John Fernandes arrived at the headquarters of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) in 2000, at a time when the then 84-year-old organization was struggling to find its footing in an increasingly sophisticated global business school marketplace.
Fernandes, the first-ever president and CEO of the group, was a newcomer to the management education world, but quickly realized he had to jolt the organization into the twenty-first century. The non-profit organization, the main accrediting body for business schools worldwide, gives a much sought-after seal of approval to business and accounting programs worldwide.
“It was pretty moribund when I got there,” said Fernandes, fresh off a stint as the chief operating officer of The Institute of Internal Auditors. “The board saw the organization was dying and losing money, and yet it knew it had a good brand. I knew enough to pull the cord just in time before it became problematic.”
One of Fernandes’ first moves as CEO was to relocate the organization from St. Louis, where it had been headquartered since 1966, to Tampa, a more appealing international location for its growing membership base. It was a bold move that symbolized his and the board’s desire to shake things up in the organization. They moved south in 2004, taking only about 20% of the original staff with them and hiring a completely new team committed to the group’s vision of expanding its global footprint.
“We took the best ones with us, restructured and from day one, people knew the job was global,” he said.
In his 15 years as CEO, Fernandes has managed to make good on his promise of transforming the nonprofit into more than just an accreditation agency. Back when he started, schools were accredited by AACSB only once every ten years (they’re now reviewed every five years), and hosted a mere four conferences, two of which largely were for networking. Today, AACSB runs 15 conferences, has 23 affinity groups, runs 80 seminars and publishes a variety of print, web publications and reports. He’s overseen sweeping changes to the accreditation standards and has also made sure the group has followed through on its promise of becoming global.
Today, the number of schools outside the U.S. that hold AACSB accreditation is 30%, up from just 4% back in 2000. It has almost 1,200 member schools today in more than 78 countries, and 716 schools accredited worldwide.
Fernandes told the board last year he would be retiring in 2015, and will officially step down on April 30th. AACSB has announced that his successor will be Thomas Robinson, the current managing director of the Americas at the CFA Institute. Robinson assumed his new post on March 1st.
As Fernandes prepares to leave, he spent some time speaking with Poets&Quants’ Alison Damast, reflecting on his 15 years at the organization and what he accomplished during his tenure. Our conversion:
Why did you decide to leave the AACSB after 15 years of service?
There are two big reasons. One is I lost sight in my right eye and I have retina and glaucoma problems in my left eye. It has been difficult to do global travel, and I knew it was my last term. It is a grueling job and there are a lot of weekends with travel because that is often when schools want to meet. It has tired me out, and ideally I’d like to get down to six days of travel a month. Tampa is not a particularly easy place to have a headquarters. We have a great staff but with each overseas trip, the CEO has to add four to six hours because of Tampa’s location.
What was your vision when you first joined as CEO, and how did you get the organization to get on board with it?
AACBS decided it wanted to go global but it wasn’t and hadn’t started other than inviting the top schools around the world to seek accreditation. That’s all they had done. They wanted someone to come in and lead the organization towards globalization and expanded services because our domestic members were not happy at the time. They were accredited once every ten years, which was bad, and they wanted someone to transform the organization.
The board took on a new governance model, and decided to hire a CEO, their first one. Working together, we were able to set the right mission and goals and move the organization slowly but deliberately along this continuum of globalization and expanded services. They needed someone to help them implement their vision and get the staff going in the right direction to help implement their vision.
Today, 52% of our members come not from the domestic U.S., but from around the world. When I came in as CEO that number was just 15%. We’ve really grown significantly around the world, not just with our members, but with accredited schools. It shows how high impact we’ve been.
You went from being a chip boy in a screw products factory at 15 to the CEO of the organization whose accreditation stamp is known as the gold seal of approval in the business school world. How did your career path unfold?
What I luckily knew at 15 was that it was very important to get a good education because who wants to be a chip boy in a screw products factory? In the long run, if you don’t develop skills, even machine skilled labor, you don’t have much going for you in this country if you don’t get an education. Without higher education, you really have to be an inventor or a genius. I knew that my only way out of having a really difficult adult life and making ends meet and doing the things I wanted to do was through education. It is still the best recipe for enabling any one to achieve a position that they aspire to.
I started my professional career as an auditor and very quickly went into management at the Houston METRO. When I worked for NYC Transit, I was a vice president and general auditor, as well as a white-collar investigator. I worked closely with now-NYPD Police Commissioner Bill Bratton back then. In many ways, it was like a management consulting job. I would do audits of the operation of the transit authority and policy making, but I also did audits on contracts and other financial audits. It was really an interesting assignment.
I spent a summer at Harvard’s program for senior executives in local and state government and all it did for me was told me my career path was not where I wanted it to be. The CEO of NYC Transit wanted me to become CFO after I came back, but I didn’t want to do it.
At 39, I decided to get my PhD, and took a 50% pay cut. I resigned and moved to Florida, where the University of Central Florida had a PhD program in business and accounting, with a specialization in auditing. The Institute of Internal Auditors let me take a job with them and do the PhD program at the same time. I agreed to that, but then the PhD program shut down a year after I applied and they kept it shut down for a while.
During that time I went back up the professional ladder and rose to the executive vice president and chief operating officer of The Institute of Internal Auditors, getting into the industry sort of by the back door. One of the things I did there was take their audit certification exam global, particularly in China, which was a really big and strong subscriber at the time.