Carlos Wizard Martins is on a mission to make Brazilians bilingual. Already, the devout Mormon’s mission has gotten him close to making the ranks of The World’s Billionaires — Martins’ stake in his language company, Multi Group, is worth close to $700 million today (his various language school franchises include Wizard, Skill, Alps, Quatrum and Yazigi).
As tourism, businesses and a new middle class continues to expand throughout the country, so too, one imagines, will the market for continuing education. These days Brazil ranks among the countries with the worst English language competency in the world, according to a report released last week by Education First (EF), a worldwide educational company. EF says it tested 2.3 million students around the world to gauge how English skill levels compare among different countries.
Martins, who I sat down with in one of his Sao Paulo “Wizard” classrooms back in February, started his business from scratch. His career trajectory comes across as Brazil’s version of the American dream. The day we met, he’d made the 55-mile trek from Campinas, where he’s based, mostly to meet up with local Sao Paulo reporters for interviews. Immaculate in a suit, he sat in a student chair facing the class board while clutching onto a blackberry and gazing into a laptop. “Give me a moment and I’ll give you the attention that you need and deserve,” he said quietly without looking up, sounding very much like a teacher in charge of the classroom.
Although he started off as a teacher, these days he’s very much the businessman. His Grupo Multi has grown into a massive company boasting about $1.4 billion in revenues in 2010. It has 45,000 employees throughout Brazil and 3,500 school franchises servicing 1.4 million students a year. Last year it announced that an investment branch of Brazil’s Banco Itau was investing R$200 million (about $125 million) in Grupo Multi for a 15% stake in the company. Now there are talks of a potential IPO, something Martins says could happen this year or next.
Martins grew up in Campinas and learned to speak English with missionaries at age 12. Enamored with the language, he took off to New Jersey at age 17 and began working as a waiter while practicing his English. For several years he traveled as a volunteer for the Mormon Church and for some time he taught Portuguese and studied computer science.
After settling back in Brazil as an executive for a paper company, Martins began teaching English informally to colleagues from his day job at his home at night after work. Eventually, he says the number of students grew so much that he was earning more at night teaching English than he was at his day job. So he quit his day job and Wizard, his first school, was born.
“I developed a methodology: ‘speak English in 24 hours’,” says Martins. It may sound like a gimmick, but it works, he insists. He developed his method into a string of franchises and within three years of offering English classes to the general population, Grupo Multi’s capital grew and he acquired more schools.
Since 2006 the group aggressively expanded through acquisitions, growing into spaces beyond language programs. His schools now extend to computer classes and various second language classes, some even outside Brazil (already in China, the US, Japan, Mexico and four other countries, they most recently announced another school opening in Panama).
With the influx of foreign businessmen and tourists coming to Brazil, most people I’ve spoken with in Brazil’s service industry agree English would come in handy; not to mention as they prepare for the expected rush of foreign tourists to arrive with the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. Sources in both Salvador and Sao Paulo say that the Brazilian government is subsidizing some English classes for this segment of the population in preparation for the World Cup and Olympics (UPDATE: see a statement from Brazil’s Ministry of Tourism below).
Today, says Martins, only 2% of the Brazilian population is bilingual. His dream is to transform Brazil into a bilingual country, he adds smiling. With the country’s literacy rate hovering around 89%, Martins, who legally gave himself the middle name “Wizard” as a wink to his original school chain, may need the help of a magic wand to fulfill his dream.