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'How To' Courses Leading 30-Year-Old to Riches

January 24, 1985|COTTEN TIMBERLAKE | Associated Press

NEW YORK — Bill Zanker may be on the verge of the big time with his burgeoning how-to industry. Wel-l-l-l-l, the zany, fast-talking 30-year-old is trying really hard, anyway.

The founder, president and chief executive of the Learning Annex, claims his business is the largest non-accredited adult education center in the country and the first and only one of its kind to go public.

A quarter-of-a-million people have signed up for its short, inexpensive personal improvement courses and activities, the Learning Annex says.

The company, which was launched in New York in 1980, has expanded into Chicago and Atlanta. It plans to open centers in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and Boston in January and one on the West Coast by next summer.

A wide variety of courses, such as "How To Begin and Continue a Conversation," "How To Survive on $50,000 to $100,000 a Year" and "How To Land a Part in TV Commercials," is offered, and a Children's Annex is planned.

The energetic and enthusiastic entrepreneur also has started publishing soft-cover books and audio tapes that expand on the more popular courses--"How To Talk Sports to Men," for example.

Zanker says a television program is being discussed, too.

"We want to be the how-to people," he says. "These types of courses have been going on since the 1960s. They were highly successful. We just made it into a profit."

The company, which has not yet reported earnings, expects to earn a profit of $400,000, or 10 cents a share, on $6.75 million in revenue in fiscal 1985, which ends July 30, 1986.

Zanker, who likes telling reporters that his company will be the McDonald's of the industry, said: "We're going to be everywhere. One way or another, we're going to affect everybody's lives out there."

Obviously, modesty is not one of Zanker's qualities. Neither is shyness.

He caused a sensation when he tried to throw $10,000 off the Empire State Building in March, 1982, to celebrate the enrollment of the school's 100,000th student.

Building officials called his plan a crass publicity stunt, and police prevented it when the crowd around the building got unruly and--coincidentally--some robbers tried to hold up a bank there at the same time.

Undaunted, Zanker later distributed 1,000 free tokens at a subway station.

He also was undaunted by the outrage prompted by a Learning Annex course on how to cheat on your spouse without getting caught.

It all started when Zanker, who grew up in Teaneck, N.J., and is a bachelor, was studying for a master's degree in film at the New School in New York and "I was spending about $6,000 a year on education. My dad was paying for it.

"He called me up and said, 'Let's have lunch.' And, he said, 'I'm not supporting you and go out a get a job and stop being a bum.' "

Look at a Night Club Zanker, who holds a bachelor of arts degree from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, took his "bar mitzvah money" and put together a brochure based on friends' suggestions for courses.

Then he went to Grand Central Terminal early in the morning and handed the brochure--which now is published monthly and features free personal ads--to hundreds of people streaming through the train station during rush hour. Then, he ran back to his phone to take calls.

"And it started to happen," Zanker said. "It expanded like wild."

The Learning Annex's courses usually last 4 hours to 10 hours and cost anywhere from $21 to $140.

A hot--literally hot--one is "The Firewalking Experience." Another one one offers a behind-the-scene look at Chippendales, a night club where men strip for women patrons.

Just where do they get these ideas?

"We just read and read and read," Zanker said. And he goes to a lot of parties.

At one party, for example, a group of lawyers in their 30s were talking about how they hated their profession. So the Learning Annex found a headhunter who specializes in placing lawyers in second careers to teach a course.

The company also gets a lot of proposals--like 100 a week.

If the classes are not held on location, the students, most of whom are single and from 25 years to 45 years old, meet in public school classrooms. The instructors are paid either a flat fee or a percentage of the tuition fees, but never more than 30%.

Is Zanker worried that this is all a fad that will pass?

"Some courses are fadish and you change them after six months. But people are always going to want to know how to speed read, how to use a computer, how to quit smoking."

Well, if his company is going to be like McDonald's, are franchises in the works?

"One of the reasons we went public (in August) is so that we could keep it to ourselves. We'd like to keep the major cities for ourselves," said Zanker, who says he earns $70,000 a year and that his one-third stake in the company is worth $2 million.

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