Listen to Jim Tolbert, CEO of Vista College, tell the story of how Vista College was founded, discuss his educational background and talk about the career focus of Vista College. The interview goes into detail about how Jim and Vista College follow our “We Create Opportunities” philosophy. Jim’s personal career journey reflects this mantra and it manifests itself on each of our campuses in students, staff and administrators. Jim discusses:
- How his upbringing and education led him to his career path
- The key role Vista College plays in the overall economy
- The definition of success for Vista College
Listen to the origin story of Vista College below via an excerpt of an interview Jim did with Chris Williams at High Level Wisdom.
This is High Level Wisdom for New Generation Leaders. We interview senior-level baby boomers who share their stories, insights, and how-tos for the emerging leadership of millennials. Our mission is to celebrate their accomplishments and aid in preserving their business knowledge. I’m your host, Chris Williams.
And so, let me just kind of set the scene here for you. Imagine if you could go from 300 customers to over 4,000 in a decade. Imagine if you could go from 40 employees to 800, that’d be pretty cool, right? But listen to this number. Imagine going from, in one decade, $3.5 million in sales to close to over 100 million. Yeah, I’m going to let that sink in for a little bit. You are getting ready to listen to the CEO of Vista College. His name is Jim Tolbert. He was fascinating. It’s a great interview. You’re going to learn about his insights because he owns a college. This college is an accredited, for-profit, post-secondary education institution. It’s basically designed to really help non-traditional students to be able to go into entry-level careers and/or change their careers, whether you do it online and/or at their campuses, which they have them all over Texas. They’ve got some in Arkansas, in New Mexico. And so it is a growing, vibrant institution of education. And this gentleman took his time to be able to talk with us. So without further ado, I want you guys to sit back, listen to the interview. This is my interview with the CEO of Vista College, Jim Tolbert.
Sure. Absolutely, Chris. Thank you. Yeah, I could obviously spend two hours answering your question. I’ll give you the five-minute version of it. It’s been a very exciting journey along the way. I started off with sort of what I would call a very traditional business school background. I went to Wharton undergrad. I spent three years in investment banking at Morgan Stanley doing M&A. Went back business school in Chicago, spent six years at McKinsey. And when I was at McKinsey, decided, as a lot of consultants do, to try to do something entrepreneurial. So my first venture out of sort of that more traditional background was to start a company that provided financing for students that went to the types of schools that I have today. And by the way, my schools are called Vista College, based here in Texas. We have 10 campuses in Texas, New Mexico, and Arkansas. But started down that path of getting into this post-secondary, very specialized sector of education based, in part, on how I grew up. My dad had career schools in the Baltimore, Maryland area called the Medix School. And kind of based on the work I did at McKenzie, based on my background, decided to get into this field.
“There’s a lot of people that are looking for career success and training to allow for that, and we are sort of that middle man that helps employers find skilled graduates and helps individuals get the skill set they need for a rewarding career.” – Jim Tolbert, CEO of Vista College
From there, that led me to becoming both an investor as well as the chief financial officer of a group of schools based in Birmingham, Alabama called Virginia College. We successfully grew that with a private equity firm and exited that investment in 2004. And upon that exit, I decided to leave, start my own company, and that was sort of the genesis of Vista College. With the backing of that same private equity firm, a firm called Prospect Partners out of Chicago, I then endeavored to find a platform to acquire, which is a typical way of working with a private equity firm. Acquiring something as sort of the de novo strategy as opposed to just literally starting something from scratch. So spent a lengthy year looking for an acquisition. It was incredibly fortunate to find a school in El Paso, Texas. I was rather geographically agnostic at that point.
Prior to the acquisition, was literally looking all over the United States, but was very fortunate to find this school called Computer Career Center in El Paso, Texas. And that was sort of the journey that began in 2006 that you began the outline of. And from there, it has been an exciting journey. We continue to open new campuses, first going into Las Cruces, and then Amarillo and Lubbock, Beaumont, Killeen, College Station, and then most recently opening up the school in Fort Smith, Arkansas. We also have an online division. Although our online students only represent about 10% of our student population, the majority of our students are attending one of our campuses in the cities that I mentioned. You asked about non-traditional student. Non-traditional students tend to be older. They tend to be working adults, individuals who have gotten to a point in their life and their career where they’re saying, “Hey. I need more skills, career-based education.” And they have found places like Vista College and schools similar to ours to help enhance their school set for career success.
I would attribute our growth and our success to us meeting a really important need in our economy, and that’s sort of entry level, middle skills training. There’s a lot of employers that are desperately looking for skilled employees. There’s a lot of people that are looking for career success and training to allow for that, and we are sort of that middle man that helps employers find skilled graduates and helps individuals get the skill set they need for a rewarding career.
Absolutely. Well, I’m very impressed by that because I think one of the things that was unique in our first, initial discussions about even the podcast and kind of where we’re going, is that you’re dealing with a group of folks who are looking, as you mentioned, for those secondary skills. But more importantly, you’ve had this journey to where you’re working with those who are looking for a certain set of skills today. They [laughter] don’t necessarily need them for 10 years from now. They need them right now. Some people, I’m sure, I can imagine who are coming to you, are even probably retooling. If they’re reinventing their careers. Or maybe, I would even venture to say, do you even have maybe some students who just didn’t choose the traditional route for school altogether?
Absolutely. And that’s sort of the big sort of reason why we exist. And when I sort of introduce myself at a cocktail party or whatever, and I say, “What do you do?” It’s amazing what the knee-jerk response is for most people. They say, “We’re so glad you exist.” Not every person is destined for traditional higher education, and nothing can be more true than that. There are a lot of people for whom a four-year bachelor’s degree is just not the right path for them. Now, obviously, the military is a wonderful option for a lot of individuals. But for a lot of people who just want to enter the career field, our programs tend to be shorter in length, they’re nine months. We do offer our students access to federal financial aid for those who qualify so that they can help pay for education. And the fields that we’re training for – this is a very important part of our value proposition in our strategy – are high-demand careers. So our single largest area of study is in health care and specifically medical assisting, medical billing and coding, dental assisting. These are very popular programs, given both the incredible demand for health care workers in this country, as well as the very rewarding, both financially and otherwise, these careers offer to a lot of individuals. But in addition to health care, we also do the trades. We have HVAC, electrical programs. We’re in the process of starting a welding program. We provide training in cosmetology, business, and information technology. But truly, going back to what I said earlier, what is absolutely key to our success is there’s a high probability of our graduates finding employment relatively quickly. And that’s exactly why they come to Vista College.