Mergers between business schools are generally rare events. This month’s confirmation of the long-awaited details of the merger between Ashridge Business School and Hult International Business School is therefore a moment to take note. And with some closer inspection it is legally more a marriage of two independent parties, than the creation of a single new entity, though operationally they are clearly united.
At first glance the two appear very different institutions, and indeed those differences are part of the reason this amalgamation could well be genuinely value-creating. Perhaps one of the factors that prevents more business schools from merging is the awareness from management academics that survey after survey indicate that around 60% of mergers fail to create value.
The new arrangement is that Ashridge will continue as the executive education division of Hult International Business School, under the new name Ashridge Executive Education, and with a freshly designed logo for the combined school that draws on Ashridge’s original emblem of long-ago.
Stephen Hodges, the President of Hult International Business School believes that Ashridge will immediately benefit from the entrepreneurial drive that Hult brings with it (as well as some deeper pockets to draw on than Ashridge has been used to); the global footprint of Hult campuses; and perhaps most critically over the long-term the ever-growing alumni network of Hult graduates to engage later on in their careers with Ashridge’s executive programs.
For Hult the positives are pretty clear too. The merger of the two institutions provides Hult with an instant and highly regarded executive education platform and some real strength in research, two areas they had no experience in until now. In the hugely status aware world of business education it cannot be ignored that Hult has only existed since 2003, when Bertil Hult stepped in to save the Arthur D Little business school. This short history has not stopped Hult International Business School rapidly climbing the MBA rankings and increasing its global reach with (now) seven campuses across the US, UK, Dubai and China, but the pairing with Ashridge also brings a caché of venerability and heritage that can only be acquired over the long-term, and which with Ashridge is beautifully encapsulated in its historic premises at Ashridge House in Hertfordshire, UK.
The journey towards the merged entity has not been a simple one however. Kai Peters, Chief Executive of Ashridge and Hodges had been discussing the possibility of a merger for several years, seeing that their needs and strengths were unusually complementary. However, both institutions are non-profits, based on different continents – with Ashridge’s founding based on a specific UK Act of Parliament. “This meant that legally they could not merge” explains Hodges, “although the terms between us were agreed quickly once we decided to go ahead, there was a great deal of legal disambiguation needed to interpret and finalise the deal. There was no precedent to base things on.” This explains why if you go to their respective websites you find the slightly arcane note “Hult International Business School Inc and the Ashridge (Bonar Law Memorial) Trust are separate legal entities that are operationally merged under the common brand “Hult International Business School””.
Legal complexities aside, the combined school has a spring in its step. The marriage has brought Ashridge a not inconsiderable dowry in the form of a $10 million donation from the Hult family for furthering its research activities globally.
These research activities will continue to be led from Ashridge by their experienced faculty, but will be guided by the feedback Hult has acquired from an extensive surveying of international business leaders over the last year. “They told us that they thought business schools didn’t listen enough to employers. They see that graduates come pumped full of knowledge but without enough basic management and workplace skills. Our vision is to build a global institution that is business relevant; Ashridge’s research has always been practically focused, which is a reason we knew we were culturally aligned. With this survey feedback we can go further and shall be focusing on areas we have been told are key to businesses across the areas we cover….digital disruption, leadership, sustainability and emerging markets. We are building a research centre at our San Francisco campus to focus on digital disruption and research centres in Dubai and Shanghai to focus on emerging markets – but our research is going to develop with the Ashridge ethos” says Hodges.
He is also clear that the best way for the new entity to evolve is to let both sides continue to concentrate on what they are good at, and draw on each other as they need. Ashridge had no under-graduate offering, and its MBA and EMBA are a smaller part of the school than its executive education business; as such the MBA and EMBA will transfer over the next 18 months to the Hult brand, although Ashridge with its UK degree awarding powers, will continue to be involved in the development and delivery of specialist masters degrees. Equally, Hult had no executive or corporate programs, and is happy to support Ashridge’s experienced processes as they can now build their already strong international delivery on the network of Hult campuses and overseas locations. “I am aware that historically Hult has been a b-to-c business in marketing terms, with hundreds of thousands of individual customers; Ashridge is much more b-to-b where there is real depth to client relationships. These are different styles of approach, and we would be foolish to force either on the other” Hodges observes.