CFO Brad Wentzel has found a new SPARK

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In May, Brad Wentzel became the new CFO of SPARK Schools, a network of private schools offering affordable, globally competitive education.

An advocate for continuous development, Brad has tried to keep adding new skills and different qualifications to his repertoire. For the last three years, his eyes have been on the education space.

Read more: Brad Wentzel believes knowledge is the best gift CFOs have to give

Brad’s personal experience with his daughter has made him aware of the gaps in the education industry. “My daughter, who is only six years old, can already count to 100 and spell words. When I was six, I wasn’t able to do that yet. Starting school earlier and having access to good educators has given her a better footing than most of her peers in the country.”

He explains that this made him realise how it’s incumbent on businesses and leaders like him to make that a norm for everyone. “The educated shouldn’t be the outliers. If we close the gap and give people a higher quality of education, many of the problems we have in the country will solve themselves, because the entire society will be better qualified to fix them.”

So, when SPARK Schools showed up at his door, asking him to be their CFO a couple of weeks ago, Brad couldn’t say no. “I’ve heard rumblings about the school since its inception 10 years ago, so I was already familiar with what the business is about: to provide affordable, globally competitive education to South African families who may have been previously excluded from accessing high-quality education,” he says.
SPARK Schools, which had gained significant traction and is entering its next phase of growth, were looking for a CFO to help them get there. “I couldn’t give up the opportunity,” Brad explains. “As much as I love Frey’s and it was hard to move away, the team were very understanding of my reasons for leaving.”

He adds that this education gap is a systemic problem and that SPARK Schools is at the forefront of driving that change, which is where he wants to be.

“This is a 20-year problem and I’m looking forward to getting stuck in for a long time.”

Learning about education

Brad has shared his process for joining a new organisation extensively through his thought-leadership series, 100 Days of Frey’s. However, because his joining has been so abrupt, he has had to speed up the process significantly. “I spent every spare moment I had deep-diving into the education industry and the business. I have a thick book on the issues we’re facing in the country, what the big players are doing, and what we should and shouldn’t be doing so that when I started a couple of weeks ago I would have a good base of knowledge to work from,” he explains.

He adds that there’s still quite a learning curve for him, as the education industry is a bit different from FMCG, which is what he’s used to. “It’s the first time I’ve been in a non-FMCG business for a while, but it’s got the same principles around a multi-site set-up, each as its own business unit and guard-railed autonomy. Except, instead of selling products, I’m selling education.”

True to his process, he has spent the first couple of weeks visiting the different schools (which he sometimes still calls sites), listening to what they need and understanding what they are dealing with. “I’m really excited to be here. I’m working with some really sharp minds across the country.”

Development and growth

SPARK Schools currently has 26 schools, two in the Western Cape and the rest in Gauteng. The aim is to expand the SPARK network to 47 schools by 2028, serving over 30,000 scholars, not just in South Africa, but on the rest of the continent. “We’re still in the growth stage, but we’re seeing quite a big growth curve and have to scale as quickly as possible,” Brad says.

SPARK uses a blended learning model which is a combination of direct classroom instruction and technology-based learning, he adds. Each scholar gets a laptop or tablet (owned by the school) and data from each child is fed back to the teacher. “By leveraging tech, we’re able to implement schedules that enhance the efficiency of the system, by optimising the utilisation of teacher’s time and space more effectively. Because of this, we can ensure more cost-effective solutions for families,” he says. SPARK Schools offers one price for all its schools and grades with the total cost to educate benchmarked against the government’s total cost to educate per child.

“We have put work into developing an affordable private schooling model that aims to offer world-class education. Our continued growth means that the model we have developed to challenge the education status quo is working.”

Because of this model and the growth it has realised for the organisation, the school has been named one of Africa’s fastest-growing companies in the 2024 Financial Times.

But to Brad, the only thing that matters is the students. “While visiting the sites, every morning at 7am the scholars do a ‘Sparks Fly’ singing and dancing routine that they’re very proud of. It’s very rewarding to see the business create tangible joy on people’s faces. I’m looking forward to making it bigger and bringing joy to more people.”

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