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The Learning Experience

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“We will be a World Player”
Quality system, ambition fuel success at The Learning Experience

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Click to view Brochure

It was a powerful reason for a significant decision.

Though Richard Weissman was a capable Wall Street mover and shaker in the late summer of 2001, the events of an unforgettably awful Tuesday morning left an indelible mark.

“I was in the investment banking business and it was just after Sept. 11,” he said. “Being an investment banker on Wall Street then was a nightmare time. So I made a decision at that point that I was going to take a change in life direction.”

And in doing so, he took his career forward by looking into the past.

It was multi-faceted return to old ground for the now 50-year-old Weissman, who was born in New Jersey but spent his high-school years in Florida as his parents, Michael and Linda, were immersed in a similar business that they’d started in 1980. Weissman worked there while performing janitorial and other tasks before heading off to college with plans of a career in investment banking.

Instead, he decided to return in 1987 to Florida and joined with his parents in the preschool fray, where they formed a company called Tutor Time that ultimately grew to more than 200 locations. His father sold his interest in the business and retired as chairman in 1997, and Weissman stayed on an additional two years before exiting in 1999 as president.

A non-compete clause sent Weissman back into his banking career field, but, when the New York skyline was permanently altered, the time was suddenly right for a return to familiar turf.

“I went to my father and said, ‘I’m going back into the preschool business,’” Weissman said. “My father and mother were enjoying semi-retirement when I asked them for their help and made a promise to them that I ultimately didn’t keep. That promise was that we would start small and just keep it small. But I just think there’s something in our family blood to grow a business. My father always tells the story that I promised him I would only build four to six locations for the family and that it would be a great business and a great way to make a living and make our lives easy.”

But he didn’t do that.

The second incarnation of the business – which took back “The Learning Experience” name that Weissman’s parents had initially coined for their first operation – now has 200 locations, including 130 that are operating and 70 that are in some form of development, which encompasses zoning, site-plan approval, under construction or just about to open.

“Twenty-five of those 70 will open in 2014,” Weissman said.

“About 15 percent of the locations are company-owned and run, while another 15 percent are owned by franchisees and managed from day-to-day by the company. The remaining 70 percent are entirely owner-operated franchise businesses,” Weissman said.

“What we do just doesn’t exist in our competitors,” he said.

“In the childcare industry, you’re either 100-percent franchised or 100-percent company-owned. There really is not a mix of company-owned and franchised. We’re it. We use it as an opportunity to be able to always have core talent that knows how to manage company stores, which is very different than managing franchisees, and as long as we remain good operators we can continue that mix. Whether that mix goes to 50/50 or 80/20, it allows us the opportunity to always retain control our own destiny.”

A typical franchise location will employ around 35 people – full and part time combined – at its maturity. And regardless of where an operation is located, the overriding company philosophy is that the building’s interior will be the same trade-dress – allowing for local variations in building regulations and square footage, among others. Beyond that, though, the logos, design systems and colorings are uniform.

All franchisees are required to update their location(s) every five years to meet the company’s latest brand standards, so variation is also possible depending on where in the improvement cycle in a location might be.

Ninety percent of the locations are in freestanding buildings that were built specifically to house a Learning Experience facility. The other 10 percent occupy ground-floor space in office building or condo complexes, and only in areas where real estate conditions preclude new construction (urban locations such as Manhattan and downtown Miami).

“Other than the skin on the outside of the building, they’re all identical,” Weissman said. “We will never buy someone else’s childcare center. We believe brand drives occupancy and creates the most consistency to the customer. Therefore, our centers are designed to be identical, from the four walls to the curriculum, so that nationwide we are representative of our core values and teaching excellence.”

Market selection is made based on a demographic formula that takes several factors into account, including the density of age-group population, traffic flows and ease of access to main roads.

Ideal franchisees, on the other hand, are typically those who, in Weissman’s words, are not averse to following a system. Parties with an excess of entrepreneurial zeal are typically not the best fits, he said, and neither is someone who’s worked previously in another childcare environment.

College degrees and experience in large corporations are desirable. The financial threshold is $150,000 in readily available cash, and the ability to finance the remainder of what’s typically an upfront cost of $500,000 to get a business started, for a leased location.

“We look at owner-operators,” he said. “The perfect franchisee, if there’s such a thing as perfection, is a husband and wife or significant other, where one of them is going to work at and run the center during the ramp-up stage while the other is going to maintain his/her existing job. Additionally, our typically franchisee doesn’t necessarily need the income from the childcare center as one of owners would provide income to put food on the table while they’re ramping up for the opening of their childcare center. Ideally, once the center is profitable we like them both working in the center or opening their next unit.”

As for the future, Weissman is expecting big things both through the advancement of proprietary curriculum that’s taught at each of the locations – as well as through expansion overseas.

And within five years, he said, the company will have secured franchise agreements in England, China, Mexico and the Dominican Republic, among other destinations.

“Five years from today, we will be a world player,” he said. “We may not be the largest, but we will be dominant in industry changing events. And, that’s where our focus is on today.”

AT A GLANCE

WHO: The Learning Experience
WHAT: Chain of franchised child development centers offering childcare, day care, kindergarten and preschool services

WHERE: 130 locations currently operating; 70 more in various stages of development process – 25 expected to open by the end of 2014

WEBSITE: www.TheLearningExperience.com

Short URL: http://www.businessworld-magazine.com/?p=3391

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