Perfect score: Ferguson reflects on ACT

by Gigi Wood

IOWA CITY – He expects few operational changes at ACT once he retires.

Richard “Dick” Ferguson, 69, will retire as CEO of ACT in Iowa City at the end of August after 38 years with the company and 22 years as its leader.

ACT, 500 ACT Dr., produces the popular standardized college entrance exam of the same name, as well as workforce readiness assessments and a host of other products. The company employs about 1,500 people and is one of the largest property taxpayers in Johnson County with a nearly $2 million annual tab.

Starting Sept. 1, ACT will have a new leader: Jon Whitmore, former University of Iowa provost and most recently the president of San Jose State University in California.

ACT’s future, locally
Because it is one of the area’s top employers, local residents, officials and business owners become apprehensive when major changes are announced at the company.

And with good reason. ACT is global company that can operate anywhere in the world. In 2009, nearly 1.5 million high school students took the admissions and placement exam, up from 1.42 million in 2008, along with students in more than 120 countries around the globe. Test taking increased 4 percent to 5 percent during the past year, meaning about 100,000 more students took the exam, Mr. Ferguson said.

“Our growth has been phenomenal,” he said.

As more students take the exam, more employees are needed to process the tests and data involved. The company, which is constantly developing new technologies, employs 225 IT workers, making it one of the largest IT employers in the state, according to Mr. Ferguson. Despite the company’s roots in pencil and paper – co-founder E.F. Lindquist developed much of the technology that goes into scoring of the traditional bubble forms, and each year the company hires countless temporary workers to grade hand-written essays — the company has moved into a significantly more technologically sophisticated world.

“Much of what we do now is computer-facilitated and -driven, so we’re constantly building systems and new delivery mechanics, and we’re doing research,” he said. “We’ve put a lot of time and work in facilitating scoring electronically rather than having a person to do it.”

Mr. Ferguson said the company is in the process of creating 35 to 40 new positions, mostly in Iowa City, to help the company deal with volume increases in test taking. Sometimes it is difficult to woo workers from out of state to work at the company’s headquarters, just off of Interstate 80 and North Dodge Street.

“There are a certain number of jobs we hire from the local market, which is challenged; we don’t have enough people here,” he said. “But most of our jobs when we get to a certain level, it’s national recruiting.”

To combat the shortage, the company maintains field offices throughout the country.

“We’re recruiting high-level people, and most of the time we can overcome stereotypes about Iowa and Iowa City and get them here, and the reality is so many of them are former Midwesterners,” Mr. Ferguson said.

But fears that the company will uproot and leave the company are unjustified, he said.

“Iowa City is ACT’s international headquarters; I can’t conceive of that happening,” Mr. Ferguson said.

During the past few weeks, Mr. Ferguson has been briefing Mr. Whitmore on ACT and how it operates.

“I’ve had the advantage of being on the ground level for almost every single thing ACT has done, for almost 40 years here,” Mr. Ferguson said. “It’s second nature to me because I’ve been part of it all.”

ACT’s board of directors will play a key role in any future changes at the company.

“We have an active board made up of all national leaders,” he said. “They all have different ideas, but they all have a heart of gold and they’re very responsive to moving forward. I’ve taken pride in the fact that in all of the years I’ve been associated with the board, they have never vetoed or said ‘no’ to anything I put forward as a resolution for them.

“It really doesn’t have to do with me, per se, but rather with our process, which is one where we really are thorough with our planning process, with our evaluation, what we put forward as things we look to do,” he added. “We look multiple years ahead and recognize that there are investments you make along the way. As a group, they are very committed to ACT’s current agenda.”

ACT’s global future
That agenda includes significant international expansion. Within the next few months, ACT will open an office in Beijing, China. More and more students around the world are interested in taking the test to study in the United States. The move opens up endless possibilities for growth for ACT.

“Even though we’re not-for-profit, we’re not-for-loss, and the numbers have to make things work,” he said.

The expansion will positively affect the Iowa City office, by creating more work and additional jobs, he said.

Ferguson’s future
At the start of September, Mr. Ferguson is going to begin his new career. He will begin work for Best Associates, a privately owned merchant banking institution in Dallas. He will maintain his home in Iowa City.

“My future plans have me remaining in the world of work that has occupied my attention for the last 45 years,” he said.

The company has many subsidiaries in the for-profit education field. Mr. Ferguson will work with Whitney International, which is buying private colleges throughout Latin America. He recently bought the Rosetta Stone program in Spanish to brush up on his language skills.

“You’ve got a network of colleges and universities throughout the continent, where you have the potential to build a network where it’s all integrated, recognizing each other’s credits and programs,” he said.

He will also collaborate with Academic Partners, a company that partners with higher education institutions and provides those schools with features one would find at online for-profit schools such as the University of Phoenix.

“I will bring in some expertise on how we strengthen the quality of educational programs there,” he said.

Before he starts his new work, he will be attending many farewell parties at ACT. Leaving the company will be difficult, he said.

“For a long time, I’ve really been responsible for ACT,” he said. “What it means to be a leader; one of the things it means to me is the heavy weight of what it means for all these people, the decisions you make.” CBJ