Except for the four-foot potted plant and the third-floor view, nothing in the new CEO’s office at Kaplan Eduneering bespeaks power. No sculptures on pedestals, no antique prints, no Noguchi-designed furniture, just a couple of stuffed animals — souvenirs from former clients — and photos of the CEO’s house in South Amboy and her Dobermans. It’s as if she picked herself up from a programmer’s cubicle to move into the corner office.

Foreshortened, that does describe Lisa Clune’s atypical path. Waitressing by day, going to college at night, Clune started her business career doing programming. Now she leads a company that provides training and testing for highly regulated industries, such as pharmaceutical and energy, and she honors her roots. “Programmers will always get respect here,” says Clune, “because I am one.”

Eduneering’s business plan does, indeed, depend on IT. Among its 350 clients and more than 1 million users, spread out across 50 countries, the company has approximately 120 life sciences clients in pharmaceutical, biotech, and medical device firms; 50 health plans; 60 energy clients; and 100 industrial or service companies. But the jewel in its crown is its unique contract with the Food and Drug Administration, for which it provides free on-line training and testing services in return for being able to sell similar services to clients of the FDA.

The chance to work for a small company was the carrot that headhunters dangled in front of Clune to induce her, in 2006, to move down the road from the headquarters of Tyco to become senior vice president of operations and chief technology officer at Eduneering, which has just 90 employees, 80 at the Carnegie Center location. “I was intrigued by all the enchanting things about a small company, because I was ‘in corporate’ at Tyco,” says Clune. “As much as you try not to be bureaucratic, you are. I wanted to run the whole technology organization, to be nimble, adaptable, and really entrepreneurial.”

But a couple of months after she jumped ship from Tyco, Clune was back working for a conglomerate again. Kaplan bought Eduneering to add to its professional division. But Clune maintains that the purchase does not keep Eduneering from operating in an entrepreneurial fashion.

Nevertheless, with the takeover, the race was on to see who would succeed Donald Deiso as president of Kaplan Eduneering. “You would think that it would be difficult to be promoted over your peers,” says Clune, “but most of them are on my management team, and I normally take their advice. We also joked about it, silly stuff, like my saying I was going to the ‘other side of the tracks’ when I visited where my old office used to be.”

Clune brings a collaborative style to the company’s culture, as opposed to a top down style. “I am not the expert on every subject,” Clune says. “When I say my door is open, it really is. I think I am approachable. I truly listen.”

Online learning and testing is an industry where it matters who got there first, and Clune has the advantage of working in an organization that was a pioneer. The company was started nearly 30 years ago by Robert Delamontagne, a psychologist who wanted to combine technology with learning theory and instructional design. He initially focused on compliance training for the energy industry

Computer records for training were a novelty then, but the concept grew rapidly, particularly in areas like finance and pharma, where the penalties for non-compliance are stiff. Computer records prove, without the possibility of a transcribing error, just what a particular employee was supposed to have learned. This is important. Failing to master the basics in an industrial setting can be life threatening.

In an earlier article (U.S. 1 newspaper, March 28, 2003) Delamontagne told how an employee failed to obey the rules for working in a confined space and lost consciousness. Another worker grabbed the wrong respirator, entered the space to save him, and also went down. A third person found them there, both dead. The client went back to the test questions that each employee had answered — automatically recorded and stored at the time of the test — to prove to the inspectors that its hands were legally clean.

John Eichert, a visionary in the pharmaceutical field, brought Delamontagne’s firm under the umbrella of Hastings Health Group and took it online. “When I bought Eduneering, it was focused on computer-based training using CDs, and we started to migrate the company to the web platform,” says Eichert, who now has a Pennsylvania-based consulting firm, Rivermark LLC. “Our vision was that the Internet would be the primary delivery platform, and that government regulations would become more important. We knew pharmaceutical firms would feel growing pressure to hold their employees more accountable, especially in the area of research and sales.”

Kaplan Eduneering has the advantage of being located in Princeton, home of Educational Testing Service, and therefore fertile ground for the online learning industry.

Eduneering’s success was sealed by an early sale to the notoriously budget-minded federal government. In 1999 Janice McFarland, a consultant hired by then-owner Eichert, structured a deal that launched Eduneering’s pharma business. The FDA would get all of its online training and certification programs for no cost. In return, Eduneering could sell those same programs to the drug and food companies that need their workers to pass the tests. It was perfect timing, because the Internet was just “coming into its own,” and the Internet made this contract possible. For web-based testing, the incremental cost for administering and tracking each course and each test is very small.

Leading on from that first contract, much of Eduneering’s business is government-based, and it is shepherded by McFarland, now senior vice president. Its course and learning programs train the FDA’s 30,000 federal, state, and local investigators. Its life science business has tripled in four years, going from 200,000 users of the program to more than 600,000. It also trains workers in the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Among its other courses — 550 standard courses in 25 languages — are those in the areas of health and safety, environment, ethics, Medicare and Part D, and corporate compliance. It has also created 4,000 client-specific courses and learning programs.

These courses might cost only $7 or $8 per person but are available only through Eduneering’s client companies, who buy annual rights.

Eduneering is still a relatively small firm. In addition to the 80 people at the Carnegie Center, the firm has several in Houston, which houses its KnowledgeWire platform and main data center, plus a handful of workers in the United Kingdom, and several in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, where its online learning consultant, Karl Kapp, teaches. It also taps about 15 information technology workers from Piscataway-based Marlabs.

When Eduneering’s investors sold the company to Kaplan two years ago, Eduneering got access to a new set of deep pockets. “We have all had our companies merged and bought and sold in our careers, and this acquisition was the most successful that I have seen,” says Clune.

Kaplan’s ownership allowed Eduneering, for instance, to purchase Eatontown-based ethics training firm RedHawk, a deal made last year. “We were able to do this,” says Clune, “knowing that it was not going to take all our reserves. And Kaplan gives us the policies and procedures that we need at an administrative level. As far as what we need to do, they don’t interfere very much.”

Eduneering could grow to be a major revenue source for Kaplan, which aims to out-test and out-train and out-educate the competition. It is the cash cow for its owner, the Washington Post, and with $2 billion in revenues, it provides more than half of the newspaper’s income.

About $1 billion of Kaplan’s revenue comes from its fast-growing post secondary education program, which enrolls 68,000 students both online and on more than 70 campuses nationwide (none, so far, in New Jersey). Kaplan was founded as a test prep company, and it also has a professional division, which offers certification and training in the finance and insurance industries, for example. Eduneering belongs to this division.

Eduneering taps one of the top U.S. graduate schools for instructional technology, Bloomsburg University, located near Scranton, Pennsylvania. Bloomsburg’s department in this subject was founded in 1985 and it, like Eduneering, migrated its work to the web in the early 1990s. Since 1999 it has offered its master’s degree online. (At $12,000 it is an attractive option for those seeking to jumpstart their careers. They can earn this degree and then bring their new skills back to the field of their expertise.)

“Students build modules that demonstrate their skill sets and meet the needs of corporate, healthcare, governmental, and higher education clients,” says Timothy Phillip, department head. “I know it works because companies partner with us for a number of years.”

The college’s Institute for Interactive Technologies has a symbiotic relationship with corporations around the country. Its master’s degree students work in teams to devise learning modules for corporations such as Kellogg’s, Wyeth, and Black & Decker. Current projects include one on environmental safety for a small pharmaceutical company, one on reading X-rays for a healthcare institution, one for an automotive client, and one for first grade curriculum. “They have real clients who really care,” says Phillip.

Bloomsburg’s Kapp grooms the partnerships and takes care of the interface between Eduneering and Bloomsburg’s institute.

Eduneering has hired four Bloomsburg graduates, and, because Princeton is such an expensive place to live, they work remotely from their Pennsylvania homes. (Clune notes that, coming from western Pennsylvania, graduates get sticker shock when they try to buy a house in Princeton.)

When Clune comes to a career crossroads, she turns to her family for advice. As a former executive secretary, her mother is familiar with the politics of corner offices, where she learned the importance of always making friends with the boss’s assistant and never condescending to anyone. The one piece of her mother’s advice that did not serve her well, Clune says, was her mother’s insistence that she not learn to type. Being limited to the hunt and peck system, in the digital age, is a handicap. Her dad, a police officer, worked for an elected official and so has some insights into corporate machinations. He also taught her the fine points of playing poker, and she plays online, once winning $13,000. “It relaxes me,” she says.”

Aside from role-playing video games (Zelda is her favorite), poker is her chief pastime, and she and her long-time poker buddies play on Saturdays and Sundays in South Amboy, where she built a Victorian style home on the water. At 48, never married — she says she has no regrets — she lavishes attention on her nieces and nephews and dotes on her two dogs. On her hour-long commute (against traffic, she notes) she listens to talk radio, National Public Radio (“I like to hear the other side”) and ’80s music.

Clune says she did “the Sarah Palin thing” by working her way through high school and college. Waitressing is good for shy teenagers, she maintains. “You learn to speak in front of a group, to prioritize, and to work well under pressure. And you make great money.” But rising into management in the hospitality field, she discovered, had limits. “First I was a restaurant manager, then an innkeeper, managing a 10-room hotel. I hadn’t finished school, I was only 22, and I had a profit and loss sheet. The responsibility was pretty awesome, but the money was terrible.” Managing a Sizzler restaurant, she had 30 employees, $8,000 in register receipts, “and I was working on Christmas Eve — making $15,000 to $17,000 a year and working 80 hours a week. If I were to be promoted to district manager, I would be traveling all over. I eventually said no.”

Choosing a business major with a psychology minor at Centenary College, Clune had no clear picture of what she wanted to do other than to wear suits and carry a briefcase. Just before she graduated in 1989, she took one programming course, Basic, and was hooked. She knew she wanted to be a programmer

For a crash course in programming, she enrolled at Chubb, and just at graduation, she ran into a Keane recruiter who needed to fill a slot in a boot camp. Could she leave for Boston in two days? She could.

At her first job as a Keane consultant she learned about how to succeed, despite being a woman, in a pharmaceutical plant maintenance department, the kind of shop where each guy keeps an engine under his desk to use for parts. “You can imagine what that does to inventories,” says Clune. “It was very difficult to get the respect of maintenance supervisors, to get them to change what they were doing.” She did what she still does today, quietly let the facts speak for themselves.

“Removing as much of the emotion as possible, I have found, is the best way to overcome obstacles,” she says. “I learned the application and I learned the business process. I tend to be very quiet when I am learning something new, because I want to know what the client is thinking. People like to tell you how to do things, and I let them do that. Then I offer the pure data. It is really hard to argue with the facts: ‘If you use this system properly, your life will be improved, and we will cut costs.’”

From Keane she went to Eisner Consulting (now Answerthink), where she directed SAP supply chains for luxury clients like Bruno Magli shoes. (She says she was “in heaven” because her size was the sample size.) “I had to figure out how to track the inventory in a way that didn’t drive everyone crazy.” Then she went to GE Healthcare, where she was business systems director. Each of those stints lasted two years. She also stayed for two years in the Tyco job, as director of corporate applications, supervising IT for such functions as the website, treasury, HR, payroll, finance, and training.

When she moved to Eduneering in September, 2006, it was as senior vice president and CTO. Kaplan bought the company in March, 2007, and her ascent to president was announced in January.

Clune doesn’t travel a lot — a couple of times a year, including some trips to Houston, to meet with the support groups for KnowledgeWire and for the data center. “Our Houston data center made it through Hurricane Ike, with one guy staying in the data center, basically hugging the servers,” she says. With a commitment to “five nines” reliability (99.999 percent online time) Eduneering has its backup computers at the Carnegie Center, and when the generators ran out of fuel during the hurricane, the backup system took over seamlessly. “Our six-person data center team is incredibly dedicated; it is something I would never consider outsourcing.”

Though the consolidation of pharmaceutical companies is going to decrease Eduneering’s potential client pool, Clune brushes off competition, saying that she doesn’t get competition from other companies like hers, because Eduneering entered the market so early (see sidebar). She says her

real competition comes from within the big pharmaceutical companies, which can maintain their own training departments. In a recession customers may find that getting Eduneering to customize their online training templates will be an attractive alternative to classroom education or building stand-alone computer-based training programs. Eduneering targets clients with at least 100 employees, who pay from $25 to $150 per person for unlimited training on a three-year contract.

Though Clune may not have voted for the current administration, she consoles herself that, under a Democratic regime, more regulations will emerge, which can only be good for Kaplan Eduneering.

The firm has just embarked on an effort to translate its programs to meet the needs of different nations. It has also announced an exclusive alliance with AdvaMed, the professional association for 90 percent of the medical device manufacturers. The device code is stricter than the pharmacology code, because, on the way to market, the device must be used on human patients.

A recent contract is for Westat, a Washington-based clinical research organization that is working on a 25-year longitudinal study for the National Institutes of Health on the issues surrounding certain diseases, including autism. “They begin to look at women before they are pregnant,” says Clune. “We are training the data gatherers. Our infrastructure is supporting good clinical practices.”

Other than sometimes having to impress male engineers, early in her career, Clune says that she has not encountered a glass ceiling. She credits economic reasons, rather than bias, for the disparity between salaries of men and women. “I know that there are still problems with women making less than men. But I believe a lot of that is that we women are the stay at home partners. And we will be the ones that will say we want to leave the office earlier. There never was a time, that I know of, where I didn’t get a promotion because I was a woman.”

Clune says her leap from Tyco to Eduneering was fortuitous. “Every day, I have so much more fun,” she says. “Every day when I come in I feel like it matters, whether I come in or not. In a larger organization, it didn’t matter how exciting the job was, you felt as if you were just a cog in the wheel. Everybody here matters.”

Kaplan EduNeering, 202 Carnegie Center, Suite 301, Princeton 08540; 609-627-5300; fax, 609-627-5330. Lisa Clune, president. www.kaplaneduneering.com

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