After growing up in study travel, Markus Badde, CEO of ICEF, took a break to work in IT. The lure of the industry brought him back, however, where he has been at the helm of ICEF for over 10 years.
Growing up in study travel
I got started in the industry from early childhood, growing up in my dad’s language schools around the Middle East. From a very young age, my sisters and I were working in the school, folding brochures or running errands my father was like a Chinese dad he would make us all work! We were living in the Persian Gulf at the time, and every year we would move to a new place, Kuwait, Dubai, Iran, Bahrain, etc. That was in the sixties and the area was very remote. People were quite cut off from the rest of the world so my family’s social life revolved around meeting up with (usually English) language teachers and Heads of Study and I really lived and breathed language teaching.
Then we moved to Lebanon for three years until the Lebanese civil war started, at which point we had to leave the country and move to the UK. My dad lost his school because of the war and he then set up a new centre in London. I would go from my German school in Richmond to Knightsbridge every afternoon and do my homework in an empty classroom or play endless matches of pingpong with the teachers and the students.
When I was a teenager, my dad became an education agent. He knew other language schools and had contracts with agencies in France and Germany and so he got into the agent business. I can remember taking groups of students to Malta at the age of 14 or 15 years... Again, my dad made his kids work! Instead of paying somebody he would say, ‘Markus, you can accompany this group of kids next week!’ Or I would go to Heathrow with a sign in my hands and pick up people coming to England for a language course. I can remember one French businessman being a bit irritated and saying ‘What’s this? I booked a language course for executives and here I am being met by a long-haired 14-year-old in a London airport!’
So I first grew up in language schools and then in the agent business. When I was about 16, I moved to Germany. I lived there for a year but then I left because in those days there was still a military draft. I didn’t really feel like going into the army. After seeing a bit of the war in Lebanon, I was not happy with the idea of having anything to do with the military. My dad had a language school owner friend in Paris who allowed me to work out of his school. So I did my last year of German schooling in Paris and in the afternoons and evenings I would finance myself by working and coordinating all the French students going to the UK and Malta for the agent business.
After I did my German Abitur in Paris, we started publishing the Where & How language school guidebooks. Then we started doing events, the Expolingua series of language fairs. At that time, the EAIE contacted us saying ‘We have this conference, could you do our exhibition?’ That was my project when I was about 24.
Taking a break
In 1992, at the age of 28, I decided that I had had enough of working with my father and I left ICEF and the industry.
While I was away, I worked for Cisco Systems, an IT company based in Silicon Valley. I joined them in 1993 as Marketing Communications Manager for Europe, Middle East and Africa until I retired in 2001 after eight years of hard work. It was a very exciting time, but I was a bit worn out so I spent a year travelling around the world. Then I got a call from my dad telling me that he was sick, so I came back and looked after him for nearly a year, until he passed away in December 2003. In early 2004, I decided that I had time on my hands and instead of carrying on being “retired” or getting a new job in the tech industry or starting my own company, I decided to take over ICEF and grow it from there.
I felt like I needed to do that because I knew the whole business from the start. Also, to put it bluntly, I could finally do the things that I always wanted to do within ICEF but never was able to due to my dad. The reason I had left him was because we had differences in views. It is always like that generations seeing things differently from each other but in addition, I had learnt quite a lot at Cisco. I was doing marketing there in the high tech business during eight years of very fast growth, so I wanted to put my experience and knowledge to good use at ICEF.
When I first returned to ICEF, there was this guy who was managing the company but it was not working out very well from my point of view. It also turned out that he had been doing all sorts of naughty things; for example, after my dad passed away, this man falsified his contract and doubled his salary. I had my dad’s signature on the new contract examined by a graphologist who confirmed that he had forged it. So I joined the company in March and fired him in July.
We have a joke at ICEF because on July 14, I remember going there from Berlin with my sister and confronting this chap and basically saying ‘Look, either you pick up your stuff and walk out the door or we will call the police’, and so he picked up his belongings and just walked out the door. I called all the employees into the meeting room and we declared July 14 our ‘Revolution Day’. We try to have our summer office party on that day every year or at least we have some emails going back and forth saying “Vive la Révolution”.
A multi-national company
Being half-German, half-Australian, for the first eight years I was in a different country every year, and so I went to various Arabic and English schools. In Lebanon, I went to a French-speaking school operated by nuns and then a state-run Arabic school. I grew up speaking various languages and now speak eight languages so I am profoundly multi-national. I was married to a French woman and lived in Paris for 14 years and in Brussels for five. I spent a lot of time in Spain, so I speak Spanish very well, plus Italian, Arabic, Dutch and Portuguese, in that order. This has definitely shaped my outlook on the industry and on ICEF of course. We have over 25 nationalities in ICEF. We are based in Germany but we communicate in English and have people in over a dozen countries all over the world. This collection of cultures and languages is a wonderful part of ICEF.
We have our main office in Bonn, Germany. Around 25 people work there. Apart from that, we have an office in China with two people, an office in Australia near the Gold Coast with three people and two other individuals in Australia one in Sydney, one in Melbourne. And then the others all work out of their homes; we have six people in the UK, three in Canada, two in Spain, one in Brazil, three in the USA. We also have people in Lebanon, Russia, Bosnia and Vietnam. Apart from the head office, it is all pretty much spread out.
I was based in Berlin from 2001 until last December 2014. And then I decided to up, up and away and move to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to focus on business development for ICEF in Southeast Asia. After nine months in Asia which I really enjoyed, I am now coming back in Europe and moving to Barcelona, Spain, which is an exciting city. I am fortunate to be working at a time in history where entrepreneurs can be so mobile I connect daily via skype and email staff and clients across the world, across time zones and it all works! We are all so committed to the business, and to seeing projects move forward, that the lack of one office with all of us in it is not a factor. It’s fun, of course, when we can all connect at the various industry events happening on every continent throughout the year, but even these in-person meetings are invigorated by the excellent work we do while apart as well. There is always someone awake at ICEF; it doesn’t really matter where I am as long as I’ve got internet.
Living and breathing the industry
What I like about this industry is that it is so international. I live and breathe what the industry does, enjoy the travel associated with it, and there are so many interesting people working in international education today. I know quite a few people nowadays, mainly in the language field, who are still owners of their businesses many years later. I can remember going to visit them as an 18-year-old to promote my Where & How guides to language schools, so it is like a family in that sense.
I believe in an interconnected, multi-cultural world, and so it feels good that what I am doing makes the world more international. Some years ago, I was in Trondheim in northern Norway where we had our first higher education workshop and there was an agent from Mongolia talking to an educator from Latin America. I loved it what it meant, that connectivity across such a geographic range. Sometimes I think of our workshops and all the meetings that take place in them, and then imagine what this means in terms of how many students who then go across the world to study in other countries. Maybe they end up meeting someone there; maybe they get the job of their dreams and stay on in the country to work and immigrate; maybe they get married and their children become part of a more multicultural, open-minded generation. It’s wonderful to imagine these things. It is always good to know that what you are doing is useful to the world. On the downside I probably contribute to the carbon footprint because all these people and their students are constantly catching plane flights somewhere every day!
That’s a difficult one! I have had lots of proud moments at ICEF. ICEF was basically just a room full of meeting tables when I joined, so it’s obviously come a long way from that. I introduced a more multi-dimensional character to the company, including seminar programmes, marketing and sponsorship, agent training, etc. I improved the way the workshops were run, built up a worldwide sales team and have considerably evolved the agents department. So much work has been done to become more modern and more effective for our clients and it feels good to sit in our sales meetings with so many nationalities represented, all discussing and moving forward on initiatives. Other moments: seeing ICEF Berlin double in size since I joined; and launching ICEF Monitor.
Mostly, I am proud of how ICEF has helped the industry evolve in terms of professionalising the agent space: our agent training programmes have ushered in so much more quality. And in general, just seeing how this industry has evolved over the last 10 years and having contributed to this in some way makes me really happy.
Working until the bitter end
I think I will still be in this industry in 10 years’ time. I have still got lots to contribute and I am completely enjoying myself. I can’t imagine saying, ‘Well I have had enough now and I am going to go into the car industry or back to tech or start a gardening shop or something.’ I have been here for so long, it is like a family, and it is real fun for me. I will either retire or I will just, you know, work until the bitter end.
10 years of change
A lot has changed. When I came in, agents were much more involved in the language space. So it was very much focused on language training before we started getting agents into the higher education sector. Also, the agents were asking for that. In the last 10 years, agents have been working much more with universities, and that is an ongoing trend. And I have seen countries open up to working with agents, for example, the USA. I have seen the industry professionalise as with any industry nowadays in terms of adopting the web model. I have also seen agents becoming more professional, growing larger and now there is some consolidation going on. So there has been quite a change over the last 10 years, but I don’t think we’ve seen anything yet. It is going to carry on changing.
Given that the world is multi-national now, I think the fact of going to study elsewhere has become just a normal or given thing. When I was young, I went to France to study at the Sorbonne and the few of us who went abroad would do that sort of thing on our own in those days, but now it is much more common. I think this trend will continue to develop in the future. email@example.com