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One year of high school German never struck a chord with Greg Greuel, who didn't like the rote learning. Long after saying auf wiedersehen to learning foreign tongues, he is now in the business of producing textbooks — in digital and print — for secondary school language instruction.
“We're trying to help teachers help their students become more, and better, aware of their surroundings, and how do you do that? You do that through immersive communication,” says Greuel, president of Wayside Publishing in Freeport.
In practice, that means a textbook would reference an authentic poster about a concert or other event that took place in a Spanish-speaking country — “not just something that's made up in the classroom, but something that is authentically from whatever region it is that you're studying,” he says. “All of these things and more are combined in our text. No other publisher has that, and it's all based on the latest research.”
Wayside's new Spanish 1-2-3 series, “EntreCulturas” (Between Cultures), which came out this spring, is its first based on standards put out by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages in 2015. In its World Readiness Standards for Learning Languages, the Alexandria, Va.-based group stresses interpersonal and interpretive communication over vocabulary lists, grammar exercises and verb conjugations like the ones that were a turnoff for Greuel back in high school.
“I had nothing against the teacher, but I think it comes back to the approach of how to learn,” he says. “It just didn't connect with me, the rote memorization.”
Wayside Publishing, the company he bought from his uncle in 2010 when it was a one-man regional operation with $500,000 in annual sales, employs 18 people in Freeport with plans to hire eight more this year, mainly in sales and marketing. The fast-growing company has gotten large orders from Illinois, Florida, Texas and California, and expects $7 million in sales this year.
A U.S. Navy veteran with a background in information technology, the 50-year-old moved the company from Cape Cod to Maine when he bought it. He still runs it like a startup, launching new products “as fast as we can.”
Brunswick High School teacher Jane Lienau, who penned Wayside's newly released Latin textbook, says that she wishes that she had had better resources when she started teaching 25 years ago.
“Wayside tries very hard with its textbooks to make sure that the resources are available for all teachers that tend to be a part of our goals anyway.” Her book aims to prepare students for the sight-reading portion of the Advanced Placement Latin test.
Wayside focuses on grades six to 12. Spanish textbooks account for 60% of its revenues, a reflection of the language's popularity across the country. Two recent surveys cited by Education Week show 62.91% of K-12 students enrolled in Spanish in 2014-15, far outshining French and German, No. 2 and No. 3, respectively (see chart on Page 28). Besides Spanish and Latin, Wayside has titles in French, Italian, German, English and history. It also offers a line of e-books, FlexText, and an online learning platform, Explorer.
“Print is not dead, Greuel says, “it's just part of the package.”
Despite being the son of two teachers, Greuel was never drawn to the profession. Born on Kwajalein Island in the South Pacific, he has fond childhood memories of “fantastic fireworks displays,” which in reality were Cold War-era ballistic-missile tests. He later lived with his family in northern Minnesota until college. He studied management information systems on a Reserve Officers Training Corps scholarship at the University of Notre Dame, before going on to earn an MBA from Colorado State University. He spent 10 years with the U.S. Navy, first in Brunswick, where he met his wife, Amy, and then La Roda, Spain.
“The Navy gave me a great foundation for leadership and management,” says Greuel, who later applied those skills in the IT departments at Wright Express in South Portland (now WEX Inc.) and then L.L.Bean in Freeport for more than a decade. Around the time Greuel was looking to do something different, his uncle — a history major at Harvard — was looking for someone to buy his publishing business that focused on history, English and world languages. The company is named for Longfellow's Wayside Inn in Sudbury, Mass., the oldest operating inn in the U.S. Greuel thinks his uncle chose the name because of his background in humanities.
Greuel and his wife decided to go for it, and moved everything in four U-Haul trucks from Massachusetts to a small office in Yarmouth, where he “quickly learned the art of email marketing and launched a new product, an AP Spanish literature text … You don't get much more specialized than that.”
While keeping history and English, the new owners focused mainly on languages “because we've been able to find and create products in that line that really resonate with our customers,” says Greuel. “That's where we've been the most successful.”
But running a business with seasonal expenses and new product launches can be expensive. For help along the way, Greuel has turned to Bath Savings Institution and the U.S. Small Business Administration. Both are impressed with his commitment and business acumen.
“He's very diligent, his projections are very well thought out in terms of his assumptions, and he tends to be very conservative when it comes to taking on debt, in a thoughtful and deliberate way,” says Mara K. Pennell, vice president for commercial lending at Bath Savings. “He's really put a lot of effort into not just the financial aspects, but also the sales and development aspects.”
In 2015, Bath Savings provided Wayside Publishing with an $800,000 SBA guaranteed term loan, followed in 2017 by an $850,00 line of credit guaranteed through the SBA's little-known Seasonal CAPline program, designed to help businesses with seasonal costs. As a veteran, Greuel also qualified for a fee reduction through the SBA's Veterans Advantage program.
“We never in a million years would have thought of the publishing industry as seasonal, but when Mara from Bath Savings explained Wayside deals primarily with schools, the Seasonal CAPline program jumped out at us as a perfect fit,” says Diane L. Sturgeon, deputy district director with the SBA Maine District Office in Augusta.
Pennell says she and her colleagues will keep working with Wayside as it keeps growing. “The amount of growth they have seen in the last five years is just astounding, even in the last two years,” she says. “Their approach to foreign-language learning is starkly different from the way it' been taught in the past, which is very exciting.”
Though Greuel has yet to pay back the most recent loan, as well as pay himself back, he has no regrets about putting all profits back into the business. “My philosophy is that if you hire the right people, if you do the right things, if you create great products for your customers, then everything is going to work out for you. I see that happening right now. I've got a fantastic team.”
That team includes his wife, Amy, in charge of accounting and travel for the sales and marketing team; 18 employees in Freeport handling customer services, shipping/order fulfillment, human resources, IT support and software development, graphic decision, editing, instructional training and marketing; and about 80 authors who work as independent contractors paid by royalties. It outgrew its cramped Yarmouth office long ago, moving to Freeport in 2015 to a 10,000-square-foot space on U.S. Route 1, in a space formerly occupied by retailer J.L. Coombs.
Though Greuel declined to reveal customer names, he says the company concentrates on populous states with an interest in language learning and sells to individual schools as well as districts. Buyers can order directly from Wayside or Amazon.com. The company shipped new orders to Texas this summer after being selected through the state's recent review and adoption process of instructional materials from different publishers.
Wayside is also looking to ramp up sales of digital materials, which it began offering this year as bundles comprising printed textbooks that stay in the classroom for six years with annual subscriptions to FlexText and its Explorer platform.
“We've built a platform to enable us to deliver to our customers whatever they want in whatever way that they want,” says Greuel. He jokes that he hasn't yet used the materials himself to learn another language, which his authors like to tease him about. “The time to run a business is all-consuming,” he says.