Nepali Times
"There is no reason why Nepal can't prosper"

Guy Ullens is a Belgian businessman. In the early 1970s, he took over his family's food empire, and turned the troubled conglomerate around. Just prior to his retirement in 1999, his Artal Group bought a majority stake in Weight Watchers from food giant H.J. Heinz. His philanthropic work around the world includes the Ullens School in Kathmandu. Nepali Times spoke to him about his business empire, his interest in art and his support for education in Nepal.

Nepali Times: You turned around your family business in Europe. How did that happen?
Guy Ullens:
It's always been about finding good people, and letting them produce the results. Putting good people to work, working with them to solve problems that come up, setting priorities, and having a sense of what is coming up are all important. Then again, life is difficult, and you never know what is going to happen tomorrow. But once you make up your mind to do something, have good people at every level, and you get to work. This was how I was able to do my work. I see many such good people everywhere in Nepal, waiting for opportunities.

And you also founded an arts centre in China?
I was not successful in my business in China. Running a company there was hard in the 1980s. I started visiting local artists on weekends, and from the money I had, I started buying their art. Over time, my collections grew with the works of many up and coming artists. I started loaning what I had to museums around the world. Then shows in Europe about contemporary Chinese art followed. Finally, in 2004, we decided to house the growing collections in a permanent venue in China.

And you also set up a school in Nepal?
As an entrepreneur you really go step by step. You test the water all the times. My knowledge of the country is not what it should be. While my wife Myriam was working at an orphanage in Kathmandu, we thought about looking after a public school where the children from orphanages could go. We looked for schools in the Dhulikhel area. Somehow, those schools did not work out and we set up the Ullens School.

But there is a perception that Ullens is a very expensive school catering to wealthy kids in Kathmandu.
I think that the school needs to communicate more to the public what it is and what it isn't. I think that our team is delivering value for money. Many parents recognise what kind of unique education their children are getting at Ullens. We hire top-quality teachers, and we have to pay them well so that we don't lose them. We have an active board, which monitors the quality of the school. Around 30 per cent of our students come from an underprivileged background.

Ullens is the first school in Nepal to introduce the two-year IB (International Baccalaureate) programme. Why should Nepali students be interested in IB?
The quality of the IB courses is heavily dependent on the quality of teachers. Other systems such as 'A Levels' and 'Plus Two' have their benefits. What is unique about IB is that its grading system is such that you know where you stand globally. And the students' grades give us a clear indication on how well our teachers teach. This knowledge is important for objective quality control, and we can use the feedback to further train our teachers. When our students with strong IB grades apply to universities abroad, their IB grades send a strong signal that they are good students.

Can Nepal ever be a quality educational destination?
I think the key requirement in Nepal is peace. If the Nepalis can settle their differences, set up priorities for the future, and agree on them, that will help. Else, if we start good high schools and colleges, and we continue to have political problems in the country, we will be unable to succeed. This country is waiting for investments, and for many foreign firms to come in and set up factories and companies. That is all part of the future and there is no reason why Nepal should not reach this point for growth and prosperity.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)