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Actors Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway may not have the sort of management profile usually associated with business education, but in April they were seen striding through the woods surrounding Ashridge, the UK school, where they were filming the 2012 version of Les Misérables.
For Kai Peters, chief executive of Ashridge for eight years, it is par for the course. Film shoots, tours, weddings and conferences are part of the package. Ashridge, near Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, arguably has the most impressive buildings and grounds of any business school, though this comes at a price.
Annual maintenance of the gothic buildings, designed by James Wyatt in the early 19th century and previously home to monks, princesses and Dunkirk evacuees, runs to £2m. In recessionary times it is a cost that would make most deans shudder.
Prof Peters, 49, says he could see “a precipice” when income dropped from £39m in 2008 to £32m in 2009.
“The first five years [of his appointment] were easy; the second five years have been hell,” he says. “[In the recession] our clients all said, ‘We love you to bits, but we’re just postponing.’”
One of the best-connected and most plainly spoken deans, Prof Peters is candid about the school’s problems, and the consequences. Ashridge had to lay off 100 people, including about 20 faculty.
The school has turned a corner and expects to bring in £36m this year. Prof Peters is recruiting again.
Faculty at Ashridge are different from those at more traditional schools. Indeed, experience counts as strongly as academic references. This might be said of Prof Peters, too, one of the few deans not to have a doctoral degree – he holds an MBA from Rotterdam School of Management in the Netherlands, where he went from student to professor and then dean. But he also owns, and was managing director of, a German publishing company and has worked with IBM and Volkswagen, managing educational activities.
He has an international pedigree that reflects the global outlook of teaching at Ashridge, where nearly 70 per cent of business is outside the UK. German by nationality, Prof Peters moved to Canada aged four and lived there for 23 years before moving back to Germany for two years and then to the Netherlands. He came to the UK in 2003.
Prof Peters’ interest in publishing influences his attitude to management education. When selecting faculty, he looks for professors who write – not for academic peer-reviewed journals but for applied journals, such as Harvard Business Review, where Ashridge faculty probably publish more often than their counterparts from other top European schools.
Getting the message across to managers is part of Prof Peters’ mission, in particular raising awareness of Ashridge’s brand outside the corporate world. Its low profile has restricted the growth of its degree courses – especially the full-time MBA, which has regularly enrolled fewer than 20 students, and its masters programmes, which specialise in coaching. The big question is how to grow these programmes without losing the intimacy for which they are noted.
This year, the school will combine teaching on its full-time MBA and executive MBA. It can do this because the MBA is targeted at more mature managers than the usual 27- or 28-year-old. The average age of full-time MBA participants is 36, while that of masters students is 46.
“I would like to build up some of these scaleable activities,” concludes Prof Peters.