Don’t miss this recap of BlastPoint’s enlightening In The Spotlight webinar, featuring Chris Kelleher, VP of Franchise Development & Operations at Celebree School.
We recently asked our friend and franchise partner, Chris Kelleher, Vice President of Franchise Development and Operations at Celebree School, an early childhood education franchise based in Maryland, to join us for our new In The Spotlight Q&A series.
We are so thankful he agreed, because A) we absolutely love getting any chance to work alongside Chris and his team of compassionate, conscientious franchising experts, and B) because during our August 1st webinar he shared so many thought-provoking insights about franchise development that we know our readers will appreciate.
The webinar, hosted by BlastPoint’s very own Marketing and Customer Communications Manager, Marianne Holohan, included many valuable insights that we are honored to share, as we know you’re going to learn a lot!
Meet Chris Kelleher, Vice President of Franchise Development & Operations, Celebree School
With 20 years’ experience in business development, strategic planning, and operations management, Chris Kelleher has managed business development and operations in a variety of industries, including retail, consumer finance, professional placement, as well as several other professional service industries, and now he lends his expertise to Celebree, where he’s worked since 2016.
He’s a Certified Franchise Executive, as designated by the esteemed International Franchise Association, and also has a Certificate in Franchise Management from Georgetown University.
Prior to joining Celebree School, Chris was the Director of Franchise Operations for Medifast Weight Control Centers. He also owned his own company in the residential home inspection industry, so he can absolutely relate to anyone who’s venturing out on their own in business.
He’s focused his attention, however, on the franchise space exclusively for the last eight years, which is another reason we wanted him to join us: so he could tell all of you exactly why, and how, franchising is an excellent strategy for business development, and to find out whether it’s never too late to franchise.
Chris and his wife Jennifer live in Maryland, where they have two young boys, ages 5 and 7. The Kelleher family is active in their community and devote much of their free time volunteering for their local youth recreational sports programs.
Marianne Holohan (MH): Tell us a little bit about yourself and your current role at Celebree, and what made Celebree an exciting option for you.
Chris Kelleher (CK): I’m the Vice President of Franchise Development and Operations for Celebree, and my background is in building businesses, business efficiency, and strategy development. Early Childhood Education is a great industry to be in, not just because it’s such an important endeavor but also because it has incredible growth prospects.
And, just like any parent, it matters to me, because I have young children, ages 5 and 7. So I can relate to the need for quality childcare. My kids both attend Celebree Schools, so I have the benefit of seeing this business through the eyes of my children, as a parent, and of course as an employee. My children love it, as do my wife and I.
As far as what made it an exciting option for me to join the company: I knew that Celebree had a well-developed business model and a fantastic name in the marketplaces that they serve.
MH: Can you give us a brief overview of Celebree School, including how long the company has been around, your mission, etc.?
CK: Celebree has been in business for 25 years. We have 26 corporate schools throughout Maryland and Delaware. It might seem odd to have so many locations and now just getting into franchising in 2019, but throughout those 25 years, the founders were deliberate and patient about establishing a sound infrastructure, policies, and procedures that were replicable to allow for accelerated growth.
MH: What do you personally love about the service that Celebree provides?
CK: I love that our values have always been based on raising the quality of early childhood education, and that our focus is on developing top talent. We have a great leadership development program and a robust training facility for every new employee. When employees feel valued and trained, they bring the best of themselves to work every day, which creates an amazing experience for the families we serve.
MH: Can you say a little bit more about why finding the best talent is important to Celebree? How has it benefited you as a company?
CK: From my perspective, for any business to succeed, developing talent is of the utmost importance.
If you have a great franchise model, it’s possible that your employees could become your first franchisees. This is exactly what happened with our first franchisees, Katie and Michael Young. Katie is a long-time employee of Celebree who had tremendous potential and quickly moved up through the company. She is a prime example of top talent maturing into that franchisee role.
I can’t say enough about our folks who work in the classroom. I wouldn’t last two hours doing what they do! It’s just amazing, it’s magical to watch them and see their dedication and patience in how they develop children. I’m just in awe.
MH: Me too – I probably wouldn’t last two minutes in a preschool classroom! When did Celebree decide to begin franchising?
CK: We began quietly building the framework in 2016. We looked at the business model, organizational infrastructure and marketplace in great detail, and then began building a long term strategy towards launching the franchise opportunity in early 2019.
MH: What motivated this decision?
CK: Our CEO, Richie Huffman, has long since wanted to see this business expand through the success of other entrepreneurs who share the same passion for ECE that he does. We know we have an amazing model, and are very excited to see our franchisees enjoy the same success we have enjoyed; not just as a business from a financial sense, but also the business’s ability to make such a huge impact in the communities they serve.
MH: How did you know that it was time for you to begin franchising?
CK: As I mentioned, the decision to franchise preceded me, but I know that once the leadership team had a clear understanding of our position in the larger marketplace—our strengths, weaknesses and value proposition—we had a clear line of sight on how we would execute on our short and long term strategy.
I came on board with a business development background, and as the operations guy, I generally look at things very differently than the way, say, a sales manager would. So, we took a conservative and methodical approach to ensure everything was exactly in place the way it needed to be before we really got going on selling the business model.
MH: Do you think it’s ever too late for a business to start franchising?
CK: That’s a great question! I would say no. You do, however, need to decide which business you are in. In other words, running a franchise business and supporting franchisees is going to be a different business than the business you are currently running. At some point, you have to make a decision about whether you’re going to be involved in the direct functions of your business or growing the franchise model.
In our case, choose between focusing on growing the corporate childcare schools, or on franchising and supporting others’ growth of their schools. They’re two very different things that require very a different set of skills and objectives, so you have to decide which path you’re going to take.
Whichever path you choose, you’re going to have to think very differently, as you’ll be overseeing totally different programs and operations. With us, there’s a big difference between being in the classroom and having direct contact with parents and children, versus working on the business side of things.
“Running a franchise business and supporting franchisees is going to be a different business than the one you are currently running.”
MH: To potential franchisors who are listening, how do you think they can tell if it’s time for their business to begin franchising?
CK: The first question they should ask is: What business do they want to be in? If the answer is franchising, then they should assess their business against what I call the “3-leg stool test,” which involves asking yourself 3 questions:
- Do I have a product or service that is as good or superior to that of the industry?
- Do I have a marketplace that needs my product or service?
- Do I have the ability to execute and deliver my product or service better than my competitors?
And none of these questions is more important than any other. They’re equally critical to ask of yourself.
MH: Do you think that having an already established business and then franchising was an advantage over starting a new franchise concept from scratch?
CK: Yes, I do believe that’s an advantage. Certainly against other emerging franchise brands, because we can showcase our proven business model. 25 years in business and 26 schools gives us credibility and allows us to showcase our high level of expertise and experience.
MH: How did your business model need to change in order to franchise?
CK: For someone who’s considering becoming a franchisor, I would say again that you should look at the franchise business model as a separate business to your core business. Nearly all components of the core business should carry over, in terms of supporting the franchisee—with some exceptions.
You will need to put everything through what I call a “franchise filter.” For example, ask yourself,
- How will this business process need to work as a franchise?
- How will it be different than the way we currently execute?
– How will we support the franchisee in executing on the process?
- What does this or that aspect of my business mean for different territories, or for your franchisee’s employee training?
It’s a way to determine what will and will not work for the franchise aspect of a business.
MH: Talk about the process of franchise development, how that has gone for Celebree, and what advice you could give to others who are considering franchising.
CK: The first step is to make sure you know your own business. Understand your position in the marketplace. Then you build the business model, and that includes creating things like operations manuals, FDDs, support infrastructure, sales processes, and franchisee profiles. And you should build these components as a part of your strategy before you offer the franchise for sale.
Also, make sure you are capitalized sufficiently. Consider the cost of writing all of your business manuals, building sales and operations infrastructure, writing your FDD, meeting any state requirements, marketing, and other acquisition expenses.
MH: Tell us about some of the successes you’ve had so far.
CK: We believe we have written a thoughtful and strong FDD, which has allowed us to get quick state approval. In our case in Maryland approved us in 10 days. For Virginia and New York, we got approval in less than 30 days, which we’re very proud of. We launched the franchising business in February of 2019 and sold to our first franchisee in June. We have our second franchisee scheduled to sign later this month. So, we’re very excited.
MH: Can you talk about some of the challenges you’ve faced and how you’ve overcome them?
CK: We’ve learned to keep a flexible sales process, especially regarding validation. We’ve also had to keep realistic expectations for growth and be disciplined and patient. We’ve had to prepare ourselves for not accepting prospective franchisees who aren’t the right fit. We know we can’t accept someone JUST because they can write a check.
We’ve had to embrace our newness to franchising and commit to being transparent. If you do that, it’s just good business and your early adopters will appreciate it.
Understand that, for prospective franchisees, it’s a very heavy decision on their part whether or not to sign on. They are often using their retirement savings, their 401K, or borrowing from family to put up the money to buy a franchise. So it’s important not to underestimate the enormity of that decision, which also often involves the whole family.
“We’ve had to embrace our newness to franchising and commit to being transparent. If you do that, it’s just good business and your early adopters will appreciate it.“
MH: Are there specific criteria Celebree has adopted to vet franchisees?
CK: That’s a great question. We do have a specific set of criteria that we use to evaluate if potential franchisees are a good fit for us. Again, we try to be as open and transparent as possible with prospects throughout their exploration so that ultimately, they have all the information they could possibly need to make the right decision for themselves and their families. The same goes for us. Luckily, we’ve had great success doing that. But I truly believe it is in everyone’s best interest to turn away an unqualified franchisee.
MH: Sadly, we don’t hear “be transparent” a lot in the business world, so it’s refreshing to hear you say that, as we at BlastPoint think transparency is important, too. Have you had some experiences where you were out of your depth and had to decide at that moment to go with the transparent approach, rather than let someone think you’re more experienced?
CK: Interesting. But No. We are careful never to promise more than we know we can deliver.
MH: What role has data played in your franchising strategy?
CK: This is the part where I give my glowing review of BlastPoint! It has been an invaluable tool for us, truly. We’ve used it to validate our expansion strategy, to understand our territory’s demographics, and to conduct competitive analysis so that we know what and where other kinds of early childhood programs are being offered in those areas.
MH: How have BlastPoint’s analytics tools specifically helped with the franchise development process?
CK: For one thing, we’ve used BlastPoint to strengthen talk tracks during our sales process. What I mean by that is, we can have conversations with potential franchisees about their markets of interest and have confidence in making comments like, “Yes, we love this or that market. Yes, we’ve done the research and that’s a highly desirable market. Yes, we’re actively looking for sites in your market.”
I was able to pull it up recently in a sales meeting and tell prospects, “Yes, we are considering territory in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. And we know this and this about local competitors, average income levels and the number of preschool-age children there,” and so forth. It’s been a huge help.
Even during live webinars I can pull it up and show prospects the demographics tool. It offers us a great chance to showcase our sophistication and differentiate ourselves from the competition. And, it allows us to engage more. Of course, we’ve also used it to create protected search areas and protected territories.
MH: We are thrilled to hear that our tools have helped you so directly! Have you found that potential franchisees respond well to BlastPoint’s insights?
CK: Oh, absolutely. It makes potential franchisees feel more confident in us, our depth of knowledge and experience and our ability to succeed.
MH: That’s wonderful to hear! Recently, you announced your first franchisee. Congratulations!
CK: Thank you!
“[BlastPoint] makes potential franchisees feel more confident in us, our depth of knowledge and experience and our ability to succeed.“
MH: What was the process of signing your first franchisee like?
CK: Yes, our first franchisees are Katie and Michael Young. They are a great story for Celebree. Katie is a perfect example of how “We grow people big and small!” They had an easier time validating our business model because Katie has been an employee at a Celebree School for many years. She had moved up from assistant to teacher to director, so she knows the business very well. So she’s the epitome of developing top talent. It was and is a great experience working with Katie and her husband Michael. They’re wonderful people!
MH: Very cool. Can you share with our listeners any specific methods you’re using to attract franchisees?
CK: Sure. I’d say to focus on your sphere of influence first. That’s what we do. And that includes current employees, customers, networks of people who are already aware of your brand.
Also, digital marketing is cost-effective, but it can be inefficient. So we focus on target markets first, then expand outward from there. PR is great when you have a story to tell.
I’d also say to consider franchise portals and brokers on an as-needed basis.
MH: What’s your vision for franchise growth? Where would you like Celebree to be in five years?
CK: I’d like to see us have five to ten deals done this year. We’re executing on a very purposeful, local expansion strategy out of the gate. We want our early adopters close to our home office and want to give them our full support.
As we continue to develop and improve our processes, I’d like to see 100 new franchisees in our system by 2025. I want to secure our Mid-Atlantic region as a foothold, make sure we are established as thought leaders in early childhood education, and as best-in-class, and then expand farther from the corporate office. Of course, we always keep in mind the importance of succeeding in one region before expanding to another.
MH: Given your experience, what is the most important piece of advice that you want to share with other franchisors?
CK: First, seek as much help and support as possible. Franchising is an amazingly transparent and social industry. Sometimes, for various reasons, franchising gets kind of a bad rap. But it’s truly a wonderful community with great opportunities.
Immerse yourself in organizations like the International Franchise Association, which has a wealth of great resources, and get involved with your local franchise chapters. Talk to competitors and complementary businesses in the franchise industry. Surprisingly, they can be really helpful to each other in franchising! Also, seek out and develop relationships with experienced franchise mentors to guide you.
Second, build a growth strategy that addresses the resources needed to acquire franchisees, but also to appropriately support the franchisees once they sign.
“Talk to competitors and complementary businesses in the franchise industry. Surprisingly, they can be really helpful to each other in franchising! Also, seek out and develop relationships with experienced franchise mentors to guide you.”
MH: What I’m hearing you say is that dialogue with other people in the industry is really important! How did you get started getting to know people in the franchise world?
CK: That’s an interesting question. I went all-in, and just got involved in all as many of these groups and associations as I could join. I made sure I went to a lot of conferences, too.
MH: What are some educational resources you’ve found helpful and would recommend to other franchise developers?
CK: Again, the International Franchise Association, which offers a CFE, or Certified Franchise Executive program that you can earn credentials through, as well as they host specialized events and yearly conferences.
And, believe it or not, this might sound silly, but the book, Franchising for Dummies, by Michael Seid and Dave Thomas, is filled with really practical information that anyone who’s interested in franchising should definitely read.
MH: To conclude on a personal note, how do you pursue work/life balance? Building a franchise business can be hard. How do you manage it?
CK: I have a very understanding wife! As with getting any business off of the ground, it takes a full-time commitment from you and your team, even outside of normal business hours. My schedule includes many evening conference calls and webinars. So I make sure to schedule family time and the volunteer work that I do, and try desperately not break that schedule.
As with any business, you have to be willing to put in the time up front to see the business get off the ground.
MH: It certainly seems like your hard work is paying off for Celebree!
CK: We’re off to a great start, thank you. It is a team effort!
MH: Now it’s your turn, participants! Here’s the first question posted by one of our listeners: How do you grow your franchise business if you can’t afford analytics tools?
CK: A lot of emerging franchise brands come up against this issue of, “what’s in my budget and what can I afford?” I would focus on your local sphere of influence first. It’s going to be your least expensive form of marketing. Networking with your customer base and brand ambassadors is really important. I work every franchise lead as hard as I can, then I’m not afraid to ask that lead for others that they might know who may be interested as well. Then I branch out from there to develop new prospects.
MH: Here’s another question. Is there anything you wish you’d done differently in your first franchising endeavor? What’s some information you know now that you wished you knew then?
CK: I would say that you can never forget that franchising is a relationship-based business. You should never lose sight of that. The agreements, processes, and procedures are all components of the business that can become challenging if you don’t seek to establish a good relationship with your franchisees from day one.
MH: What is a benchmark for the level of support I should be able to provide to new franchisees?
CK: Great question, and it’s not an easy one to answer, but I’d say to know that, up front, you are going to need to provide A LOT of support, which is why it is important to choose franchisees wisely. Their success creates your success.
MH: That’s great advice. Thank you so much, Chris! We really appreciate all the insights you’ve shared today and have really enjoyed speaking with you. It seems like the overarching lesson here is that dialogue and relationships, as well as transparency and qualified talent, are central to successful franchise development. And all of us here at BlastPoint are thrilled to hear you say that data is helping Celebree to make those relationships stronger.
This was really fantastic information, Chris. Thanks so much for telling your story and letting us learn so much about Celebree’s franchise development process, which seems truly impressive.
CK: Thank you so much for having me! It was a real pleasure to speak with you, Marianne.
MH: And thanks to all of our listeners for being here, too. I’m sure you found today’s webinar to be informative, and we hope you’ll join us again soon for another In The Spotlight Q&A session with another industry expert.
For more information about Celebree Schools, visit www.celebree.com. You can also contact Chris directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This was the first post in our ongoing In the Spotlight series, in which we highlight the amazing work of our subscribers, partners, and community allies. Stay tuned for more In the Spotlight webinars and blog posts! And if you’re interested in being interviewed, email us at email@example.com.