Ottawa's Willis College eyes Prairie expansion under new CEO

Henry and Rima
Willis College president and CEO Henry Devin and chairwoman Rima Aristocrat are eyeing a national expansion plan for the Ottawa-based private college. Photo courtesy Willis College

One of Ottawa’s largest private career colleges is embarking on an aggressive plan to expand to other provinces under a new leader who says he has “a track record of putting schools on steroids and building them.”

Willis College president and CEO Henry Devin, who joined the institution last year and took over as chief executive this summer, told OBJ in a recent interview the school expects to open two new brick-and-mortar campuses in Manitoba and Alberta next year. He said the college is also poised to beef up its online offerings as more students turn to remote learning during the pandemic.

Devlin, who is also the head of a private career college in Nova Scotia, says companies are increasingly looking to private colleges to train employees in very specific areas of focus such as cybersecurity. 

“Sometimes at our public institutions, they can’t act as quick or be as agile with their content,” he said.

Devlin also runs a company that provides consulting and marketing services to private colleges and makes software that helps schools manage their operations. He said private colleges often work closely with private enterprises to ensure courses are providing them with the real-world knowledge and tools to succeed in the workforce.

Willis, for example, partners with several major international firms ​– including Israel’s Check Point Software, California-based Fortinet and British company Sophos ​– to offer a variety of cybersecurity programs.

“It’s imperative that in one year, we’re developing skills that employers need,” Devlin explained. “I do think there’s a very niche (market) for private colleges.”

Founded in 1866, Willis College now has a total of about 1,200 students in three locations ​– its main campus at the St. Laurent Shopping Centre as well as satellite campuses in Arnprior and Winnipeg. Willis expanded to the Manitoba capital last year after acquiring a private photography school and adding business and health courses to its offerings.

Devlin predicts Willis could be delivering programs to as many as 5,000 students within the next few years, adding the college is also exploring the idea of opening up its online courses to students outside the country.

Coast-to-coast vision

Former Willis College CEO Rima Aristocrat, who ran the school for more than 30 years and is now chairing its board of directors, said she believes Willis could one day have a presence from coast to coast.

“Henry will now take everything that Willis has done (to) a national level,” she said.

In addition, the school’s leaders are hoping a new partnership with the Canadian military will help further boost its profile as it prepares to build its brand on the national stage.

Willis recently won a five-year contract to offer a 15-month “boot camp” that will provide basic cybersecurity training to members of the Canadian Armed Forces. The first cohort is expected to begin in January and will likely include a mix of online and face-to-face sessions at Willis’s Ottawa campus.

Devlin said the military’s endorsement should give Willis a leg up as it sets up shop in new parts of the country.

“Having the credibility of a program like this that we can leverage and talk about, I think helps us when we go into markets that may not know Willis,” he said.