You can never go home, but you can go back to build businesses
Tutor Doctor’s Frank Milner, third from left, with the trade mission delegates and officials from Nigeria during last year’s trade mission to Sub-Saharan Africa.
The franchise trade mission to Africa last summer was the first time Tutor Doctor CEO Frank Milner had been back to South Africa since his family migrated in the late 1970s. His father realized at the time the end of apartheid was going to change both their lives and their livelihood.
The South Africa he visited was different from the one where he felt safe as a youngster to employ a “thumb taxi” to make his way around the city. This time trade mission participants took a paid taxi to a restaurant just blocks from the hotel.
While out with childhood friends, Milner witnessed a sight he had never seen as a youngster in South Africa—three black men having a business meeting in a restaurant. “It was so natural, but so unfamiliar,” he says. The highway into town was two lanes when he left. It’s now six lanes, he adds, but “I still saw lots of people walking.” It’s still a country of haves and have-nots. People whose only mode of transportation are their two feet and a high-speed train that is one of the most modern trains in the world.
“When I left it was third-world,” he says. “I now feel like it’s moved into the first world.”
Growing up South African
In the ’70s, Milner’s family was considered middle class in Johannesburg, and yet they still had servants, including two maids and a gardener. One maid, Bella, raised him, since his mother worked in the family’s import business. His family was liberal, he says, and he remembers once as a youngster imitating his peers by calling a black man “boy,” and his father “let me have it” for his disrespect.
Family vacations were driving through Cougar National Park watching the wild animals in their natural habitat all day long, or being tossed around by the giant waves in the ocean near the coastal city of Durban. He remembers struggling against powerful waves, and laughs when he admits no present-day parent would ever tell their kids “go swim,” without watching their every move. It was a different time—in a dichotomy of ways.
His family moved to Toronto, Canada, to a country as foreign to him as his country was mysterious to Canadians. “In 1977, people didn’t know about South Africa,” he says. “Their perception was we lived in tree houses and rode elephants to school.” He wanted to fit in, he says, “but I had this accent.” (His current accent is a soothing combination of the King’s English and Canadian.)
Trying to fit into a new culture was difficult for a preteen, but nowhere near the hardship his parents experienced. He remembers his mother crying at night when she thought no one could hear her. Like many of the whites who fled South Africa at the time, she left behind all the assets of a privileged life and they had to rebuild their lives.
His father had bought a business in Canada, but once he arrived the terms had changed and the price had gone up. Milner’s siblings all had to work—he had a paper route—and they threw all the wages into a family kitty. His father became sick, but refused medical attention until he got the business up and running.
“He knew he was ill,” Milner says, adding that his father’s drive to build a business for the family meant he couldn’t risk the chance that the doctors would hospitalize him. His mother finally did persuade him to see a doctor, but Milner says it was too late by then.
His father’s death “changed me. It taught me to enjoy life and to live for today. Life’s short,” he says. His father sacrificed and never had a chance to enjoy the fruits of his labor. “He never bought a nice car or a luxury item,” Milner says. “It impacted me, made me look at things differently.”
Which doesn’t mean he doesn’t work hard. Just that he takes his family on vacations.
And he still wears the same uniform today as he did early in his career: black suit, white shirt, thin tie. But the quality of those garments have improved and his suits are tailored now, he adds, smiling.
Tutoring the masses
Milner has had a variety of careers, from corporate director in a uniform company to an Internet company based in Canada, where he was charged with finding creative ways to grow the business.
He got involved with Tutor Doctor after bumping into the founder and listening to his plans for the company. What resonated with him was watching his wife’s frustration with trying to help their son with his math homework. It reminded him of the stress and anxiety of his childhood in Toronto.
“Education is the path to a better future,” he says.
As a home-based business, Tutor Doctor not only “makes house calls,” it provides one-on-one private tutoring based on the student’s curriculum, not the company’s. According to a ticker on its website, Tutor Doctor has helped 141,111 people, as of press time. The company started franchising in 2003 and currently has 370 units around the world.
“I think there’s massive opportunity there (South Africa),” he says, as more people are starting to move into the middle class. Under apartheid, blacks weren’t educated and the effect of that policy means a shortage of trained workers, and a need for supplemental education.
And while there’s still that “massive gap” between the haves and the have-nots there, “our target market is 7 million out of 50 million,”Milner points out.