Guiding education reform is big business for ex-teachers

By Bill Wagner

New Hampshire Business Review, April 5-18, 1991

{Reprinted with permission of the New Hampshire Business Review}

Christine Dwyer and Dr. Everett W. Barnes, Jr. are former teachers, now running a fast-growing consulting service in Hampton.
"RMC Research Corp. expects literacy to be the education "issue of the '90s." [Photo by Peter Graf]

For two former teachers, sizing up education has become one of the fastest growing businesses in the Northeast.

But when Dr. Everett W. Barnes Jr. and Christine Dwyer reflect back on their time as partners for RMC of Hampton, they can thank one William B. Wilson of Odessa, Texas for helping learn what to do. Or, not to do.

RMC's 1990 sales figures were $5.8 million. The company which does education research, program evaluation, technical assistance and training for the private sector, state and federal agencies, did only $118,000 in 1985, its first year under the stewardship of Barnes and Dwyer.

The two had purchased the company from Wilson, for whom they had worked after Wilson, whose business specialty was in oil and gas, had bought it in 1982. Although a genial man who has remained on friendly terms with Barnes and Dwyer, the RMC partners say that the Texan was far over his head with RMC.

"He never knew about our aspect of his business," says Dwyer a former Granite State schoolteacher of 44.

According to Barnes a 48-year-old ex-teacher and school principal with 17 years of program research and evaluation experience, Wilson wanted RMC to become a cash cow.

"But we were never able to generate those kind of revenues for him," Barnes said.

Wilson was hoping that RMC would enable him to enter the lucrative microcomputer-automation field, Federal government contracts were not perceived as a worthwhile venture, largely because of the low profit return (average 5-6 percent before taxes). Wilson eventually filed bankruptcy in 1984, and the wheels were set in motion for Barnes and Dwyer to assume full control. Wilson's lessons have stayed fresh in their minds.

The big thing to remember? Know your business and love your business. If you don't do both of these things, you'll probably fail. And, cliched though it sounds, serve the customer properly.

"Many have the attitude that it's the customer's problem if they aren't smart enough to push you for better service," Barnes says. "We don't."

RMC had 14 employees when Barnes and Dwyer took over in 1985. It now has 96. The company has enjoyed a 132 percent sales increase since 1988, and now has six office locations.

RMC's success package has not gone unnoticed by heavy-hitter companies. Connecticut Mutual has invited RMC to be considered for the Blue Chip Enterprise Award, inviting the firm to write a story on it's history and submit it for review to a panel of small business experts. Out of four finalists from each state, one such business will be chosen to represent the state. Then, those 51 businesses will be narrowed down to only three which will be recognized at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Annual Meeting in April of this year.

"I think we thought the company was solid," Barnes says. "But I don't think we set out to do this."

The major portion of RMC's business is done with the federal government on educational programs. RMC acts as the eyes and ears of the feds, who want to know how their policies are faring. The firm's clients have included the Department of Education, Department of State, Department of Labor and Department of Health and Human Services as well as several state agencies.

RMC is the developer of "Drug Avengers," an animated drug education video for elementary school students that was disseminated to 18,000 schools across the country. Drug Avengers also contained accompanying print material to guide parents and teachers in drug discussions with children. The program won a number of national awards and widespread acclaim for its impact, has been translated into Spanish and is broadcast overseas.

The Hampton-based consultant has also served its home state. Five years ago, RMC worked with a New Hampshire task force on a study of special education management information, funded through the state Legislature. And RMC also served as a subcontractor to Dover-based Development Assistance Corp. on a job to study early childhood programs for the U.S. Dept. of Education. Other examples of RMC contracts -- an evaluation of the effectiveness of industry based bilingual vocational training programs on employee job aptitude; an analysis of federally-funded school dropout prevention programs; and the development of computer-assisted software for the teaching/rehabilitation of decision-making skills for traumatically-injured individuals.

Dwyer and Barnes say they faced no small task when they assumed control of RMC after the buyout. While both felt that government contracts were a good tack, RMC faced a formidable foe -- the congressional lobby.

The firm's efforts to drum up business were hindered by a powerful lobby from public and private nonprofit organizations, who argued that, on competition related to education and human services, only nonprofits should be selected.

The nonprofits contention was that not-for-profits were less expensive than for-profit entities. However, Barnes notes that this is not the case, contending that noprofits tend to be more costly in terms of salaries, benefits and other over-head items.

Barnes adds: "Nonprofits charge a fee just as for-profits do. The only difference is that nonprofits have no stockholders."

So RMC labored through the tough times, as Barnes and Dwyer say they tried to hire good people who would promote new business development and strived for stability in the procurement of new contracts. It worked.

Asked when RMC truly came of age, Dwyer answers that it was probably "three Octobers ago." That's when the company secured four big contracts that netted $5 million in value over their three-year lives.

"I think this was a turning point," Dwyer says. it caught a lot of people's attention that what was a relatively small company could turn over all that at once."

Now, RMC actually has to turn down some business because it fears it would not have adequate staff. And the firm has found a very level playing field when it competes for contracts, as technical merit is used as a much more valued yardstick than the low bid. And the feds have been very eager to learn, valuing the company's expertise.

"A new kid on the block has a great chance (to get government contracts) in education," Dwyer says. "In education, nobody has a lot of confidence that they have the answer."

Barnes insists that RMC does not make sales goals. However, RMC does want to make sure that its portfolio stays attractive. Barnes says that the firm would like to do more in the areas of drug and alcohol prevention education, and adds that there should be a steady market for literacy-inthe-workplace programs. By "literacy-inthe-workplace," Barnes says that he means not only math and reading skills, but also judgment, teamwork and problem-solving prowess.

"Literacy is going to be the issue of the '90s," Barnes says. "I'd say that our biggest challenge is to (keep diversified)."

Barnes and Dwyer like their employees to have experience handling heavy responsibility with the clients. Only one employee that is an officer of the company — the director of finance — is not also a project manager. Barnes makes it policy to assign company tasks to the staff in-house. He is not big on the hiring of consultants. We don't want part-time people," he says. We want full-time people who work in the office, not at home."

While RMC may not set sales goals, they do make plans to achieve sales, and expect the market to continue to be a friendly one for them. "On the federal level, there is really a desire for (education) reform," Dwyer says. "A contractor such as our-selves is a huge resource because we're like the arms to extend their agenda."

Dwyer also believes that maintaining an experienced staff makes a huge difference between success and failure.

"I'd say that (personal stability) is the thing that makes us different from many of our competitors. And our clients are people we've dealt with for years."