Annette Miller grows in more ways than one
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Annette Miller grows in more ways than one

Greg Helwig, vice president of system development for Sylvan Learning Centers, says the company didn't set out to grow with multiple units. It just happened naturally, with an existing franchisee adding a unit, then another.

Now Sylvan is actively seeking multiple-unit development, although not in the way of a large QSR franchise. "We do strongly encourage multi-unit owners," Helwig says.

When he joined Sylvan in 2000, he says, 5 percent of franchise sales were repeat business. "That's now approaching 40 percent, so we have had a big surge in repeat business and multi-center growth. It's a testimonial to the strength of the business. It's particularly refreshing when operators grow from one to two to three - I think they're stronger than just buying five outright at the start," he says. "Our model performs better if the franchisee is actively involved."

For that reason, although the company likes multiple-unit franchisees, Sylvan is cautious about accepting multi-brand operators. "It's not encouraged, but it's not discouraged," he says. "If they have a Panera and McDonald's, we'd be concerned with how much time they could give. We'd rather have people who are focused primarily on Sylvan."

Today, Sylvan has about 150 multi-unit franchisees controlling about 500 centers. Usually the company has not sold multiple units at the start, but it has started to do so, and will in the future if the circumstances are right. Two former employees recently acquired six centers in Texas, and a deal was pending for five centers in the Cleveland market.

Typically, most started with one and added centers as they felt able. "We've grown our centers both ways," he says. Helwig notes that when starting with one, there are clear stages in the growth pattern. "One or two is easy, but at three or four you need another layer of infrastructure. Five or six requires another standard," he says.

The largest franchisee has around 15 to 16 centers, says Helwig. "We have other franchisees who have fewer units, but many with higher revenue levels. We have some in the 8 to 10 range - including most of the successful multi-center operators."

Centers are sold to everyone with the same fees, he says. "We don't do any reduced fees, except in certain special circumstances - we might consider doing that for someone buying one of our existing corporate centers, for example."

The franchisor continues to develop programs and products for the franchisees. Sylvan is in the process of adding an in-home tutoring program so that there are three methods of instruction: in the centers, at home, or online.

"We've also launched a program called Homework Help," he says. "A student can drop into the center at any time to get help with homework for a flat fee." Another new program, AceIt, allows franchisees to work with students directly who qualify for government aid under the No Child Left Behind Act. "It's a way to expand the service without opening a larger center."

Doing what came naturally

Annette Miller had an interesting childhood. Born in Puerto Rico, she spent her first 10 years in the Bronx, where her father had a grocery store. Then the family moved back to Puerto Rico for the next 10 years.

A couple of her older siblings had headed back to the mainland (Florida), and she decided to go to Southeastern University in Lakeland to get a teaching certificate.

"I'm the baby out of six kids. My parents don't have an education, but all six of us are professional - we have a doctor, a nurse. I didn't know there was another way," she says. After graduation in 1984, she taught for 10 years (English and Spanish), and took on some tutoring for Sylvan.

She found that she liked teaching, but also business. After a first thought about doing a Sylvan franchise in 1987, she decided it was too early. But she liked the individualized instruction that Sylvan provided and didn't let the idea go.

With her brother as a silent partner, Miller opened her first franchise in Winter Haven in 1994. "We opened another a year later, and now we have nine centers," she says, all in central Florida.

Miller got her business acumen and drive from spending time as a child in her father's store. "All of it fascinated me - inventory and all that." She says. "I didn't know I had that interest, but when I started with Sylvan, I liked being able to make a difference, but also having something to grow, controlling the profit margin."

Although she liked tutoring, as the business grew and she added centers, she had to stop that and focus on other tasks.

"I do a lot of the marketing and the bookkeeping," she says. But she also knows that she can't at that size do micromanaging. "I have hired a district manager who oversees the hiring and training. I stay at a management level. I stopped going full-time into the centers about three years ago. I can't do both - have a family with an 8- and a 15-year-old. You have to have your priorities in order to be successful. As a mother that comes first, and it's really worked for me."

Sylvan has been very successful for her on both levels, Miller says. "As an educator, you're changing lives every day. And the business part of it has been very rewarding. We have our ups and downs, but it's been a good business."

Competition has come to Sylvan in recent years, yet Miller is optimistic because, she says, "We're not even touch with 1 percent of the population of students - that's enough business for everybody."

Miller also says she needs to exercise her marketing skills to make the new programs from Sylvan a successful part of her franchises. "Referrals are our number-one source," she says. "We need to get to the teachers and administrators so they believe in us."

For the same reason, she says that finding tutors has not been too difficult, although compensating them is not easy. "A lot of tutors come from the schools and probably don't make the same [with us], but they find it so refreshing because all they do is sit down and teach - they don't have to do lesson plans, there are no discipline problems, they don't have to meet with parents. They do what they love, and see kids getting it. That makes a difference."

She says she would do it all again: "In 1l years I can say every year has been a good year."

Memorable first job: McDonald's

Key accomplishments: Having a family

Key education: Working on my Spanish certification after graduation. There were no jobs, and I had an opportunity to teach Spanish. I had to get my certification and it was so amazing to learn how to teach the language. I spoke it but did not know how to teach it. This experience helped me become a better English teacher.

Role model: My mother; she never gives up.

Currently reading: Several books, that's my problem. What's So Amazing About Grace?; Reclaiming Paradise in Your Marriage

Others say you are: Loving, kind, strong but fair

Business news sources you regularly read: Priority, BeE Woman, local chamber publications

Favorite web sites (besides your own): Daily Encouragement

Franchise systems (besides your own) that are creative: Curves, all these dinner places, too many?

Best advice anyone ever gave you: Put God first in everything you do.

Best advice you ever gave: Same

Biggest project for the year: Beat last year's numbers

Goals for the year: Grow my staff and grow our business

How do you measure growth? By how long you keep your employees. And your profit margin: It doesn't matter how much you make, but how much you spend!

What you do to unwind: Walk, listen to music

Published: September 7th, 2007

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Multi-Unit Franchisee Magazine: Issue 3, 2007
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