Endless Education

He’s a literal force to be reckoned with, a force that simultaneously maneuvers between talking to judges, corporate CEOs and his kids during his interview with Career College Central. And, he’s a curly haired force that apparently loathes long pants.

The anti-pant Clifford does, however, wear many hats (and even more pairs of glasses) as the Chairman of both SignificantPartners and SignificantVentures. If you’re not familiar, he and his partners have helped many a down-on-their-luck school group get their act together. Their resources have resources. Together they have allocated more than $100 million of their own monies as equity in schools and school-related businesses. He’s a part-time mentor, part-time visionary, part-time compassionate capitalist, part-time problem solver and full-time dad to his kids.

Or as he says, ‘I am an education entrepreneur. I am an uneducated businessman who loves education.’

Clifford recently sat down with Career College Central to give us his two cents’ worth on a number of topics. He’s polite, affable and environmentally friendly stooping to pick up wayward litter on the street and putting it in a trash bin on the way to lunch. He prides himself on never suing anyone or being sued. And, he vows to never, ever, ever wear a tie again. More on that later.

Clifford has his finger on the pulse of the career college industry, and even though educators hate the word ‘industry,’ Clifford understands it in the simplest of terms. Before the interview had even begun and he’d officially been introduced to our reporter, Clifford was casually chatting to someone.

‘Tell them to drop it by a million,’ he said, referring to the price tag on a school. Those are industry terms.

‘We are in the midst of becoming the largest, fastest deregulated industry in American history,’ said Clifford. ‘We have a $350 billion industry called postsecondary education. Im not sure of my statistics, but about 15 years ago it was less than $1 billion for-profit. So you have this gigantic deregulated industry of non-profits converting into for-profits at a very, very quick pace. It is amazing there hasnt been even more blood shed in the time period that has taken place. And, we have at least 10 more years of really rapid growth really, really rapid growth.

Cliffords SignificantPartners headquarters is nestled in the sleepy surfing town of Solana Beach, Calif., just outside of San Diego. Solana Beach is surrounded by other sleepy surfing towns that welcome visitors with complimentary wet suits and vegan dinners. Folks move at their own pace  which is somewhere between napping and R.E.M. Its not exactly the kind of town where youd expect to see any sort of corporate acquisitions taking place. But thats what Michael Clifford is known for. In surfing terms, he ensures flailing career colleges dont go under before they get thrown a life preserver. In this case, CPR stands for Cliffords Postsecondary Rescue. But are there a lot of schools in trouble out there?

Its a big number, said Clifford. I would say probably about 1,000 of the regionally accredited schools. About a third  about 35 percent  of the regionally accredited ground-based schools are having financial trouble now.

Cliffords rule of thumb is that unless a school has a $250 million endowment or a growing, thriving online operation, they are not going to survive. He mentioned many schools are in for a rude awakening once they realize their fiduciary responsibilities.

The boards of directors of these non-profits are really asleep at the wheel, Clifford said. Not only will the Department of Education come after them personally, so will the IRS, and the list goes on and on.

Not a week goes by that Cliffords team doesnt get a call from a private equity firm looking to enter the postsecondary school business.

They all say, ‘Can you help us find a property? And those properties are not available, said Clifford. When something good goes on the market, bankers perform an auction process. Its an enormous amount of pressure on the CEOs that take those assignments to show the kind of growth that Wall Street requires or that private equity firms require.

Cliffords past is a colorful one. A trumpet player by trade, he enjoyed playing in bands and making the most of his formative years. Hes also quite the name dropper, having hobnobbed with an odd assortment of people through the years from Pat Robertson to Nancy Reagan to, uh, Alice Cooper. Yes, that Alice Cooper. The two met back when they were teenagers and have maintained a casual friendship ever since.

His backstory notwithstanding, Clifford is wildly proactive. Hes an easygoing forward-thinker, and hes not shy about peering into his crystal ball and throwing ideas out there. Many a sentence started with I think or I feel or even Im sure or I foresee. Call him the Clairvoyant of Career Colleges. For examples, see the sidebar on the next page.

Clifford is a private, spiritual man. People would be very surprised to know all the things Im involved in, he said. He prides himself on his convictions and spends countless hours and funds on charitable endeavors near and dear to his heart.

I am very involved with some charities  one in particular is called the Dream Center in Los Angeles. We opened one in New York on Broadway. It was  well, wow! We feed 30,000 hot meals per week. We have an AIDS hospice. We are the only church in L.A. that has an AIDS hospice. We give away 2,000 pieces of clothing a week. Los Angeles magazine calls it ‘Mother Teresa meets MTV.

We warned you he was a name dropper.

With a coffee shop located exactly 14 steps away from his beach office, Clifford is split seconds away from caffeine, but never appeared to need it. Considerate to a fault, he graciously offered to get the crew coffee about 412 times during the shoot. And, he doesnt even own stake in the coffeehouse. Crazy to think of the implications had he owned it. The crew finally broke down and were treated to an herbal-infused-iced-soy-chai-tea-latte with a hint of ginseng and  oh, never mind  only in California.

Always the director, Clifford thought it would be keen to have a surfboard in the photography shoot for this story, but not just any surfboard  he wanted the impossible-to-find, if-you-have-to-ask-you-cant-afford-it Evolution surfboard. And, because his connections have connections, hes tight with Evolution CEO Clark Riedel. Would you have expected any less?

In the surfer world, Riedel is considered the Dalai Lama of surfing. Celebrities come from far and wide to ride the waves with Riedels boards under their nimble feet. The day of the shoot, surfers gawked and preened. A few tried to rappel down from the cliffs to get a better look at the board Clifford was holding. Never mind the fact that the subject of said shoot was oddly dressed in a cap and gown. The lifeguards naturally assumed it was a commercial for a surfing school  and they casually looked the other way when he paraded the board through the cove.

With so many things going on and so many hoops to jump through, does Clifford find it difficult to keep it all straight?

I am involved in enormous amounts of transactions that I cant talk about. I like to just have my beak in everybodys pond. I take a very small piece for putting introductions together and helping people. And, I love it when someone calls and says, ‘Hey, look, I really love my job, I love what I am doing, but here is what I would like to go do. Do you think you can finance me? Do you think we can find a school to go do this? That really turns me on  backing someone who is very passionate in what they are doing is very exciting. And we are a really dynamic industry. I back the jockey, not the horse. It is a fantastic industry.

Cliffords group prefers to acquire 70 or 80 percent of a business. Not only that, but they arent shy to look at every type of education-related investment. Many entrepreneurs and management teams have launched their careers with Significants help.

If were investing in something [its] because we believe in the mission, said Clifford. We are not investing in it to grab it, change it, strip it and change it around. We prefer to hold and build for dividends rather than flip on short horizons.

At the end of the day, Dr. Michael Clifford wants people to know hes here to help other people be successful.

And what, pray tell, is his beef with wearing ties? Career College Central wasnt hard-pressed  light on the starch, of course  to get an answer.

Clifford said it all started with a recent court date in Cleveland where his oh-so-Midwestern attorneys mandated he wear a tie.

I said, ‘Come on, guys! I havent worn a tie in 20 years. I dont wear ties anymore. I dont even think I have one. And they said this is a very conservative judge and you hired us to be your counsel. I said okay! So I show up wearing a very nice suit, a very nice tie  and I lost the court date. I said, thats it, I am never wearing a tie again!

Three weeks later, Clifford went back for the court trial sans tie and won the case.

I think we lose touch with the people we serve, he said. I get tired of some college presidents that look like they stepped out of an Armani showroom.

Clifford promises to be around for a long time mainly because retirement is not in the Bible. Years from now, his legacy will be one of education, e-publishing and entertainment  his three Es.

Im a man who loves education, said Clifford. I enjoy hanging out with students. The more students you hang out with, the less you want to be in a three-piece suit with a tie.

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