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For the Good of the Children

Economics and changing family structures make the future bright for these nurturing franchises.

While working as a sales manager for World Book Encyclopedia, Latrice Lee created the Letter People, a group that would go into schools to teach kids pre-reading skills. Lee's Letter Person (the character she would appear as) was Miss E, a woman who loved exercise, dressed in warm-up suits and leg warmers, and wore a shirt that said "Enjoy"-all to teach children about the short "e" sound.

During Lee's school visits, children would run toward her and ask, "Miss E, Miss E, are we going to exercise today?" Amazed by the response, Lee came up with an idea: Why not teach exercise to children full time?

"I started interviewing, researching and talking to pediatricians, school social workers, reading specialists, anyone who had anything to do with children and/or education. And I found that not only was it a good idea, it was something children needed," Lee explains. In 1988, armed with her good idea and the research to back it up, Lee started Pre-Fit, a franchise that teaches exercise to children in schools and day-care centers. She says she was "bowled over" by the positive response from preschool and day-care center operators.

Like many other entrepreneurs, Lee found out that businesses that offer a little extra to children, whether it be physical, artistic, musical or even scientific, are finding a captive audience in children and willing backers in parents. In fact, many franchises are capitalizing on this growing demand. Kid-oriented entrepreneurs interested in buying a franchise now have a variety of opportunities to choose from. What's more, many of these franchisors don't see this so much as a fad, but as a long-term need of enthusiastic parents.

But why are parents so eager to sign up their children for these programs? J.W. Tumbles founder Jeffrey Woods says they're motivated by a reduction of funding for physical education programs in schools and increased inactivity in children. "I know there's a need for this," says Woods, who started his children's gym franchise in 1985, offering gymnastics and sports skills classes to children.

For J.W. Tumbles franchisees, the goal is not just to get kids moving-it's to build their self-esteem as well. "That enriches kids' lives; it really makes a dent," says Woods. "That's really the goal: to make the kids feel good about themselves."

That goal also appeals to Carole Hickey, an Odyssey Art Centers franchisee in Tarrytown, New York. Since 1995, the marketing veteran has taught art and art history to children ages 3 to 12. Hickey's classes meet once a week for 10 weeks and hold an art show at the end of the session. "The shows are very, very special," Hickey says. "The kids are thrilled."

Because schools are cutting funding for art programs from their budgets, parents are happy to send their kids to classes at Odyssey Art Centers or to Young Rembrandts, a franchise that teaches drawing. Again, the satisfaction of owning such a franchise has to do with more than just the bottom line. "Art is one of the most important things you can teach, because it really is a window into a culture," explains Linda Perlmutter, an art supervisor who started Odyssey Art Centers in 1973.

And parents are willing to spend money to give their children the physical, mental and emotional bonuses offered by these programs, despite the state of the economy. "As we see the economy shrink, more people are [still] going to come up with the money necessary to send kids through special programs," predicts Jerry Wilkerson, president of consulting firm Franchise Recruiters Ltd. "Parents want to give their children every advantage they can possibly afford."

Bette Fetter, founder of Young Rembrandts, has seen her franchise benefit from these desires. "Our whole lifestyle is built on being more convenient for faster-paced families, so more services are going to work around what families find convenient and the disposable dollars families have for educating and entertaining their kids," she says.

But it's not just parents signing the checks-grandparents are also getting into the act. "Grandparents have a lot to do with this [trend]. They see their children not able to send their grandchildren through channels they think are necessary to prepare them for life's journey, and a lot of them today are picking up the expenses," Wilkerson says.

Lee agrees, saying many customers are signing their grandchildren up for her franchise's program. "As grandparents, we have a second chance to influence the development of a child. Therefore, we lean toward helping out at every level," she says. "We look for the newest activities, investigate the latest trends and invest dollars in our grandchildren's future."

Those keeping tabs on children's enrichment franchises are realizing that though this segment is a hot trend, it's not a flash in the pan, because there will always be adults willing to teach and children available to learn.

The significance of this type of business inspires many franchisees. "When I was growing up, teachers were very important to me. They were role models; they had an influence," Hickey says. "I wanted that opportunity to then also relate to and influence children."

And, as Wilkerson points out, there will never be a shortage of children. "The marketplace is vast. We're not going to stop having kids, and we're not going to stop needing educational programs," he says. "It just isn't going to go away. It will always be a fundamental [need]."

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