From the Brink of Closure to 650 Students: WyoTech’s Resurgence Story
Written from an interview with Jim Mathis, President of WyoTech
WyoTech, a vocational for-profit college in Laramie, Wyoming which opened in 1966, was in grave danger of being permanently closed when Jim Mathis (current WyoTech president) and (several executive team members) got together to give it new life, after the local community, faculty, and state representatives worked to save it. For Jim Mathis, his journey was a very personal one.
“I was a student [at WyoTech] in 1976,” Mathis said. After about five months working for a company doing custom combining after high school, he begged his way to working for the college. “I had a new passion after I graduated from WyoTech, and that was to go back and teach for them.”
Five months after graduating and at the age of 19, Mathis started his career at WyoTech teaching diesel mechanics. After teaching for about two-and-a-half years, he received his first promotion. “I became Assistant Training Director, holding that position for several years. Then my boss, Dave Cermak, became Vice President of Education, and then I became Training Director for Diesel. I did that for four or five years, and then there was a change of ownership. A new president came in and Dave, my good friend, left, so they appointed another vice president,” Mathis said. “He was a great guy, but he was very meticulous, and I’m more of a cheerleader and a go-getter who makes things happen. I drove him crazy enough that he fired me.”
Mathis’s charisma and grit wouldn’t let him stay fired, though.
“The next day, when I went to get my final check, I ran across the president. I just shook his hand and I said, ‘I suppose me being fired means I’m not gonna become your next vice president.’ He says, ‘Yeah, I suppose that’s what that means, but you should have a chair.’ So we ended up talking for a couple of hours,” Mathis said. “The next day, he calls me and says, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘Well, I’m laying on the couch wondering what I wanna be when I grow up.’ And he laughed and he says, ‘You want to be a vice president? I need someone with your attitude to come back.’ So I was fired for three days and came back as a vice president.”
Mathis has a long and varied history with WyoTech spanning 26 years. When new ownership took over the new president wanted more of a detailed-oriented person. “He removed me from that job and stuck me in admissions and marketing,” Mathis said. “I did not want [that job] but ended up loving [it], so that gave me experience, not only in education and operations, but also in admissions and marketing. Several years later he left and I became president. We changed our sales philosophy and put some aggressive growth plans together and we took off growing like you would not believe.”
In 2002, WyoTech was sold to Corinthian Colleges. At that time Mathis left saying, “Big corporate was not in my plans.”
After his time with WyoTech, he bought a cattle ranch and tried ranching for a couple years but realized it was not a lucrative venture though he was passionate about ranching, so he decided to get back into the sector.
Jim got back into leading schools struggling financially and did several turn arounds from 2006 to 2014. In June of 2014 he returned to run the ranch and, in the fall of 2017, fate provided the opportunity he was looking for.
“I was actually training my border collies on a bunch of calves and praying. I said, ‘God, I think I’ve got one more turnaround company in me, but I’m not looking. It’s gotta be your deal.’ And the next thing you know, I hear WyoTech is closing down,” Mathis said. “Then a bunch of businesspeople called me in January 2018, to meet with them and they said, ‘Jim, do you think you can find money to buy WyoTech?’ And I said, ‘No, I sure don’t.’ ‘Will you try and we’ll try?’ And I agreed.” Mathis made one phone call near the end of January, getting a promise for three and a half million, but it didn’t seem possible to come up with the $12 million or so needed, so he never called businesspeople back.
“At the end of February, I got an email from a state representative asking if I can be in Cheyenne in an hour to answer questions about WyoTech. I’m out literally feeding cows. So I emailed him back and [told him I need an hour-and-a-half] because our ranch is an hour and 10 minutes away from Cheyenne and I wanted to take a shower,” Mathis said. “I answered questions to all the state representatives and senators for half a day, and then met with the President of the Senate and shared some of my experiences.”
Because of Mathis’s testimony, a bill was changed on his behalf so he could borrow the money from the state to purchase WyoTech.
So [that’s the] journey from the end of February all the way until the time we closed on WyoTech, July 2, 2018,” Mathis said.
“We closed on it, and we started with 12 students and 12 employees, and currently, we’ve been at it for three years, and we will have over 650 students on campus this Fall and 130 employees.”
Mathis has a lot of appreciation for the state government and other groups for working together to make sure WyoTech didn’t close.
“When the state of Wyoming, Governor Mead, and your state representatives and senators seek you out and change a bill, that states a lot about how they believe in WyoTech and our sector. I have a great appreciation for former Governor Mead, current Governor Gordon, and the state for backing this thing and working with us,” Mathis said. “The Wyoming Business Council was very active in this as well. And quite frankly, the former WyoTech employees fought to keep the WyoTech Laramie campus open. They were working with the state legislators and the Governor prior to me even knowing about it.”
The money that was received from the state is a loan that WyoTech is paying back. WyoTech believes the loan shows that the state has a lot of confidence and trust in Jim and his leadership.
Turning WyoTech around from nearly closing to its current success has been “the funnest thing I’ve ever done,” Mathis said. “And it’s also a challenge.”
“We knew when we bought WyoTech that we had a little bit of rebranding and building that brand back up, and we still do,” Mathis said. “But we chose not to change the name. We believe in the history of the WyoTech brand with our 55,000 graduates, soon to be 650 students on campus. I eat, breathe, and sleep WyoTech, and always have. I spent 26 years there, from a student to the president the first time, so I thought, ‘You know, we’re gonna rebuild this brand.’”
WyoTech has three core programs to choose from, which are automotive, diesel, and collision/refinishing.
“A student selects between one of those three programs, then we have six specialty programs, and a student has to select from one of the six specialties. The program lasts nine months and our students go to school eight hours and 20 minutes a day, so we’re highly concentrated,” Mathis said.
All of the specialties are automotive related. Students are required to pick one, but some enjoy the learning so much they pick multiple specialties. Taking business management with one of the three core programs allows students to earn an associate’s degree.
“Our specialties are high-performance engines, chassis fabrication, trim and upholstery, business management, street rod building and then advanced diesel,” Mathis explained. “Some students choose one or two additional specialties, because they get so passionate and so excited about what they’re learning, that they want to take more.”
The demographic of students who attend WyoTech are very motivated, dedicated, and professional.
“Basically, we have two demographics. One is military students, making approximately 10% of our student body. Then the majority are graduates out of high school. The good thing about WyoTech is we have short programs, we’re highly concentrated, we have a very high professionalism standard,” Mathis said. “Our students have to be clean-shaven every day, have to have haircuts, we don’t allow earrings, nose rings, tongue rings, they have to wear a uniform shirt, work pants, work boots. We’re very serious about the training of our students.
Besides a high professional standard, students need to have a good support system to be able to be successful.
We appreciate the parents support,” Mathis explained. “Again, 90% of our students are 19-20 years old and support for their son or daughter emotionally as well as financially is imperative.”
Another thing that differentiates WyoTech from most schools is the population of students are mostly from out of state, which requires a different approach for recruitment.
“We figured 94% of our students come from out of state. Our typical student is a 19-year-old student that’s traveled on average of about 1000 miles with parent support to come live in our campus housing,” Mathis said.
“[For recruitment] we have field representatives in various states. Currently, we have approximately 25 admissions representatives located in approximately 20 states. Each interested student is interviewed with their parent(s), signs an application with a $100 application fee. They have to sign that they agree to our professionalism code right up front. We like to be very upfront with all students of our standards and our requirements and our attendance policy; you can’t miss over 10% of your attendance in any given six-week phase.”
WyoTech has active plans for expanding right in Laramie.
“As we add population to our existing facilities, we’ve signed a contract to add on another 90,000 square feet and we also bought 70 acres across the street,” Mathis said. “We do an awesome job for a destination school, we have our own housing, we have our own student services that treat these students like gold with everything from basketball, intramural sports, to skiing trips, to snowmobiling, whatever the students want. We’re very good at it, and our graduation rates and student satisfaction are very high, but I want it out of this world. So on the 70 acres, as we grow we want to do even more for our students in the future, so it’s an experience they’ll never forget.”
Mathis and the team’s goal is to enroll 10,000 students at some point, while still keeping class sizes small, so they plan on using the 70 acres to create more buildings and more classrooms. They also have a goal of keeping the student experience unique and fun.
“[Our dorms] are right on campus so students can walk to school. Right now our housing will hold approximately 650 students. We have very nice-looking apartment style living units. There are four-man units and two-man units. Two people share a bathroom and then the living room and kitchen is in the center,” Mathis said.
Besides being a big part of the town’s economy, WyoTech is also a major contributor of student graduates for industry and one of the largest employers in Laramie.