Primrose Schools' Jo Kirchner: Slow and steady wins the race

Jo Kirchner never planned to run a school system. Happily operating her own public relations firm near Atlanta, in 1988 she made a presentation to the Roswell Chamber of Commerce, which was starting a marketing program to attract developers of high quality homes. She got the job, and she started making presentations to area groups about the marketing project.

One of those groups was a Rotary club, and the meeting was attended by Paul Erwin, the owner of three Primrose Schools. He was impressed, and asked her to help Primrose meet a need he saw: full-time working parents who wanted to leave their children at the schools all day.

A working mother herself, she had the same issues for her own children. "Nannies were hard to find, as was child care," she says, "so I was happy to help him reposition this company for working parents." Eventually, the enrollment shifted from 80% part-time students to 80% full time.

That might have been the end of it, but Paul and Marcy Erwin started thinking about franchising, and Kirchner thought that might work.

"So he suggested I go study it, and said, 'If you come back in a month and you don't think it's a good idea, I'll forget it.' I was so impressed by statistics on the growth potential for and the more I studied franchising, the more I could see it would work if we could package it well, and get people to manage well."

Kirchner helped the Erwins put the franchise package together and worked with them on getting PR for the new system.

After two franchises were awarded, Erwin came back to Kirchner and told her he wanted her to do the marketing full time to help the company grow.

"I sold my company because I was so passionately excited about the service and what it delivered to the children," Kirchner says. By 1999, with the retirement of the company's founders, and the entry of new capital partners, Kirchner became president. Primrose now has 119 schools open in 10 states.

"Our growth could have been much faster," Kirchner says, "but we have the schools accredited by the Southern Association of Schools and Colleges." That process takes time.

She's also aware of the "wall" that franchise companies hit when they reach 100 units: "that's when you're going to be challenged to maintain consistency and quality."

Apparently Primrose is managing to maintain well, and Kirchner is clear about how the company is going to do it: know your market, have high standards, hold franchisees to them, and build the brand.
The Primrose Objective

Primrose deals with and after-school times. Child care services are wrapped around teaching programs, starting at six weeks. If that sounds young, consider that "in the last eight years, an immense amount of research has come out that shows a child's personality is established by the time they are five, and the greatest amount of learning occurs in those years," Kirchner says. The Erwins had an approach that emphasized character building, early learning, and socialization; as a franchise, Primrose has packaged that, added best practices, and created a strong proprietary curriculum and operating system.

"We try to benchmark the child's growth by using assessment studies, because children take different paths. We try to reinforce those areas where they are struggling."

One of the programs, for example, is called "life skills"-at the end of the week, children put everything they've used back where it belongs. "When you do that as a young child day after day it becomes a habit, not a chore; it's just what you do. That's how teachers know a Primrose child."

As a result, Kirchner says, "Many of the children are teachers' children." The children have already been at Primrose for six years, and start school with a strong academic base and well developed self-confidence.

It works as a franchise, because lesson plans are set week by week; a child in Dallas can move to Atlanta, and be on the same track with the same methodology.

"Personally, I think that if public schools had more structured consistency across the country they would probably get better results," she says. "It will happen, but right now you can go from one district to the next, and what they're teaching is not the same."

Kirchner has strong opinions about what needs to be done in education, and I think that's why we have problems in public schools with aggression. There's an other generation coming along that recognizes that, so they we'll do everything they can to spend time with their children. We spend a lot of time with parents and educate them how to do a better job at home to reinforce what we do.

"In some cases we have kids that are bored in public schools and their parents put them in our after-school program. We try to have partnerships with schools because there are overcrowded, so our children can come back to our schools.

"A lot of our families do move from one market to another, and situate their kids so they can be in a Primrose School," Kirchner says. "We have had a number of parents become franchisees."
Running the Franchise

The hardest part of the business, Kirchner says, is finding quality people-"but that may be the hardest part of any business."

Primrose tends to attract people who want to work in the community they live in. The pay is better than in public schools, since Primrose does not have the same requirements placed on it that the public schools do.

"Franchisees understand that quality of life is important to their people, and respect it for the staff," Kirchner says. "Flexibility is built in; family is important. Most people who work in do it for the love of children, not just for money."

Kirchner believes that franchising is a great way to run the system.

"I am very high on franchising and even more so in the last 7-10 years," she says. "The first years I came into this, it was more command and control from franchisor level. As we were trying to study franchise methods, we really built the company on relationships and collaboration."

Her goal for Primrose is "to be the best and most trusted childhood education company in the country." In order to build brand consistency, she says, "You have to do what you say you are going to do."

"For us, franchising is win-win because we are working together for the same goal, and that is to build a brand. That requires high quality high standards in the campuses, good quality customer service with our parents, and really strong recruitment and retrenchment," she says. All those things go to build confidence and trust, even though "we live n a world where people say 'trust me' and don't do what they promise. For us it's saying what we do and doing it, with franchisees, parents, and community."

Not all franchisees are going to work out, though. What then?

"In our company," Kirchner says, "if a franchisee won't maintain the standards, and we have done everything we could, we don't wait for that person to fail. We bring the franchisee in, and tell them we don't want our brand impacted, and so we help them get out of the business with integrity. When you have a conversation like that, it makes a difference. I am sure there will come a day when I'll say that, and they'll say 'we're not selling,' but so far it's worked."

Kirchner believes that women have a special quality to bring to franchising. "I think women are naturally nurturing, and in business they lead rather than dictate. You're never going to make all the people happy all the time; you have to have the strength to say I'm the leader and try to give people the vision."

Part of her approach rests on her marketing background, because "marketing involves selling, and consensus is built by selling instead of telling."

She expects to double the size of the company over the next five or six years, but "we don't want to be the biggest, we want to be the best. We're all passionate about early childhood Quality of life is the No. 1 concern of people today."

For now, Kirchner believes she is in the right place with the right team: "You have to build a business with the that are proven, and do it conservatively. You need to have the right people with the right attitude. You can make anything a nightmare."

Right now, Primrose is anything but a nightmare for Kirchner. "I have a great executive team and corporate staff. Parents write us about how much we've changed heir lives. I go home feeling that I'm making a lot of difference."

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