After 30 Years of Experimenting, an Education Franchise Is Finally at the Top of the Class
The owner of The Learning Experience explains how his plan for small, sustained growth slowly grew into a robust franchise operation with a national presence.
Richard Weissman knows the value of a good lesson. In 1980, when his parents opened The Learning Experience, a private preschool in Boca Raton, Fla., he learned about hard work, spending his after-school hours mopping floors and cleaning toilets. In 1987, after co-founding a new learning center franchise concept, Tutor Time, with his parents, he learned about the perils of rapid growth: Success came quickly, too quickly to manage, and by 1999 the Weissmans were no longer running the business. Weissman moved on to a less-than-satisfying stint in private equity, where he concluded that his business roots still rested with business ownership and education. That was why, in 2001, he set out to revive his parents’ original brand, The Learning Experience, with a handful of locations. But his plan for small, sustained growth slowly grew into a robust franchise operation with a national presence. And this time, the CEO is older, wiser and smartly managing growth.
You planned to open just a few locations but now have 200 centers and are franchising again. What changed?
I thought four or five successful preschools could be a nice life. We built a fairly large organization with Tutor Time the last time around, and I thought this was the time to manage expectations. But as soon as I got started, I realized it wasn’t in my blood to facilitate a small company. We started franchising The Learning Experience in 2003, and my goal was to be the dominant preschool company for New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. But because of entitlements, zoning and site plan approvals, our schools were taking years to build. We had to look at a larger footprint to facilitate growth.
But the financial crisis threw a wrench in your plans.
In 2007, we had 27 locations and $17 million in revenue with pretty significant growth in front of us. I have been in this business some 30-odd years and had seen multiple recessionary markets. But when you’re in the middle of it, you always feel that’s the worst of times. If franchisees believed that they weren’t going to do well, then they weren’t going to invest in their centers.
How did you convince them success was still possible?
There was a sign on our door at corporate that said no negatives beyond this point. We had to lead by example. We put videoconferencing and instant messaging in all our centers and started daily marketing calls. We brought everyone to a convention -- and spent a fortune -- just so I could tell them our story. We provided working capital loans to franchisees, but you had to do it our way. We drove the engine.
That’s a lot of investment to make during a downturn. Did you find places to cut costs?
The overall costs in the tristate market were significant in terms of taxes, living expenses and hiring talent. So in 2009, I relocated the entire headquarters to South Florida. I had historical talent to recruit there, since that’s where our earlier operations were based.
How did franchisees respond to the added oversight?
At the time, about 35 percent of the system was company-owned -- and that’s unusual. So when a franchisee would say, “I can’t do it,” I would say, “Look at corporate stores and what we’re doing. We’re maintaining payroll. We’re maintaining marketing.” A franchisee can’t tell you you’re wrong if you’ve already proved it. And now the franchisees are doing as well or better than our corporate centers. The changes really proved the model and made us better.