Toy Story: It All Began at Nursery School...
Sharon DiMinico had a "Eureka" moment following the birth of her second child in 1987. She recognized something was missing for the parents and children in her local community. "I saw there was a real need for a unique store that could offer high-quality toys, books, and games for little children through preteens," she recalls.
DiMinico already had some retail and business experience and knew firsthand what parents were looking for when it came to raising their children. She wrote a business plan for a special kind of toy store and presented it to her children's nursery school in Acton, Mass., where she was a board member. Her idea was not only to provide needed resources to the children, but also to supplement the school's revenue. It worked, and then some.
In March 1987, the school opened the first Learning Express store. Six months later, DiMinico opened a second store with her sister and two friends in nearby Needham. Inspired by an article about franchising she'd read in Inc. magazine, 3 years later DiMinico licensed the company's first franchise location, in Andover, Mass. In 1995, she began a regional developer program that accelerated growth, and today Learning Express Toys is the nation's leading franchisor of educational toy stores, with 126 stores in 35 states.
"My father was an entrepreneur and instilled in us the belief that we could do anything if we worked hard," says DiMinico. "This company is my passion and my joy. And every day I continue to learn."
DiMinico says she was attracted to the franchising model for growth not only because of the Inc. article, but also because, she says, "I believe that owners of a business will work harder and do a better job than store managers of a business."
She cites her father as her best mentor and says he inspired her along her own path. "My father started his own company when I was seven years old," she says. "He was always very encouraging and supportive."
Learning Express is on track to do more than $100 million in revenue this year, and DiMinico hopes to continue a pace of opening 5 to 10 stores a year. The brand will also open a corporate location with the launch of a new children's activity center concept, Learning Express Play, which will open in June 2016 in Bedford, Mass. And, of course, DiMinico will be there cheering on the continued growth of a brand she has nurtured, loved, and developed since day one.
Name: Sharon DiMinico
Title: Founder, CEO
Company: Learning Express Toys
System-wide revenue: $95 million
No. of units: 126 stores in 35 states
International units: 0
Growth plans: 5 to 10 stores per year
Public or private? Private
Year company founded: 1987
Year started franchising: 1990
Your years in franchising: 25
What inspired you to start your business?
I owned a construction/retail business for 10 years before marrying my husband and starting a family. When I was shopping for my daughter's nursery with my sister, I was amazed at how exciting and moving it was shopping for a baby. At the register, I told my sister, "My next business is going to be a kid's business." I immediately understood how parents want to provide every opportunity for their children. I looked into furniture, gear, and clothing, but decided on toys. There were not many really great toy stores in my area so I felt the timing was just right.
What is your background? How did it prepare you for starting your business?
1968-71, National Geographic Society. 1972-73, sales, design, and bookkeeping at Beacon Tile & Marble, where I learned all about business (I was an English literature major). 1974-82, Upstairs/Downstairs Tile and Bath (design, sales, and installation of ceramic tile, marble, European plumbing and hardware, and retail sales of kitchen and bath furnishings and accessories), which I sold in 1982.
What's the best and worst advice you got when starting out?
Best: Grow conservatively.
Worst: Don't do it!
Why did you choose franchising?
I believe that owners of a business will work harder and do a better job than store managers of a business. It was also a good way to grow nationally. In 1995 we started a regional developer program and went from a local, Massachusetts-only franchise to a national franchise with 13 regional developers.
How did you get started in franchising?
Right after opening the first Learning Express store for my children's nursery school in March 1987, I read an article in Inc. magazine about franchising. Six months later, I opened my own store. Three years later, in September 1990, I sold my first franchise.
Did you have a partner/co-founder when you started?
What were the keys to funding your brand?
I used personal funds and grew the business slowly. Our regional developer program allowed us to become a national player.
Building The Business
What has been the best and the hardest thing about being an entrepreneur?
Best: Having an outlet for creativity.
Hardest: Expecting others to have the same passion and vision I do.
How has your experience in running a franchise business been different from what you expected?
I expected franchisees to have the same passion and energy level that I do.
How did you transition from founding a brand to leading a brand?
It was a natural progression. As the company grew, I tried to hire people who were better at their job than I could have been.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I try to set a good example, set the goals and expectations, and then get out of the way. I do not micromanage.
What is the key to your company's success?
I attribute our success to my team. They work hard and feel good about supporting our store owners and their families.
Was being female an advantage or disadvantage for you in building your company? How?
Definitely an advantage. Women are great at multi-tasking, and a lot of multi-tasking is required when starting and building a business.
Have you found specific advantages or disadvantages to being a woman business owner?
Not really. Perhaps only that our natural tendency is to "take care" of people. I feel I do a pretty good job with my co-workers.
What has been your biggest challenge as a woman entrepreneur?
Separating home life from work life.
Why do you think there are fewer start-ups with female founders than male ones?
I'm not sure. I recently read there are more women in medical school than men now. There are more women attending college than men. Living in Massachusetts, there are many, many women entrepreneurs, CEOs of large corporations, presidents of universities, etc. We're just getting started!
What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I've always found that being a woman in business is advantageous, even in my former construction business.
From a woman's perspective, what notable changes have you seen for women in franchising since starting your brand?
The biggest change is that there are a lot more of them. For me personally, I would have to say the Internet has changed business more than anything else. Back in 1987, I didn't own a fax machine or a cell phone. There was no social media or email, no Twitter, Pinterest, or Instagram. Business has gotten a lot more complicated.
Which female leaders do you admire?
If Condoleezza Rice were running for president, I would vote for her. I'm also impressed with Carly Fiorina and Sheryl Sandberg.
Has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life? How?
The only mentor I had was my father, who started his company when I was seven years old. He was always very encouraging and supportive.
Are you involved in any female entrepreneur organizations?
What does your typical day look like?
At the office 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; at the kitchen table on my computer 8 to 10 p.m. Meeting schedule every other week: Mondays I meet with our president, Kathy Troknya, to discuss issues that have come up since the last time we met. We also discuss our team and their needs. Monday afternoons I meet with the Learning Express Play development team, our new children's activity concept (weekly). Tuesday mornings I meet with our development team to review new stores that are opening, people in the pipeline, and contract and lease renewals. Wednesdays I meet with the buying team in the morning to review product selection for catalogs and the inventory mix for the new stores we are opening. Wednesday afternoons I meet with the marketing and graphics departments so we can anticipate our store and e-commerce needs for the coming weeks. In between these meetings I'm answering email, talking to stores, meeting with vendors, etc. I work from our lake house on most Thursdays and Fridays.
How do you maintain a work/life balance?
For the first 13 years, my office was in a converted, antique schoolhouse on our property, so when the kids came home from school they could visit with me in the afternoon. When they were in high school, we moved the office to Devens, which was only 4 miles from home. We went to every soccer game and ski race. I missed one mother/ daughter tea when my daughter was in the 8th grade and I was at Toy Fair. That's pretty good!
What are your top 5 favorite things to do?
I love to work, read, cook, go to the movies, and have dinner out with my husband and friends. Also, I'm a new grandmother and love to see my two grandsons.
What's the most important lesson you've learned so far?
No matter what business you are in, the relationship with staff, store owners, customers, and vendors is paramount.
If you could do one thing differently, what would it be?
I've made hiring mistakes along the way. And I should have gotten into e-commerce earlier.
What's the best piece of advice you have ever been given?
My father told me, "If you never spend money, you'll never make money." I have a tendency to be too conservative.
What advice would you give to women considering starting their own franchise brand?
Go for it! Be prepared to work hard!
What would you like to achieve in the next 5 years?
To increase profitability for all our store owners, open 5 to 10 stores per year, and start franchising our new Learning Express Play concept.
What's coming up that you're excited about?
We have developed a new children's activity center concept, Learning Express Play, which will open in June 2016 in Bedford, Mass. We hope to franchise it in 2019.
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