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There are few business school chiefs whose names have become synonymous with the organisations they run. But that is the case with Blair Sheppard and Duke Corporate Education, the for-profit provider of executive education that was spun out of Duke University’s Fuqua school of business in July 2000.

A Canadian by birth and consummate marketeer by inclination, Prof Sheppard has seen his brainchild, Duke CE, ranked number one in the world for the third year in a row in the Financial Times executive education rankings for customised education.

Duke CE’s work has proven particularly successful because it is receptive to client needs and it has borne out its founder’s belief that there needed to be a different way of delivering executive education to global corporations. As one satisfied customer told the FT this year: “Two things are unique with Duke: their focus and their availability to customise. No one else comes close.”

Duke CE’s joint venture in the UK with the London School of Economics has also proven that, given the right combination of skills and learning, executive education can be a highly lucrative business.

When the joint venture was established in October 2003, Duke CE had just $200,000 of revenues in the UK. Today, just 18 months later, revenues from the joint venture are higher than were those from Fuqua’s custom business when Duke CE was formed less than five years ago. This year the Duke/LSE venture has $9m worth of business on its books and Prof Sheppard believes that by the end of the year that figure could run to $12m.

“I never thought we’d be that successful, that fast,” says Prof Sheppard. He believes the strength of the venture is based in part on the type of social and political science research and teaching done at LSE.

“Executives know they have to be increasingly aware of the world in which they do business,” he says. “You can’t be a chief executive and believe you’re not influencing the political and social environment in which you operate. You can’t pretend you’re not involved in public policy - you are.”

The hallmark of the Duke CE approach to corporate education is to deliver different levels of programme at different price points within an organisation and Prof Sheppard is convincing in his explanation of how and why that model works.

The chief executives and board members of a company want only the top faculty members to teach them; and the top faculty want to teach only the corporate top dogs, he argues. Corporate directors like small group teaching or one-to-one development work and professorial time is expensive.

Moving down the corporate ladder, executive education particpants will be younger so will react better to younger faculty members with less experience. They will also accept larger class sizes and appreciate more interaction with their peers across the company. Providing these sorts of programmes is less expensive.

For the entry level staff, distance learning programmes might well be appropriate, requiring very little faculty time. However, the lower down the corporate tree the programmes go, the more technically complex they become, points out Prof Sheppard.

Distance learning technology presents few major problems for Duke CE. Prof Sheppard and his team developed much of the technical know-how in their days at the Fuqua school when he was one of the faculty instrumental in developing Fuqua’s global executive MBA in 1995.

The Gemba programme, as it became known, was a landmark executive MBA programme in that it was based on solid weeks of study around the globe - rather than the traditional local weekend model. The programme broke the mould in enabling schools outside big centres of population - IMD in Lausanne, Switzerland, is one example - to offer EMBA programmes in competition with the likes of Columbia, Wharton and London Business School.

Prof Sheppard was instrumental in developing both the Gemba programme and Fuqua’s Cross-Continent MBA - Fuqua’s second international MBA for working managers - before setting up Duke CE. He describes the development of the three programmes as “the most creative moments in my life”.

What is clear is that Duke CE is one of the few corporate education providers that has bridged the Atlantic, with one centre in North Carolina, the second in London. The company’s challenge now is to deliver the same focused learning to companies in countries such as India and China.

“We have got to find some way of not being the ugly American in Asia,” says Prof Sheppard. He is hoping that the LSE brand will help him continue to walk the fine line between management consultancy and business school teaching in Asia that has proved so popular elsewhere.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.

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