By Melinda Collins
In the education sector ‘business’ was once a dirty word. Now it appears to be a profitable one.
When self made millionaire and creator of Just Water, Tony Falkenstein first bandied about the idea of a business school within a high school setting, the concept was laughed off.
“The Ministry of Education was opposed to teaching business as part of the curriculum. The comment was made that business would never be taught as a subject in school,” Falkenstein says.
“New Zealand Trade and Enterprise (NZTE) did a survey which found 76 percent of teachers thought business was a dirty word – the education sector was very anti-business.”
Proof that the times do change came this year, with the ministry adopting NCEA achievement standards for business studies; a move welcomed with open arms by Falkenstein and his brainchild, Onehunga High Business School.
Onehunga is the first New Zealand high school teaching business studies and, lacking ministry support, students have been working toward international qualifications since it opened in 2003. Now with business studies receiving full backing from the ministry, Falkenstein says the path has been paved for similar ventures.
“The ministry and I, who were the worst enemies, are now the best of friends,” he laughs.
An Onehunga old-boy himself, Falkenstein is most known, not for the speed at which he made his first million, or the speed at which he lost his first million, but the grace and business acumen he displayed as he clambered back up the corporate chain. After two failed ventures, he purchased fax machine business Red Eagle for one dollar.
Within a decade it was turning over $200 million a year. His latest foray is Just Water International. It too has proved a success and is today a major player in the corporate bottled water, water-cooler and brand packaged water markets.
But the inspiration for Falkenstein’s foray into business education came well before Just Water’s public debut. In 2001, the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor Report listed New Zealand second only to Mexico in the entrepreneurship table, but attacked the education system for failing to provide the knowledge and skills for business success.
Our primary and secondary schools were rated below the global average for their teaching of market-economy principles and focus on entrepreneurship.
“New Zealand was on top when it came to getting businesses started and at the absolute bottom when it came for businesses lasting five years,” he says.
And it proved the drawcard for him to do something about it. Without ministry support, NZTE provided the funding, by June 2002 the concept was confirmed to go-ahead and by February 2003 the four lecture rooms were open.
“That speed has never happened before in the life of education,” he laughs.
Similar ventures have come and gone since those days, but Falkenstein says the business school is operated in a way which has ensured its success. The business school operates as a separate entity from the high school itself, with its own board.
“A special type of person will go on the board of a business school than who will go on a high school board – they tend to be business people. A big key to the success is having those business people in the local community onboard.”
While he has stepped down from the board himself, Falkenstein is continuing to play a prominent role in encouraging other schools to follow the model. “It’s now an NCEA subject so there’s no reason why other schools shouldn’t be teaching business.
“I’m very happy with the response and by next year the plan is to have 60 high schools teaching business. It is accepted, there are good calibre students wanting to do it and whether kids are learning arts or science, there is still room to do business,” he says of the subject’s transferable skills. “You live a better life if you have more money coming in than going out,” he laughs.
This year there are 600 students currently enrolled in general business and a further 150-odd in the accounting and economics classes, business school head Linda Everett says. But an increase in senior students wanting to study business is expected in future years as some students have previously rejected it because they wanted an NCEA qualification.
While initially open to senior students, all Onehunga students now have a one-term introduction to business in Year 9.
“It’s become recognised that business studies is an academic subject and the skills that students can take from it are transferable. It fits the new curriculum really nicely in terms of the key competencies and values,” she says.
“I think people are starting to realise it is an integral part of our existence.”