Dr Peter Slowe, 59, got his idea for a business from the fall of the Iron Curtain. He was teaching geography at the University of Chichester and suddenly his students began to ask him about visiting the former Soviet Union – “a very exciting, mysterious destination”. They didn’t just want to see the sights, they wanted to spend time working in eastern Europe. So Slowe decided to help.
“I was a bit of a ‘leftie’ and had contacts with some universities in eastern Europe. I helped the students find accommodation with a family and work as English teachers.” A wave of EU grants to encourage exchanges between western and eastern Europe also helped.
Sensing a big opportunity, Stowe placed an advertisement on the university career service system to get the word out to other British graduates. The response was “overwhelming”, so he formally set up his new business, Projects Abroad. He also raised his charges. “I had so many people I needed to up the fee to offer them all a good service.”
The business grew at a steady pace and, thanks to contacts in the Ghanaian Labour Party, Slowe added the African country to his list of destinations. By 1996 Projects Abroad was looking after 700 graduates per year. By happy coincidence he was offered a one-year sabbatical from his post at the university. “I was incredibly lucky. It meant I could focus on the business for a year but knew that I still had a job to return to if needed.”
Slowe raised extra money by selling a 20% stake in the business to his brother for £40,000. He used the money to take on a secretary, visit new destinations and print a colour brochure. By the end of the year Slowe had quit his job at the university to work full time on Projects Abroad. By 2001 he was dealing with 1,500 students a year and turnover hit £1m. He concedes that was down to both hard work and a stroke of luck.
Prince William “took a gap year in 2000 and it suddenly made it very fashionable”. The Prince’s trip to Chile led to hundreds of new customers contacting Projects Abroad. Slowe also began to diversify. He targeted sixth-form colleges with brochures and presentations and in particular would-be medical students. “Medicine courses are very competitive and applicants want experience working in a hospital. That’s difficult to get in the West, but we can send students to help in hospitals in developing countries.”
With the business booming, Slowe decided to branch out further afield and employed sales staff to open branches around Europe. Unlike some competitors, he employed foreign staff directly. “If you have an agent on commission he will be focused on trying to cut his costs. If you hire someone directly they will do the job they are paid to and look after the customers.”
At first Slowe concentrated on rich countries, but after a decade of emerging-market growth he now sells his services in former ‘destination’ countries, such as Poland and China.
Last year sales hit £18m. Slowe remains confident, despite the rise in tuition fees. “Young people have to pay so much for their studies and their houses when they graduate that the cost of our programmes seems tiny by comparison.”