Norway’s Keystone Academic Solutions announced the merger with Sweden’s Educations Media Group (EMG) on June 23. The combined scale and ambition of these two businesses means the industry can expect ongoing innovation –  including a substantial scale-up of enrolment & conversion service, Keystone Recruit, according to CEO Erik Harrell.

Harrell will become CEO of new company Keystone Education Group, while EMG’s CEO and co-founder, Fredrik Söderlindh, will serve on KEG’s senior leadership team as head of M&A and a member of KEG’s board of directors.

Well known KEG websites include Masterstudies.com, FindAMasters.com, Educations.com and Studentum.se. The bulked out business now has an annual turnover of more than US$50 million and a customer base of 5500 higher education providers.

“During the past 12 months, Keystone has successfully implemented a strong organic and inorganic growth strategy, with pro-forma revenue growth expected to be up more than 300% in 2021 versus 2019 after the closing of this merger,” said Harrell.

The bulked out business now has an annual turnover of more than US$50 million

“The formation of KEG and merger of equals with EMG brings us one step closer to becoming the most trusted and scaled resource for students in the world and a global leader for enrolment generation for higher education institutions.”

Speaking exclusively to The PIE, Harrell explained that that strong revenue growth reflected both acquisitions already made – such as UK-based FindaUniversity acquired in February – and organic growth in the businesses as digital recruitment channels became more critical than ever.

“We’ve had the best five months [this year] in terms of new revenue bookings in our history,” he shared.

“I think the big picture is we’re experiencing a shift to digital from offline. I think what we’re seeing from our customers is that the budgets that they had for offline, they’re using for digital. So instead of doing a physical fair, they’re putting that money into virtual fairs, which we also provide through FindaUniversity.

“And then, of course, [customers] are not travelling, they’re not going to physical fairs, so they have more budget for digital. We’re definitely seeing a shift to digital and I think we think that trend will continue.

Harrell added that growth in demand for online education programs had also boosted business – and they were getting better at what they do too: “We feel like we’re gaining market share because of our own execution capabilities”.

Moving forward, the new company has ambitious plans to take students through discovery and the enrolment process and be a “single source” site for its student visitors, rather than them using multiple websites.

It will focus on four core operating segments including study abroad, domestic student recruiting [EMG’s core business in the Nordics], corporate training and global student recruitment services.

Harrell is excited about the opportunities for enrolment management – and explained this service is currently being run out of Norway where a multi-lingual team calls and interact with students everywhere.

“You become a much more value added provider to your customers because you can help them prioritise”

“You actually can connect the dots and know much better which channels are most effective, what countries and which programs are most effective. You become a much more value added provider to your customers because you can help them prioritise which leads they should focus on,” he added.

Further acquisition can also be expected to further KEG’s mission to innovate and scale. In KEG’s core geographies – the US, the UK, Nordics, France, Germany and Spain – Harrell pointed to a recent study by a Tier 1 consulting firm indicating it is worth around US$35 billion, with growth estimated to be north of 15% due to a systemic shift towards digital marketing.

Both Keystone and EMG have strong backgrounds in M&A with Keystone also recently acquiring US college athletics placement firm CSUSA. EMG has led a similar growth path, acquiring the study abroad agent Blueberry, and UK-based site floodlight.co.uk and the Adult Learning segment of hotcourses.com, as well Allastudier.se. 

Keystone Academic – which recorded 70 million annual visitors across its 420 sites – has a strong global reach with top markets including India, the US, Italy, France, Spain and Brazil.

Viking Venture and Verdane, both leading growth investors in software companies in the Nordics and the financial investors behind Keystone and EMG, respectively, will remain shareholders of KEG post-merger. The transaction is expected to close no later than July. 

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