Mark Lumsdon-Taylor, Hadlow College

6 April 2016

How a college went from being "a basket case" to a successful business, focused on education for jobs

Significant funding cuts to further education establishments since 2010 have put many under pressure. But Mark Lumsdon-Taylor, director of finance and resources at Hadlow College, firmly believes applying private sector principles to the public sector leads to more sustainable results – and he’s speaking from experience.

Hadlow is a land-based college in Kent, running courses in everything from agriculture and sustainability and animal management to landscape, horticulture and design. It’s rated outstanding by Ofsted. But when Lumsdon-Taylor joined in 2002, it was a “basket case, losing half a million pounds a year”, he explains.

Not only did he manage to put the necessary structures in place to restore control over cashflow – and negotiate support from the bank – he also changed the financial model on which Hadlow is still based.

Further education and higher education each generate a third of the college’s revenues. The remaining third comes from commercial ventures, helping to reduce reliance on public funding, balance risk and maintain healthy books.

It also satisfies Lumsdon-Taylor’s personal mantra in the process: “Turnaround is vanity, profit is sanity, but cash is reality”. He adds: “It’s expansion for a purpose, not for glory.”

A portfolio approach

Now the £50m group has come full circle – last year rescuing two sites in Tunbridge Wells and Ashford from the indebted K College (the failed merger between West Kent and South Kent Colleges).

“Our journey hasn’t finished yet,” says Lumsdon-Taylor. “We’ve learnt valuable lessons along the way. We couldn’t have taken on K College – which tried to acquire us 14 years ago – if we hadn’t.”

But he adds that Hadlow Group has become more than an educational institute. It has also driven the regeneration of the Betteshanger Colliery, near Dover. At the end of the same year, it revealed a £40m plan to bring up to 1,000 jobs to the area and create a centre for green technology business and a national eco-tourism visitor centre for over 100,000 visitors a year.

It wouldn’t have happened had Lumsdon-Taylor not developed the skill to encourage collaboration and leverage the different funds available, he says. The Betteshanger project is backed by £11m public sector investment and £29m from the private sector.

But neither would the Hadlow board have pushed the idea if there wasn’t something in it for the college.

“It creates our own market for courses,” Lumsdon-Taylor says. “We wouldn’t be doing it if we didn’t see the opportunities in education that come with it.”

The same applies to the Olympic legacy Hadlow has helped to build by opening the Royal Greenwich Equestrian Centre, a horse rehabilitation unit in partnership with the Royal Borough of Greenwich.

And, on a more personal level, it also helps explain Lumsdon-Taylor’s involvement in Rural plc (Kent), an organisation devoted to raising the profile of the rural sector, its contribution to the UK (a combined turnover of £500m puts it on a par with firms in the FTSE 100, he says), and the business opportunities it represents. A major issue faced by many of its members is the demand for skills and training.

Meeting business needs

Even at its most academic, Lumsdon-Taylor insists that this demand is at the root of Hadlow’s success. “By and large, it’s education for jobs,” he says.

“Colleges don’t see it as their role to work with and engage with businesses. But just getting on and doing it has made a real difference,” he explains. “Rural businesses – many of them micro businesses – have tight margins to manage. We focus on how we can help them.”

And on the flip side, Lumsdon-Taylor has also learnt from the private sector – “developing Hadlow into a brand, not a logo” has helped the group stand out from other education establishments, he says.

“During our journey, we’ve also recognised the opportunities in the diversification of the rural sector, the need to focus on leadership and inspiration – and the importance of having a vision.”