Kendall's Tullman has many irons in the fire
February 14, 2006


Spending a lifetime with corporate CEOs, I've met few genuine Renaissance men. Most executives are preoccupied with a tunnel vision of their own solitary, weighty job; others might have diversified interests, but only be dilettantes, dabbling but never drilling down.

Then there's Chicago's Howard Tullman. Rarely in the annals of business do you meet a real life, modern-day, manic Don Quixote with such kaleidoscopic pursuits. Whether planting seeds from scratch or turning around troubled organizations or savoring the arts, he's spent much of his 60 years making things happen, then moving on to the next challenge. More than this, it's the sheer diversity of his efforts, as a serious player, that place him in a league of his own: entrepreneurial father of a half-dozen corporations, public and private; attorney; judge; author; Ford Foundation scholar; thoroughbred horse breeder; film producer; professor; corporate trouble-shooter; art patron; Broadway show producer; college president; director of the Princeton Review.

The paradox of it all is that Tullman confesses -- in contrast to the classical Renaissance man -- that he has little innate talent for anything except lighting fires.

Take his latest crusade: rescuing Chicago's Kendall College, one of the world's capitals of culinary education that had fallen on hard times.

"Cooking? I can't even boil water," Tullman says. "My philosophy of dining has always been speed, quantity and price. That didn't go over very well with the chefs."

Directors of 70-year-old Kendall, which in 2002 was on life support because of lack of focus plus turnover of four presidents in five years, asked him to take over and come up with a fresh answer. When Tullman agreed to serve as president, nobody was prepared for the tornado to follow. In his typical fashion, he barged in, asked for total autonomy, received it from the board and faculty, and then addressed the multiple crises of financial disaster, creaky facilities and morale in the basement. With the banks knocking at the door, time was running out.

"Change can happen fast," Tullman says. "It's the resistance to change -- tradition -- that takes a long time to overcome." But he didn't have the time. The patient was dying. Devising a rescue plan, he went direct and launched a series of financial briefings that talked turkey, with Q&A, with the entire faculty and staff. One early step was an "out of the box" idea of contracting to train U.S. Navy chefs, an important new source of revenue.

The boldest remedy by far was one that rocked the institution: Sell the sleepy Evanston campus, move the entire college to Goose Island on the Near Northwest Side after a major renovation of a historic building there, shrink the liberal arts curriculum to concentrate on two degree specialties -- career chefs and hotel management -- and strip away frills like athletics.

"The opportunity of a lifetime is what he called it when he first proposed it to our board," Penny Brown, Kendall's chairman, recalls. "He listed a dozen huge things that would all have to happen in a few weeks if we had any chance to survive. New financing, buying, selling, zoning, regulations -- it was unreal. It was a shock to our system.

Sure enough, with a full-court press 24/7, with e-mails at 3 a.m. to attorneys and architects, Tullman slew all the dragons within weeks, sold the Evanston campus, and raised $60 million to buy the former Sara Lee R&D center on 6 acres at Goose Island, transforming it into a state-of-the-art facility to accommodate thousands of students. Part of the magic stunt was signing a long-term strategic partnership with Baltimore's Laureate Education Inc. and winning financial support from The Private Bank & Trust, Chicago.

Laureate (traded LAUR on the Nasdaq) is a $1 billion for-profit higher education company serving 230,000 students on 20 campuses abroad. Its Les Roches division, a world-class hospitality management college, would add its expertise, and offer opportunities for Kendall students to do studies and internships overseas.

Laureate was given a two-year option to acquire 100 percent of the Kendall equity -- a move that appears likely before year-end, Tullman says.

The bottom line on the salvage story is seen currently. Kendall today -- one of the nation's top three degree schools in culinary arts and hospitality -- is thriving in its new digs, has an enrollment of 780 degree students, up 30 percent in the past year, and growing another 30 percent in 2006. Space now totals 170,000 square feet vs. 95,000 in Evanston.

He says gross revenues have soared from $8 million in 1995 to $20 million last year, and will rise a third this year, supporting a faculty of 125 vs. 76 last year. Most important, Tullman says, are student retention (now at 91 percent), a return of black ink, and true solvency at last.

The $60 million move and renovation tab have been covered by a $25 million bank loan, a $25 million Laureate investment and the $10 million sale of the Evanston campus. He estimates Kendall "market value" at $150 million.

With Kendall convalescing nicely, Tullman has galloped off to another quest: innovations in child education. Essentially, it's a new concept in schooling -- "total-immersive learning."

Based on principles conceived by two Kansas City Ph.D. educators who approached him in 2004, the program is designed to motivate and energize 4th- and 5th-graders by plunging them into simulated real life settings.

They learn entrepreneurship firsthand by playing roles in a simulated city with stores and banks, and learn science by roles in a simulated nature preserve. After a successful program established at a Taylor, Mich., center now serving 150 grade schools there, Tullman will be opening a second Experiencia World at a 25,000-square-foot facility right next to Goose Island this April, funded by $2 million from angel investors. With support from City Hall and the board of education, the eight-week program will initially have students from 36 Chicago grade schools.

All this is a part of a roster of vast and varied crusades. Earning a law degree from Northwestern, he won a Ford Fellowship to create, with former Gov. Jim Thompson, a criminal law studies program, later served as a special master for class action litigation in New York. He then spawned a series of companies like Chicago's CCC Information Services and others named among the fastest growing. Simultaneously, he became an active art collector and donor to Chicago's Art Institute, MCA and others, served on President Bill Clinton's Committee for Humanities and the Arts. He also produced films, video games and the Tony Award nominee "Swing-in' on a Star" on Broadway.

His next quest? Completion of two books; building his Internet services provider, The Cobalt Group, and taking Experiencia World to the next level.

Quixotic? Hardly. When Howard Tullman tilts at windmills, they usually become cyclones.

Ted Pincus is a finance professor at DePaul and an independent communications consultant and journalist.

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