Two education brands talk teaching
Eileen Huntington, center back, with some of her Huntington Learning Center students. She and her husband, Ray, co-founded the tutoring business more than 40 years ago.
The roots of Eileen Huntington’s education career started early. “I’m the child of immigrants from Ireland and they both valued education,” says the CEO and co-founder of Huntington Learning Center, a tutoring franchise started by Eileen and her husband, Ray, 41 years ago. Growing up in the Bronx as the youngest child in her family, “I was the first one to go to college.”
She was teaching high school history and in her 20s when they decided to open their first center, spurred to do so because she had a number of students struggling with basic reading and math skills. She quit her teaching job in 1977, and everyone said, ‘How could you’ leave a stable profession to start a tutoring business, something that was new at the time. In 1978 Ray left his job as a business analyst, and in the next eight years they opened 18 centers in New York. “We did it all out of cash flow,” she recalls today.
Huntington was named Entrepreneur of the Year by the International Franchise Association in February, and we caught up with her at the annual convention in Phoenix to learn about her brand’s growth. Then we contacted another legacy player in the education space, although in a different niche—The Goddard School—to report changes over several decades in family education franchising.
Relying on stats
Eileen Huntington likes to rattle off statistics, something she relies upon heavily to build the company in part because of her husband’s background, in part because of her orientation as an educator. “It’s remarkable to think back, we were at the start of a new industry,” she said about the tutoring business.
She knows how much SAT and ACT scores increase for Huntington students; how much reading proficiency grows; how much in college scholarships her brand’s students receive on average, to name just a few. “When you have those kinds of results—the parents talk to each other,” she said. “Parents will do anything for their kids. If a child is falling behind, it affects the whole family.”
Huntington Learning Center started franchising in 1985. In 2007, Huntington was as strong as 400 units awarded, “and then the bottom fell out of everything and through 2009 to 2012, we got as low as 200 units,” said Lisa Merry, COO of Huntington, at a franchisor conference last fall. “We had quite a few units that closed, and the primary driver of that was unit-level economics. If that franchise owner can’t survive through a down time, that can lead to death for a brand.”
Eileen Huntington says the mature franchisees did fine during that time because they understood they could grow market share. “A lot of them prospered,” she said, as did corporate-owned stores. “But we had a lot of immature franchisees, and people really panicked. We all thought the country was going into a depression. The new franchisees did pause and said, ‘I’m not putting money in.’
“We had to step back and say, ‘Do they need as much square footage?’ 1,200 square feet versus 2,000 square feet makes a big difference,” and the brand started allowing different and smaller footprints. “We allowed people to open part-time” if they wished to, and the required marketing spend was reduced at the beginning to allow time for a more natural ramp-up.
Said Merry, all the changes “made a big difference,” such as taking average rent from $7,000 a month to $2,500 to $3,000. “In the last three years, we’ve hit our stride again,” said Merry, adding last November, “we just awarded unit No. 300, so we are back on our way to hitting 400 and then 500.”
Eileen Huntington believes she has the infrastructure in place to keep the growth going. “We will be able to double in five years with what we have in place,” she said, and ends on a philosophical note. “In business it’s ups and downs. We’ve been in it 40 years,” the same as the life span of an average Fortune 500 company, she said, proving that long-ago bet on a new tutoring company earns an A+.
The Goddard School provides care and education for preschool children and this year will celebrate 30 years of doing so. These days the interest in early childhood development goes up much higher on the radar.
“It’s not unusual to hear that when big employers are considering moving their headquarters, they do now look down into elementary and preschool, because that’s where their future employees are coming from,” said Joe Schumacher, CEO of the brand his late brother-in-law, Tony Martino, started 30 years ago. (Martino was also the founder of automotive franchises Maaco and AAMCO.)
It’s a far cry from three decades ago, when more and more women were entering the workforce and the idea of daycare was new. “Our concept, which again 30 years ago was not understood, is the idea of learning through play,” said Schumacher.
At first, people didn’t necessarily buy it. “We used to half-facetiously talk about the dad who says, ‘My son plays all day at home. Why should I pay you to have him play there?’ We have results from outside organizations, we have results from our own longitudinal studies” reinforcing the idea, he said, not to mention nationwide accreditation organizations, state initiatives to expand preschool education, and widespread reports outlining the benefits of high-quality early childhood education.
Goddard rolled out last year an Education Improvement Plan, which is a “very detailed way” for each franchisee to assess “where their program is at the moment, and in coordination with our education support specialists, to plan where they want to go, over what period of time, and what they need to get there,” he said.
One goal is for units to reach “exemplar school” status, an initiative sponsored by the Partnership for 21st Century Learning. Schumacher describes its focus as “making sure that children are learning the soft skills, not just reading and math—communication, creativity, problem-solving,” he said.
“For instance, college engineering graduates might be fabulous engineers but unable to work with others, and these are the types of things the organization is trying to focus on.” Twelve Goddard schools are designated as P21 Exemplar Schools, with more reaching for the goal.
Goddard has 481 schools, 100 percent of them franchised, and is on pace to have 500 schools opened this year. While Schumacher acknowledges there’s plenty of competition, he believes the more high-quality players the merrier.
“If we’re competing with other high-quality providers, whether they be franchised or not, that’s really good for everybody. Everybody has a slightly different program and approach, and some families will like one approach over the other, but there are plenty of folks who are interested in the service.”
More worrisome, he said, is lower-quality providers and “folks who don’t make the investments to make sure the health and safety safeguards are there and the program is a true and viable program.” He expects Goddard to lead the way in that quest for high standards for years to come.