Waldron says. It could take as many as five years to find the “right” buyer—one who will satisfy Waldron’s desire to see the organization continue to grow.

“I’m currently only in discussions with folks who don’t have a clock ticking,” Waldron says. By contrast, for instance, private equity investors typically are required to exit their investments within six years, he points out. “I’ve worked in private equity.” And at least for now, “I’m not entertaining inquiries from people who have the clock ticking.”

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