Franchise Players is Entrepreneur's Q&A interview column that puts the spotlight on franchisees. If you're a franchisee with advice and tips to share, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
It was the kind of horrific incident that gives parents nightmares: Howard Berkowitz and his wife's son was face-down in the water in their backyard pool. "I thought my wife had my son, and she thought I had him," Berkowitz remembers. They got to the boy in time. But that scare convinced the businessman -- who still owns a greeting-card shop -- to look for a way to teach children not just swimming strokes, but water survival. He found exactly what he was seeking in the British Swim School franchise system. And, today, he draws satisfaction from knowing that he's actively helping other parents avoid any backyard tragedies of their own.
Name: Howard Berkowitz
Franchise owned: I own four franchise territories with the British Swim School, and 10 locations within those territories. My Florida locations are in Lake Worth, West Palm Beach, Boynton Beach, Deerfield Beach, Wellington, Boca Raton East and Delray Beach. And my Long Island, New York, locations are in Lindenhurst, Farmingdale and Levittown.
How long have you owned a franchise?
I have owned my franchise for three years.
Five years ago, if you had asked me, I would have never thought that today I would own a swim-school franchise, but that was before my life changed. As typical near-drowning incidents go, one minute everything was fine, and the next it was not. I thought my wife had my son, and she thought I had him -- and the next thing we knew, he was face-down in the water.
We were very lucky that day, in that my son survived, but I knew that the [life and death] difference was only a few seconds. After that experience, I knew that I wanted to get involved in a business [devoted to] preventing drownings for children across the country. When I found British Swim School, the fit was perfect. I saw the benefit that came with the business plan -- that came along with the opportunity and the structure that they follow.
What were you doing before you became a franchise owner?
I was working at my greeting card business, which I still own. I like to think of it as, no matter which job I’m doing, I’m brightening someone’s day -- whether it’s a smile that comes from a greeting card or the peace of mind that comes from knowing your children are safe from a drowning incident.
Why did you choose this particular franchise?
When we had our experience with my son, initially, we hired a swim instructor to come to our backyard to give him swim lessons, but that did not work. It rained often and so the lessons were not consistent and they were "swim lessons" rather than "water survival" lessons. Once I found British Swim School, the difference between the two concepts was night and day.
I really liked that British Swim School focuses first on water survival, as opposed to swimming skills. Other swim schools focus solely on teaching the swim strokes, but British Swim School first teaches water survival; and only once the child is competent in the water do we begin teaching the strokes. It is one thing to teach a child the swimming strokes, but first every child needs to learn how to survive in the event of an emergency.
I also really enjoy the variety of ages that we teach. Water survival can be taught at a much younger age than swim strokes because it does not require the neck muscles to be strong yet. At British Swim School, we start infants as young as 3 months old.
How much would you estimate you spent before you were officially open for business?
After all was said and done, my investment was around $75,000. The costs for an aquatics business are much lower because British Swim School does not require its franchisees to build a pool. My investment covered the franchise fee, marketing costs and the salary of my aquatics manager.
Where did you get most of your advice/do most of your research?
I talked to family and friends as well as the local preschools to see if they had heard of any good companies along similar lines of what I was looking for.
What were the most unexpected challenges of opening your franchise?
The challenges I faced were a result of my own mistake not to follow the franchise system that was put in place. If I had listened to the advice given to me by the corporate team right off the bat, it would have saved me a lot of headaches. Now, I have learned to follow the proven franchise system that British Swim School created and it has helped my business grow drastically.
What is next for you and your business?
My plan is to open four more territories in the next year, to double what I have now. Currently, I am offering lessons in 10 locations and I hope to be offering lessons in 20 locations by next year.