Data-based Strategy Works for Students and Stakeholders

At Huntington Learning Centers, CFO Jim Emmerson stresses his flexible strategy based on real-time data, cutting costs for franchisees, and a passionate team

Even if Jim Emmerson hadn’t won an award that night, dinner on the fifty-yard line at MetLife Stadium—the home of the New York Jets and New York Giants—would have been an experience to remember.

Jim Emmerson, Huntington Learning Centers
Jim Emmerson

Last May, Emmerson received the CFO Success Award for Strategy at the 2015 CFO Innovation Conference and Awards, an annual event held by CFO Studio, a regional organization for finance executives. Each year, the Success-Strategy Award honors a chief financial officer for superior leadership of corporate strategic initiatives.

Emmerson is the CFO of Huntington Learning Centers, the oldest national provider of private education services—test prep and tutoring—for elementary and high school students in the United States. Emmerson, who has been with the company for eighteen years, also spent twenty years in various retail companies. He holds a bachelor of arts in accounting and an MBA in finance, both from William Paterson University of New Jersey.

Huntington Learning Centers, founded in 1977, is a major player in the multi-billion-dollar tutoring and test prep industry. Huntington began selling franchises in 1985. There are currently 225 franchised centers in thirty-eight states and thirty-six company-owned centers in the New York metropolitan area. Huntington’s average franchise center boasts 61 percent more revenue than the company’s closest competitor.

Key to the company’s success, Emmerson says, is a strong sense of mission. “Our core value is basically focused on providing every student with the best education possible,” he says. The company’s results are something to be proud of: in three months of instruction, students, on average, achieve an entire school year of growth in both reading and math.

Tips for a Stronger Strategy, According to Jim Emmerson

  • Develop strategy with an eye to positioning the company properly in the marketplace.
  • If you’re going to be the best, you need to have the best. You need the best technology, the best programs, the best service, and you need to accomplish that by having the best people.
  • Plan for changes over the lifetime of the strategy.
  • Make sure everyone is on board with the strategy—and create incentives.

What makes for a unique challenge, however, is that this mission must be executed with two sets of stakeholders in mind. “We really have two primary customer groups,” Emmerson says. “Our parents and students are our primary customer, but as a franchisor, our other customer is our franchisee. They’re our business partners. We have to provide the best services to our students, but we have to give our franchisees what we consider world-class support to implement these programs.”

Enhanced Franchise Opportunities

As in many other industries, the 2008 recession hit private education companies hard. “We lost a number of franchised units, and that was something we really could not control,” Emmerson says. Now that the economy seems to be growing and the company is stabilized, he says,  it is pursuing growth on two fronts—by launching new franchised centers and increasing revenues at the existing centers.

With Emmerson’s strategic leadership, the company has made a host of changes to its franchising program. “We have lowered the cost of entry for a new franchisee based on smaller square footage to reduce occupancy costs; we’ve changed initial staffing structures to allow for improved financial results; we provide financing to new franchisees, and we give veterans 50 percent off the initial franchise fee,” he says. Over the next five years, Emmerson says, the company hopes to grow by at least twenty to thirty units annually.

The company is also seeing increased revenues in its franchised centers. “We work very diligently with vendors and third parties to reduce expenses for our franchisees,” Emmerson says. He also introduced tuition loan programs that have enhanced revenues by up to 20 percent at the centers where they have been implemented. “If it works for the students and parents, it will create more revenue for our franchisees and more profits for them,” he says.

Real-time data allows for quick pivoting

Key to the success of Huntington’s franchisees is the company’s sophisticated data-gathering operation. Overall responsibility for information technology is part of Emmerson’s portfolio as the company’s chief financial officer. “We gather a tremendous amount of data regarding the effectiveness of our students, our marketing efforts, and all of our associates,” Emmerson says. “And almost all the data we have is in real time.”

Close tracking of student performance in real time allows the company to quickly provide targeted analysis to franchisees and corporate associates. “We are finding that with all of the technology we are putting in place, our students are getting better and better results,” Emmerson says.

Passion and teamwork

Emmerson accepts that Huntington, like every company, faces unpredictable challenges. “There are things out there we really can’t control,” he says, citing National Labor Relations Board decisions and federal and state legislation on overtime and minimum wage laws.

Central to managing these challenges is flexibility and an ability to modify strategy on the fly. “There are a lot of changes occurring today that we have to factor into all our strategies,” Emmerson says. “Our confidence is that throughout all of this, we are the strongest tutoring and test prep service company in the country, and we intend to maintain that.”

Even after eighteen years at Huntington Learning Centers, Emmerson attributes his achievements to collaboration. “We work as a team here,” he says. “We’ve got very passionate principals who are involved in the day-to-day activity, and we are diligent in our efforts to work as a cohesive team. There’s a host of changes that have been made since I joined the company, but this growth has been based on the passion and the teamwork of a lot of people.”