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Mike Canning is not your average business school dean. He does not hold the coveted doctoral degree nor the arm-long list of published articles in refereed journals. And his attire is classically corporate, not shabby academic. But then, he does not work for a traditional business school.

In July 2010, Canning, now 52, became chief executive of Duke Corporate Education, the specialist corporate education company that has been ranked number one in the Financial Times rankings for customised programmes for the past nine years.

The strength of the institution, which is wholly owned by Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, is that it offers just one thing: highly customised programmes to address specific corporate needs. “We’ve always thought of ourselves as being in the execution of strategy, of helping people solve problems,” says its affable chief executive.

Unlike many business schools where corporate programmes are based on professorial research interests, Duke CE uses academics and trainers from a host of sources – often competing business schools – to teach what a company needs.

A decade ago, when it was launched, it was a real innovation in the executive education market. And the recession has not dampened the new boss’s enthusiasm for the innovative.

Canning is clearly excited about Duke CE’s latest venture, which he dubs the “marketplace as classroom”. Though it might sound like the overseas study trips beloved of MBA students, Canning believes that immersing managers in the countries where they will do business – be it India, China or the UK – helps them understand the challenges better.

“Businesses need to grow in unfamiliar markets and they need a cadre of global leaders,” he says. “Being a global leader is more than a cognitive enterprise. We shock their senses, give them a visceral experience.”

But placing all your eggs in one basket, even in a fashionable area such as corporate education, has its drawbacks, as Duke CE found to its cost during the recession. “After eight years of double-digit growth, we saw things fall off for about two years,” says Canning. Indeed, the company saw two years of double-digit decline before business returned. This year, the news is much better, and he is predicting growth in excess of 30 per cent, although he is characteristically candid about business prospects: “It will take us two years to get back to where we were.”

Canning worked for many years at Coca-Cola, and his corporate background clearly shows in his approach to running Duke CE. During the bad times, he and his colleagues exercised the level of customer support more common in consumer goods companies than in business schools. “We stuck with our clients. We visited those with no budget and talked about their plans. We actually didn’t lose a client. Growth is really driven by our existing clients coming back,” he says.

Many of Duke CE’s clients are in the mining, metals and construction sectors, areas often eschewed by business schools that concentrate on banks and services firms. But Canning is committed to them. “Although those companies [banks and services firms] are knowledge driven, the other companies [mining and construction] are really short of talent. There is a shortage of good leaders in technical industries, and a huge need to retain and reshape the talent.”

As the global economy improves, these companies are picking up business too. “They’re all going great guns. They have bounced back more than anyone expected,” he says.

But although business is back, it is different, according to Canning. “We’re doing fine in the US,” he says, where a handful of blue-chip companies have signed up for business. In Europe, countries such as Germany, Switzerland and Sweden have shown growth – Duke CE has doubled the number of clients there.

Two-thirds of the company’s growth is outside the US, says Canning, who maintains businesses need to grow in unfamiliar markets. “We’ve had some nice growth in really unlikely areas,” he says.

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