Wally is the CEO and president of American Public University System and its parent company American Public Education, Inc (APEI). He is also a member of the West Virginia Governor’s Advisory Council for Technology in Education. He is a CPA, CMA and Fellow of the Healthcare Financial Management Association. He earned a BA from Duke and an MBA from Tulane.
SM: Wally, take us back to where your story begins. Give us some personal background to set the stage for your career.
WB: I grew up on the eastern shore of Maryland, which is a very rural area. In seventh grade I had the good fortune to get an academic scholarship to a boarding school. I later attended Duke on an academic scholarship and went on to do an MBA at Tulane. I always had entrepreneurial tendencies, but a number of my mentors felt that I would be good for me to work for large companies first.
My first job was to work for Pricewaterhouse in their consulting department. I was a consultant for their small business division and consulted with a lot of entrepreneurs who were growing their businesses. Over time, I was hired by one of those entrepreneurs to be his CFO. We grew a company that was about $45 million in revenues to approximately $350 million in revenues.
SM: What kind of company was that?
WB: It was a company whose primary business was nursing homes. We sold that business to a public company. I was then hired by a public company, Manor Care, to be their CFO for their nursing home division. While I was there I formed a startup rehab company that does physical therapy and occupational therapy for patients in our facilities. I also witnessed the creation of other divisions of the company from scratch, such as the assisted living division.
SM: What year are we talking about?
WB: I was at Pricewaterhouse from 1978 to 1983. I was with Meridian Healthcare from 1985 to 1992. I was with Manor Care from 1993 to 1998. In 1998 I sold the pharmacy division of Manor Care, called Vitalink, to a division of Genesis Health Ventures called NeighborCare. I merged those two companies as their COO. I sold a division of the company and was hired by the acquirer to be the COO and merge the two entities. After that, I was hired to be the CFO of Sun Healthcare Group.
During that entire time I was with large companies buying and selling divisions and creating divisions. Finally in 2002 I was hired by the founder of what was American Military University to assist him in his dream of growing the university into a dynamic and much larger online university that would serve much more than just the US military.
SM: What is the history of American Public University System?
WB: In 1991 Jim Etter, a retired major aviator, incorporated American Military University in the State of Virginia. His goal was to provide a graduate school for officers in the military in order to receive a master’s degree via distance learning. In most branches of the military, in order to advance beyond the rank of major you need to have a master’s degree.
During his career as an aviator, Jim would move around a lot and basically start and stop degree programs at different programs. He thus never received his degree. When he left the service as a major, he was determined that he would start a school that would allow a student to continue their studies no matter where they were in the world.
Under his original concept of the university, part of the curriculum was online and another part was done via correspondence using telephone and mail simply because not all students had access to broadband. By 1996 broadband was so prevalent on military bases around the world that he converted the university to a totally broadband-based university. In that same year, he added undergraduate programs in addition to the graduate programs that were all master’s degrees.