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Samantha Rutter is the CEO of Open Study College, a business that she co-founded with her father. Paul Andrews caught up with Samantha to find out more about the family business and their plans for the future.

When was the business founded and what does it do?

I was 19 when I founded Open Study College (OSC) with my dad Mark Rutter more than 14 years ago. We identified a gap in the market for fully-supported distance learning, with the sole aim of helping people to improve their career prospects and making education accessible to everyone.

Today, our business offers more than 700 different courses, across a broad spectrum of disciplines, from accounting and bookkeeping to animal care and counselling. Students can study at their own pace, with a printed course pack or via e-learning courses.

Tell me a little about the history of the business?

As a father-daughter duo, we founded OSC in the West Midlands, where our head office remains today. At the time, my dad decided to sacrifice a senior career, sell our family home and put everything into setting up OSC. At the beginning, we ran the business from the garage of our family home. We offered courses from other providers to students, and with the support of other family members, packed course materials to send out daily. Alongside this, we were also juggling other jobs to keep the business going.

My dad had decades of experience within the education industry, in particular distance learning. His passion for helping people to better themselves meant that he felt there was so much more that could be done in the distance learning industry to support learners, including higher quality courses and improved tutor support. A pivotal point for us was 2009 when we started to write and develop our own courses.

Now, as one of the UK’s leading distance learning providers, we’re passionate about inclusivity; we believe that everyone should have access to education. The business has gone from strength to strength and offers the largest selection of distance learning courses in the market. Since 2007, over 100,000 learners have enrolled with us and improved their lives.

We’ve recently been awarded a number of accolades for our positive impact on the industry, including Further Education College of the Year, and shortlisted for Training Provider of the Year at the TES FE Awards. I’ve also personally been acknowledged as one of the UK’s Top 50 Most Ambitious Business Leaders and Most Influential Female CEO.

What generation of business are you, and what are your first memories of the family business?

We’re a first-generation business – both I and my father have been involved since the start, and still are today. Some of my first memories of this business are of us both, and other family members, packing courses in my parent’s garage and taking them down to the post office to be sent to our new learners!

I had an amazing childhood filled with love and care, for which I’m really thankful for. I have lots of wonderful memories from when I was a child and of our first steps together in setting up the family business. I was fortunate to be able to join my family travelling the world, spending a lot of time in the USA, which really opened my eyes as to how big the world is and how many opportunities there are. When I was younger, my parents didn’t have a lot, but they worked hard and showed me that anything is possible – you just have to put your mind to it! I’m incredibly proud of both my parents for what they have achieved in life.

Are there any other family members working in the business?

Right from the get-go it was a family effort to get OSC off the ground and many of our family still play a significant part in the business today. It’s a real family affair with my mum, sister, brother-in-law, and my fiancé all playing a part in the business’ growth.

How important was the business in your life as you grew up?

I was 18 years old when the business came to fruition, but I think I always knew I wanted to own a business as I got older, particularly in my teen years, watching my mum and dad work in the distance learning sector.

What was your journey into the family business and what do you do now?

Today I’m the CEO of OSC, but it all started when I was a lot younger. I knew I wanted to own a successful business one day, and together with my dad, who mentored me from a young age, we made that happen. Growing up watching him work hard and progress up the career ladder showed me what was possible. He’s taught me so much both on a personal level, but in regard to business too; his expertise and experience has helped shape OSC into what it is today.

Some will say I’m a chip off the old block, and I couldn’t agree more!

What has helped your business survive and thrive to date?

As a family business with family values at our core, our team is really tight knit. I’m a great believer in a business being the sum of its parts. This has helped, and will continue to help, us stand the test of time. We wouldn’t be where we are today without my leadership team, our members and our learners.

Many students come to us because they aren’t fulfilled in their current job or they have personal reasons which impact how they can study. We feel fortunate to have helped a lot of people through some really dark times in their lives by giving them something else to focus on – that’s what gets me out of bed in the morning.

I’m still relatively young with plenty of ambition, and OSC still has lots more opportunities for growth. We have some very exciting plans for 2022 and there is plenty more that we can achieve to truly help people become empowered to move forward with their goals. We love seeing our learners progress into new roles, achieve the promotion they’ve had their eyes on for a while, or learn new skills because they wanted to do something for themselves. Being part of that keeps us striving for more.

What values are important to the family and the business?

Our values are excitement, ambition and togetherness. The business was built on family values, so they’ll always be at the core of what we do.

Do you build the family ownership into the marketing and brand narrative and if so, how?

We consider ourselves a family business with over 100,000 members. Education is more than textbooks and classrooms, thus the backdrop of ‘family’ permeates through our business and how we work with students. It’s these family values that are built into our brand, narrative, and all of our marketing activity. Everything we do is centred around our family of colleagues and students, and through our diverse and flexible offering, we empower every member of our family to flourish and achieve their goals. I believe this is why we have continued to thrive into the second decade of operation.

What do you think makes working in a family business special?

You always know that whatever happens, family has your back and supports you through the tough times as well as the good. For our team members outside of the family, I think they also feel differently working within a family-run business. I’d say this is because we’re more compassionate as a team, we understand that family does come before business or work. Whilst we’re all here to do a job, we understand there are other things going on in people’s lives that may demand more attention.

Are there any disadvantages associated with working in a family business?

I love working with my closest family members, but the one thing that can sometimes be difficult is that you can never truly leave work at the door. Many times, we have ended up discussing business matters over a Sunday roast, or when we’re away on a family holiday. We’ve definitely got better at not doing this as much, but it’s taken many years to finesse!

Have you taken any particular steps in terms of governance to help protect the business for the future?

Funded personally by our family, OSC has come a long way since starting out. What remains firmly intact is the family ethos that underpins the business. Courses and materials are under constant revision based on feedback as enhancing every element of our offering to provide a high-quality student experience is essential to the future of our business. It’s taking product and service innovation steps like this that has allowed OSC to continue to dominate the sector.

We also always try to follow a strategy, or a business plan. We look two to five years into the future in terms of where we want to be, but also take opportunities as they come, meaning sometimes big initiatives can get pushed back. We look at budgeting, team structure, and strategies through different departments to bring together a full business strategy. We also always monitor current trends, sector changes and our competitors, trying to be one step ahead. Board meetings are also standard practice which we’ve done for years, and these help to shape our short, medium and long term plans.

The global pandemic has had a severe impact on education around the world but we’re proud to be in a privileged position to be able to adapt to the unexpected challenges and embrace innovation to support not only our learners, but go above and beyond to support those less fortunate. Adapting to suit the needs of our audience are steps we’ve taken to ensure the business is protected for the future. As a family business, consistent growth to us means ensuring that high-quality education remains accessible, no matter what.

Is there a next generation in the wings?

Not as yet… unless you count my three-year-old nephew!

What advice would you give to anyone in the next generation considering joining their family firm?

If the business or sector is one that you’re interested in and something you think you could become passionate about, definitely go for it. It’s hard work, but worth it. You’ll have a lot to prove to people outside of the family that you’re in the role for your experience, skills, and ambition, but if the job is right for you, those qualities will shine through. It’s also sometimes hard within a family business not to take things personally, so if you have a sensitive nature you may find it tough at first, but you will understand in time that it’s just business, and nothing against the family itself.

If you could talk to your younger self before you joined the business, what would you say?

I’ve been faced with some adversity when building the business, and I still think to this day it’s because I’m a woman. That and the fact that I was 18 when I started the business with my dad. I think because of this I’d tell myself that some people will wonder if you can do the job effectively but one day, you’ll prove that no matter what your gender or age, you can do anything you put your mind to. As long as you have the passion and excitement for what you’re doing you’ll succeed. You’re in this for the long haul and be prepared for the tough times as well as the easier times! You will get through them both, especially with a good team around you, so choose wisely.

If you could sum up the family business in three words, what would they be?

Ambitious. Exciting. Together.

Find out more by visiting their website here

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