Hello Bertil – A Conversation with EF’s Founder, Bertil Hult
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Hello Bertil – A Conversation with EF’s Founder, Bertil Hult


Hello Bertil. I’m Ming Chen from EF Hong Kong. EF staff from around the world
have sent questions for you. Today, we’ve selected a few to ask you.
Okay. What was the original ambition behind starting EF? I didn’t have much choice. I wasn’t good at school,
so I didn’t think that any company would hire me. I’m certainly not handy, so the only option I
really had was to start my own company. In 1965, when you took the first group
of students from Sweden to the UK, did you ever dream that EF would get this big? I knew English would be the language
of the future. I was convinced of that. But no, of course I didn’t think EF
would become a global company. This was just a way for me to support myself. What was your biggest worry starting out? Like every young entrepreneur, I suppose,
I was worried about meeting the monthly payroll. All of a sudden, you understand that you are responsible for the livelihood
of many other people, not just yourself. What was the big turning point –
when you knew EF had made it? That was probably in the very late 1960s
when we opened in Germany. Germany is a much bigger market
and the concept worked. Then, we thought we could perhaps also
go to an even bigger country like Japan, which had started to use English as their computer
language, rather than Japanese characters. That was the first time. Perhaps the second time was when my sons started
to work in the company in the 1990s and 2000s. We had to be a real company now, not just a
way for me to support myself and my family. So that was it. What do you think were the biggest factors that
helped EF grow from a small Swedish company to a global enterprise? I think it’s so important that you’re focused
and I think we’ve always been very focused and have understood what we’re doing. It helps when you have a fully scalable product
or service, which we had and still have. The most important thing, though, is that you
find great people in each country you open. We have been lucky. We’ve always had fantastic
people in every country we’ve opened in. What was the biggest challenge EF ever faced? That was probably the oil crisis in 1973-74.
A lot of things were sort of falling apart. The flight prices were tripling or quadrupling. We knew we had to raise our price and probably
get fewer customers, so that was really difficult. What we did was that we went through every
department. The company wasn’t so big then. Everybody who worked in a department
who wasn’t absolutely needed was asked to work in sales,
and that actually worked. We could keep our volume of sales and we took
big market share, so we actually came out better. But I was really worried, especially in 1974. What do you see as your greatest EF success? That we’ve found the right people to grow the
business. By far, that’s the most important one. What do you consider your biggest failure? I actually think that you should not compromise, that you should really carry
through what you believe in. But, sometimes, I think I have been too
stubborn and too unwilling to compromise. I think that’s been a big failure and we’ve
lost some good people because of that and I do regret that. The next group of questions are about EF today.
Okay. What is the secret to EF’s success? As I said before, I think it’s so
important that you stay focused, so you don’t start to do
things that aren’t necessary. You really have to stay focused. And then you have to be lean.
For many reasons, but one is, of course, so you can move quickly and grab opportunities. So you have to stay focused and be lean.
Those are probably the most important things. How does EF stay focused? The staying-focused thing is really important. I think it is that you really
understand what you’re doing and also really understand what it leads to. Often, you have to say “no” to ideas,
even if they’re very good ideas, if they don’t lead to what you want
to achieve, or lead to your goal. I think that is what staying focused is. Which core value resonates with you the most? I think all core values are very important.
It’s probably “attention to details.” It is so important that you think through every
detail in the chain of what you want to do to achieve your goal. If you haven’t thought through every detail,
you will probably make a mistake somewhere. It’s attention to details in every step of the way.
I think that’s probably the most important. Do you encourage everybody
to be an entrepreneur? The main thing, I think, is that the
company has entrepreneurial spirit and, also, that there is a high enough ceiling
for those who actually are entrepreneurs to develop their ideas. The entrepreneurial spirit is, I think,
that you take responsibility. If something falls, you’re ready to grab it
instead of letting it crash on the floor. You can do that everywhere, so that is,
to me, the entrepreneurial spirit. But entrepreneurs? A few of us are entrepreneurs and are extremely valuable and important
for any company and certainly for EF. My job is to see to it that the ceiling,
as I said before, is high enough so that they can develop their ideas. What qualities of the original
EF team do you recognize when you step into an EF office or school? When I travel around the world, and
walk into any EF office or any EF school, I feel the vibration, the energy that is there. It’s always been like that and it’s just wonderful
to see how lively each office or each school is. That’s great. The next set of questions is about our future.
Okay. What do you think will be the biggest
challenge for EF moving forward? That’s a tough question. Of course,
there are going to be many challenges. One is to maintain a flat organization. When you grow, it gets harder, of course,
but if you maintain a flat organization, you can keep the bureaucracy to a minimum. It’s really important to keep the
bureaucracy to a minimum. Another challenge, of course, when you grow, is
to keep the entrepreneurial spirit in the company and I think it’s important that we do that. I’m not sure that these are the two most important
challenges, but they are both very important. How do you see EF 50 years from now? 50 years from now? You must be kidding.
I won’t be around then. I think we have … Let’s put it this way:
The world is always changing, and our company been changing all
these years we’ve been in existence. Now with my three oldest sons
working in the company along with some of the most amazing
people I’ve ever come across, I think the future looks very good,
so I’m very positive. The next group of questions are about you, Bertil.
Okay. Hmmm. Okay, we’ll try it. How did you learn to trust your instincts,
regardless of what other people were telling you? I’m not sure if I really believe in trusting instincts. I like to see numbers and see
that everything makes sense. I go through every detail and see
that the numbers make sense, and make a decision when I have all that. If you can’t get any numbers then, of course,
you have to trust your instincts, but in most cases, you can actually have the
numbers before you make your decision. I’m not a person who just trusts my instincts. What are the most important lessons
that you have tried to pass onto your sons? It’s probably that I hope they
can live a balanced life. To have balance in your life is so important. Of course, it’s very different
from person to person. It has to be a balanced life from their viewpoint. I hope that everybody who works at EF can find
a balanced life. I think that’s so important. What keeps you balanced? To wake up every morning next
to my lovely wife Lisbeth. I’ve done that for 40 years and I hope
I can do that for many more years. What is one piece of advice you’d
give to someone joining EF today? One piece? You should never
be afraid to ask questions. No question is too dumb to ask. Don’t pretend to understand things if you don’t.
Just keep on asking until you understand. May I say a second one?
It’s that you should have fun. You should have fun when you work here. That is so important to have – to really look
forward to going to work and having fun. Thank you, Bertil, for answering
our questions today. Thank you, Ming, and thanks to everybody
who sent in their questions. Thank you!

About James Carlton

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8 thoughts on “Hello Bertil – A Conversation with EF’s Founder, Bertil Hult

  1. Incredibly interesting! I wish to go to Japan with EF, I had no idea that EF was such a huge company until I accidently typed an e followed by an f in google and saw the results.

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