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GeoLearning president vies for national small-business leader honors


Instead of memorizing a mission statement, new employees at GeoLearning Inc., a West Des Moines Web-based learning and training company, learn about the company’s customer service philosophy and overall goals by analyzing a 16th-century painting.

It may sound unorthodox, but GeoLearning President Frank Russell has studied human behavior and worked in the training industry long enough to know a thing or two about how people learn. He believes that his employees will gain a better sense of how to handle challenges if they contemplate Raphael’s St. George painting, which depicts a knight slaying a dragon to rescue a damsel in distress.

“If you go into a lot of companies, they’ll have a mission statement framed on the wall saying that ‘We want to be the best in this,’ and ‘We believe in customer service.’ They all sound about the same,” Russell said. “We wanted to do something different with our philosophy. We thought that we should burn a visual image into the minds of all our new employees, and let them see that their job is to be like St. George and come in as the champion to save the customer from their technology or system that isn’t working.”

Russell completed his Ph.D. coursework in psychology and sociology and intended to be a professor before he was recruited to work for a training company. Earlier this month, he was recognized by the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Des Moines district office as Iowa’s Small Business Leader of the year, and he will travel to Washington, D.C., April 26 to vie for honors in the National Small Business Person of the Year competition at the SBA’s Expo 2005.

Dave Lentell, the business development specialist for the SBA’s Des Moines district office, said the agency looks at both a company and its leader when choosing its Small Business Person of the Year, and Russell stood out among the six candidates because of GeoLearning’s “innovative products and the tremendous growth in sales and employees.”

Looking at GeoLearning today, with its impressive list of clients such as Nike Inc. and Dell Inc. and its 100 percent sales growth in each of the past four years, the company has progressed a long way since its inception in 1997. Back then, GeoLearning had two employees and Russell and his wife, Linda, the company’s executive vice president of administration and contracts, oversaw the business from their basement of their home.

The Russells started GeoLearning after selling Excellence in Training Corp., a video-based training company they had started together and operated for 10 years, to New-York-based Primedia Inc.

“When they (Primedia) wanted to move our company, which was Excellence in Training, down to Dallas, we approached them about going to an Internet-based model of training delivery, but they didn’t want to go down that path,” Russell said. “They were into satellite communications and didn’t think Internet was going to be big. They agreed to let us out of our non-compete agreement, and that’s how GeoLearning began.”

In 1998, GeoLearning moved into the Regency West Office Park in West Des Moines, where it has taken on more space in recent years as it has added to its client base. About 55 percent of its 350 clients are corporations and 45 percent are government agencies. Four years ago, Russell said, analysts warned him that GeoLearning would be buried by its competitors, which were heavily funded by venture capitalists, but that hasn’t happened.

In 2003, Training magazine readers determined that GeoLearning provided the Best Learning Management System. Last year, the company ranked No. 367 on the Inc. 500 list of America’s fastest growing private companies, and TrainingOutsourcing.com named GeoLearning one of the top 20 companies in the training outsourcing industry. Earlier this month, Red Herring magazine announced that the company is one of 200 finalists in its Top 100 Private Companies in North America competition.

“My competitors get my juices going in the morning,” Russell said. “It doesn’t mean that I don’t want to beat them, but it certainly makes our market lively and it gives us a reason to constantly question if we are doing the best that w can do.”

Russell estimates that about 3 million students each year will be trained online through his company’s online training platform, GeoMaestro, which he said is essentially an online university. Dell is GeoLearning’s largest corporate client, and Costco Wholesale Corp., Nike and Ticketmaster are among the other large businesses for which GeoLearning designs online training systems.

“We are strong partners with Dell,” Russell said. “When someone buys a computer online, they have the option to buy some online training such as Microsoft Office training, or training on how to operate a digital camera. We support the training with our call center, which is open 24/7. We have a lot of clients who really like that feature, because with so many calls going to places like India right now, the customer appreciates the high level of service we can provide for them.”

GeoLearning employs about 100 people at its West Des Moines office, and about 70 others are based at the company’s hosting facilities in Ashburn, Va., and Ottawa, Canada. Russell credits his employees with many of the company’s successes.

“I think that the most important thing about being a good leader is looking for people who are better than you are and who are really sharp, and you let them do what they do well,” Russell said. “When you’re an entrepreneur, you have to be there to drive the organization, but you reach a point where you have to pull yourself away from that and focus on strategically growing the company.”

GeoLearning plans to unveil its new learning platform, GeoNext, in 2006. Russell said he expects business to remain “very bullish,” and he hopes to increase the company’s international presence – it currently has training sites in 50 countries – as well as continue to expand its client base among local governments. Somewhere in the distant future, Russell sees himself returning to his roots in education.

“Someday, if I retire, I think I’ll teach an entrepreneur class,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of things they don’t teach you in business school about being an entrepreneur. I remember a consultant came here once who was trying to help us reduce our risk. I said, ‘You don’t understand. To be an entrepreneur is to live on the razor’s edge. You’re always taking a risk.’ That’s part of the thrill of it, really.”

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