Search Associates began 25 years ago, with two fairs, one Associate, and the most primitive fax machine on the planet. Now the company has grown to 12 fairs and 18 Associates who have helped 3,147 educators find positions in international schools--in the past year alone! In an exclusive interview, Founder John Magagna tells the story of how Search Associates started, what practices have made the company successful, and his vision for the future.
What led you to a career in education and eventually starting Search Associates?
"After the Second World War a series of events occurred in our family which had a profound effect on my life, and which set the stage for the birth of Search Associates. The Japanese economy was in a state of collapse, and General Douglas MacArthur was charged with rebuilding the country. The U.S. government sent experts in various sectors of the economy to Japan to advise MacArthur. Because our family had been in the silk business since the turn of the century, and because my father had lived in Japan for three years in the 1920's, and knew the Japanese people and culture, as well as the silk industry, he was asked to take up residence in Tokyo in order to advise and assist General MacArthur in restoring this important economic sector. His plan was to go out in July to assess the situation, come home in August to tidy up his affairs in the U.S., and then return to Japan to finish up his work.
We all went to Washington, D.C. to see him off. When he boarded the plane, he said to my mother, while pointing at me, 'Do not register that boy for school until I return in August. He needs a good tough military school to shape him up and teach him how to behave.' As it turned out, there was so much work to do in Tokyo that he never did come back in August, so when school started, I declined to go citing my father's instructions. Consequently, I had the most wonderful experience a 15-year-old could possibly have! Basically, I spent every day improving my tennis game or going fishing and hunting in the mountains of Glen Summit, Pennsylvania. It was nothing short of idyllic, and I would not have traded that completely carefree experience for anything.
Around Thanksgiving, I shot a bear and, as was the usual custom in rural Pennsylvania, it was hung from a tree by the side of our house to 'cure' for a few days before being hauled off to the butcher shop. These nefarious activities were noted by Mabel Jones, the self-appointed conscience of our community, who finally figured out that I was 'up to no good' by not being in school, and she reported me to what was then called the truant officer. This occurred about the time my father finally returned from Japan to spend Christmas with the family. He was flabbergasted to find that I had been out of school for months, claiming that he never told my mother to keep me out. He stated it was all a big misunderstanding--and that, most important, I should've known better than to stay out of school. I was put on restriction, and 'taken to the woodshed' to boot, and back to school I went.
I managed to navigate the rest of the school year with passing grades but was shocked to find out in June that the 'good nuns'would not pass me on to the next grade on the pretext that I did not have enough days in school to merit promotion. While very disappointed at the time, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. With a December 23rd birthday, I had always been the youngest kid in class, and being required to repeat 10th grade gave me the chance to get a new start academically in a more 'age-appropriate' setting. Furthermore, I begged my mother to enroll me in Wyoming Seminary College Preparatory School (neither in Wyoming nor a seminary.) The attraction for me was that it was the only school in the county that had a tennis team. But little did I realize I was going to a school with truly inspirational teachers and a long tradition of providing individual attention and support for all students. This school and these teachers changed my life forever,so much so that after graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy, and spending three years in the Air Force, I returned to Wyoming Seminary to teach there, feeling that I had a debt of gratitude to pay off."
How did your high school teachers influence your future career?
I really loved my high school teachers, and among the many things I learned from them was that the single most important thing a school head must do is to make the quality of teaching the number one priority.
"That has been my guiding principal for my entire life. I spent many years in a quixotic quest to find the best teachers in the world for the schools I headed and, frankly, the recruitment of talented teachers was always the most enjoyable part of being a school head; and so it was very logical for me to start a company to find great teachers… and that is how Search Associates was born.
If you had suggested when I started this company 25 years ago, that we would eventually place over 30,000 teachers, I would never have believed it. I feel very fortunate. This was a lot of hard work, but there was some luck. The timing was right, a lot of people were supportive, and with a great deal of perseverance, here we are."
What does Search associates mean to you?
"Search Associates is by far the largest organization of its kind in the world.
We place more teachers than the next three largest organizations combined. I do not hesitate to tell everyone that this happened as an unintended consequence of trying hard to be the best.
What it means to me: It is my life. I have many hobbies and interests that I am passionate about, but, other than family, Search Associates has been the main focus of my life since 1990. It has been really hard work, but I have enjoyed every minute of it. Nothing is as pleasing as finding an inspiring teacher or administrator. That is a real joy for me."
How did Search Associates become a franchise with 18 offices around the world?
"I was in New Zealand doing workshops with a good friend of mine, Gavin Allen, who later became a franchisee. Gavin asked me if he could bring a friend to my workshop. This person was the biggest executive head hunter in New Zealand! He advised me that Search Associates was going to become too big for one person. It was like being hit with a bolt of lightning—FRANCHISE! That idea has strengthened Search Associates enormously. Most important, it has enabled us to grow, but at the same time allowed us to provide maximum individual attention to our member candidates and schools because we are decentralized."
How has technology impacted your business?
"The impact on most businesses, and certainly on Search Associates, is hard to overestimate. It is profound. It has changed the way we think, the way we live, and the way we work. I used to spend hours faxing candidate files all over the world, but now technology has changed all that. Nowadays, a click of a few buttons will send a candidates file to any school."
Ten years ago, we placed perhaps 50 people a year through our website. Last year, we placed over 1,800.
Why do you think schools and candidates select you over other recruiting agencies?
"I think it is more likely that schools choose us in addition to other organizations, not in place of them. I do believe that we screen candidates more carefully than anyone else. Our system of evaluating teachers is also superior, and recruiters love it!
We also have a strong team of Senior Associates with a great deal of experience in international education, many having served as school administrators themselves.
So far as candidates go, I believe they choose us because we have the largest number of top international schools working with us, and we really do offer much more personal attention.We have 18 Senior Associates working with our candidates, instead of just a few people working in a corporate office answering the phones from nine to five.In reality, Search Associates 'never sleeps'. You can always reach one of our Senior Associates in various locations around the world."
Search Associates has come so far in 25 years— What do you envision for the future?
"Actually, Search Associates started off in a tiny office in my home, with a telephone and a brand-new, tiny fax machine. A year or so after that, email came along, and shortly thereafter, Wi-Fi. Then we added more Senior Associates and job fairs, and the company began to grow steadily. If you had asked me a few years later, when we placed some 400 teachers, if I was satisfied with that number I would've said 'Yes, and if we never placed more than that, I would be content.' If you had predicted that in 2014/15, we would place over 3,150 candidates, I would've called the little men in white jackets carrying big nets to come and take you away to the loony bin.
I never dreamed that we would become so large. Our Associates have heard me say many times that it's not the size that is important, but it is the quality.
Looking to the future, I'm sure it is no more predictable now than it was looking forward from the beginning, especially because of the effects of rapidly changing technology. That said, I have repeatedly encouraged our Associates to think 'outside the box' and to try to diversify. We are like a one-man band and, therefore, vulnerable should any extraordinary events change the nature of international education.
We have just started a new diversification venture by expanding into the U.S. private school market. While I believe this will succeed, it may take some years and a lot of effort to do so. We are prepared for the long haul. Regarding the future of Search Associates, I remain optimistic because of the pool of talent within our group of Associates. If one of our Associates does not think about a solution to a problem, no doubt another one will. Whatever challenges may come along, we can meet them as well as, or better than, most other organizations.
I am also comforted by the fact that Search Associates is a family-owned business. My daughter Jessica joined Search Associates 13 years ago. For the first five years, she worked alongside me and learned quickly. Now, she is the President of the company and knows more than I do! My grandson Gavin also recently joined the company and works side by side with Jessica.
My point is that the core values of Search Associates are safely guarded by my family. We will continue our work with integrity, determination, and an emphasis on quality.
I know that if I should get swallowed up by a great white whale tomorrow, Search Associates will move forward seamlessly."