When the coronavirus pandemic shocked Europe and its companies, Rob Kolkman (Enschede, Netherlands, 1972) was just beginning his new position as CEO of Sanoma Learning, the education division of the Finnish media and learning solutions group Sanoma. “In January and February I was going to meet all the teams in Europe and that was it, since at the end of February and the beginning of March the lockdowns arrived,” recalls the manager. “Since then, a large part of our life has been like this for everyone,” he describes in reference to the fact that the interview is held by videoconference. But the annual accounts of the parent company, presented a day before the meeting, show that 2020 has not been a year of paralysis: the company increased its sales to 1,062 million (compared to 913 million in 2019) and multiplied the result to 238 million (for 65 million, the previous year).
“Most of the group’s operating profits came from Learning”, read some annual accounts that pay attention to Spain. The reason is that on the last day of 2020, Sanoma completed the purchase of Santillana Spain from PRISA (EL PAÍS publishing group) in an operation valued at 465 million. “We had had Santillana on the radar for many years, when the opportunity arose it filled us with satisfaction”, Kolkman says, “it has given us the leadership position in the Spanish market and we are pleased that this has happened”.
Spain was not a country alien to the Finnish firm, where it had already arrived in 2019 by taking over Iddlink and Clickedu. “Hopefully they can work together, but they are different businesses,” says the CEO, who makes it clear what the priority is in the plans: “Give support and complete the good solutions that Santillana already has, but also with other digital solutions, and that these reach the different communities adapting, because there are many specificities that we have to cover in the Spanish market ”.
The European educational giant believes that the recent approval of a new educational law in Spain is the perfect opportunity to expand what they call “hybrid methodology” (blended, in English). “The combination of paper support with online format for, for example, assessments, tests, exams, personalized learning … is frankly very useful and we continue on that path,” says Kolkman. Are we not then going to the absolute domain of electronics? “Yes, there will be room for purely online methods, but we really believe that this is for very specific situations, while mostly there will be a combination of paper and digital media.”
Kolkman explains that the pandemic, with millions of students across Europe confined, “has transformed schools and teaching bodies in many countries.” This has been a challenge for students, teachers (“the role of teachers has been enormous, it has been truly impressive”) and also for the Administrations or the sector itself. “We have verified throughout Europe a huge increase in digital support, of that need for digital transformation, but it is very heterogeneous depending on the country, there are certain countries that had already advanced in digitization.”
And how is Spain doing in that race? “It is not, in my humble opinion, to be the best student or the worst student, but to see that country, that educational center, in what situation it is,” Kolkman responds. “In Spain we have found differences depending on the autonomous communities or depending on the educational centers. And our goal is to see how we can help each one of them ”.
Also in terms of collaboration, it describes the relationship between companies and public education. “It is not a question of a contrast, but of seeing what is the added value that a private company can bring to the public education system,” he says. Education is one of the human rights that the coronavirus crisis has put in trouble, and Kolkman vindicates the sector’s performance: “We, like the competition, open a large part of the content in different markets so that schools could weather that first initial stage of confinements ”.
This is not the only trouble caused by the pandemic. The Dutch manager points out that in his division he has suffered “a certain impact” related to activities that require human contact, such as teacher training or commercial work. “Normally you try to launch new products on the market, but obviously you need interaction with teachers for that to happen,” he explains. Also the boom in the use of digital platforms has caused unforeseen challenges: “Hosting costs [almacenamiento web], for example, they have increased ”.
Everyone at the Finnish firm, says Kolkman, is eager to return to what is internally referred to as “the best normalcy,” which involves more possibility of teleworking within their organization than before the pandemic and for an expected advance of those methods blended in the markets where they work. The manager trusts the possibilities of organic growth to that, but makes it clear that Sanoma is continuing with the purchasing policy. “There are investments worth 300 or 400 million euros that we continue to want to make in this area,” he says. “Our focus is on the market that we call K12: primary and secondary education. That is the fundamental focus and within this segment there is still much to do in the European market. There is going to be a lot of consolidation ”.
So do you rule out other options outside? “Not necessarily, but our focus is on Europe,” he replies. Kolkman defends the strategy of growth through takeovers, which he defines as a delicate balance between the local and the international dimension. And there he returns to Spain, where it is clear that Sanoma has made a strong bet: “The acquisition of Santillana is the perfect combination: cutting-edge content with the contribution we make, with all the digital solutions and with the scale we have to develop them.”