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From 'manny' to CEO

Joe Keeley turned his summer job into a franchise


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One summer while attending the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, Joe Keeley needed money. So he took a job as a nanny watching two young boys and their sister. "A manny, if you will," he joked.

 

The boys were impressed that he played hockey, and he became a role model. That's when he realized he was offering a unique service, something other college students and teachers could also do.

He was taking a class on franchising taught by Cheryl Babcock, "That began my love affair with the franchise world," Keeley said.

By 2000, he had begun to develop a business model to place nannies with families. He began to envision how he could create a "replicable model using college nannies and the family platform."

Then in 2003, after graduating with a degree in entrepreneurship, he received the Global Student Entrepreneur of the Year award. He attended a dinner where he met Peter Lytle, 59, a former teacher and managing partner of the suburban Minneapolis investment firm Business Development Group. Keeley made such a good first impression on Lytle, he became Keeley's mentor. "He's focused. He has tremendous passion," Lytle said.

Lytle, who is now executive chairman of the board of College Nannies and Tutors, was also impressed by Keeley's business model, and they agreed to go into business together. They eventually became partners in Franchise Development Group, a development company for their franchise concepts.

 

Joe Keeley

When entrepreneurs spoke during his college classes, Joe Keeley took the advice.

Lytle had developed a "predictable model," which could forecast a particular business's chances of success. When he applied it to Keeley's plan, it predicted it would work.

Keeley, with the help of Lytle, developed an efficient way to recruit, interview, screen and place nannies and tutors. "Our clients are busy parentsÉeducated parents that value their time and invest in their children through childcare and education," Keeley said. "What excited me is creating a replicable model and rolling something out across the country. I see franchising as the perfect vehicle to accomplish this."

Babcock, who now directs the International Institute for Franchise Education at the Wayne Huizenga School of Business and Entrepreneurship at Nova Southeast University in Florida, is not surprised at Keeley's success at such an early age.

She says Keeley stood out because of his ravenous appetite for information. She would often invite people from the business world to talk to her class about their experiences, and when they did, Keeley took advantage of it.

"He was one of those students who would ask all the questions, would talk to them afterwards, would take advantage of the offer to have coffee with them. He asked about what you need to do, and how you're going to do it, " she said.

At the time, he was trying to build his nanny business. She encouraged him to put more "silver," in his business - meaning someone older, with more experience - and he listened, bringing Lytle into the picture.

Keeley, now 28, is not afraid to try something he believes in. "Too many people have ideas and they never try them. You have to believe in yourself," Babcock said. "Joe cares a lot about people and that's why I thought he would be a good franchisor. He is very careful and disciplined in his approach."

Keeley spends 75 percent of his time in a "leadership" role, running the franchise system and developing new concepts for companies.

"I love to see people cultivate and achieve their visions, and I love being able to do that myself. Being a franchisor allows me to grow a business myself, and allows me to do that with other people," he said.

Keeley would describe himself as intense, though he comes across as calm, focused and articulate, even warm and friendly in an interview. "If I'm going to do something, I'm going to do my best to do it right. I strive for excellence," he said.

He wants his franchisees to have that same kind of focus and intensity. "Someone who has that fire in the belly," he said.

Franchisee input

Keeley's youth is what appealed to Adrian Niles, who has been a franchisee for more than two years. "He was a great guy. It was great to see this young guy with the concept of building the business. It's very appealing to marry the two components," Niles said. (See the Niles's story on the next page.)

Jere Edlund, 33, is managing owner of the Maple Grove Learning Center in suburban Minneapolis. He said Keeley's approach was a refreshing change from public schools. He had been a counselor for the St. Michael-Albertville schools in suburban Minneapolis, and had worked as a counselor for Keeley. When Keeley started to sell franchises, he offered Edlund the chance to buy a franchise. Edlund took him up on it.

"I got sick and tired of the school rat race, and the fact that we knew Joe made the decision much easier," he said. "His vision and my vision are fairly well-aligned.

"We're a very new company. We're learning as we go, and I like having someone around to give me a thumbs-up or thumbs-down."

That's how Keeley sizes up his role as a franchisor: "We're able to bring the vision and give them the concept," he said. "But for the business model to be successful, they still have to make it work. I get to help them articulate and achieve the vision we're pursuing. I get to be a business coach. That's very rewarding. Everyone who comes in as a franchisee generally wants to succeed. I identify what success means to them and give the tools that enable them to articulate their success."

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