Owen Savage joined Knowledge Universe in March. Now a month onto the job, he talks with our communications director, Neil Simon, about growing up in Belfast, Northern Ireland, bartending in New Orleans and what surprised him about his first time visiting one of our centers.
You previously directed strategy for Disney Parks, Hilton and Sodexo, so you’ve worked a lot in travel sector, so why Knowledge Universe?
I have a very extensive background in education, and kind of a lifelong interest in education. My dad was a school teacher. My uncle was a school teacher. And I always kind of thought I’d wind up in the education industry some way or another. When the opportunity to come to Knowledge Universe presented itself, it just seemed like a great fit for me. I’m a big believer in the power of education
I was with Sodexo, before I came here. While that was a great experience, Sodexo was a very large multinational organization and there were layers and layers of bureaucracy and management process, so I was always intrigued by the idea of a smaller, more decisive management team with a relative absence of bureaucracy and so far that’s what I’ve found. It’s very refreshing to be in an environment that is much more action-oriented.
How do you build a strategy for a new way forward and keep people on board?
It starts at the top with vision and leadership which lead to strategic choices, being clear about what those choices are and what the implications are for the organization, and then setting goals and projects that align with the vision. Ongoing communication and project management are key.
It’s been a month. How do you feel being here?
I’m very impressed. I’ve been to about ten or 12 centers, and was just tremendously impressed by our center directors and teachers, and very impressed to see the curriculum come to life. My first week I read about the curriculum, then I went to the centers and actually saw kids sitting, being read to, fully engaged, playing constructively, teachers with total control. It was inspiring to see. Then I came back here and realized our job is really about making their lives easier and better. I’m very impressed with the energy, the enthusiasm, with how effectively the strategy is being communicated, because people talk about the five pillars and everybody seems aware of what their role is. I think the organization feels like we are coming out of the turnaround time and it’s time for growth.
At the centers, what surprised you?
It surprised me just how engaged and constructive the kids were. I was frankly expecting a little bit more of a chaotic environment.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
I started off in New Orleans as a bartender; that was my first job in the United States, even though I had a Ph.D. I was probably the best qualified bartender in the French Quarter. [On top of Owen’s Ph.D. in physics, he also holds master’s degrees in strategy and finance from the Imperial College of London and London School of Business respectively.]
Growing up in Belfast, you were a kid during the war, what was that like?
I grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, in West Belfast so saw a lot of friction. To us as kids it was normal. That was the funny thing about it. We didn’t really think twice about it. It’s only in hindsight you look back and see how bizarre that was. In Belfast now when I go home, I don’t recognize it. There are new restaurants, bars, clubs. It’s great to see. So we’ve really moved on from all of that at this point, which is fantastic.
I have a keen interest in chess, economics, history, American and European history. I’m also interested in exploring the Portland area which seems great so far.