Richard Huffman of Celebree School: “Create engagement”

Create engagement. Attend events and network. Build your contact list of key people who can fortify your foundation. Start promoting your work. Develop campaigns. Listen to feedback. Build a loyal base by incentivizing early consumers with the quality of your service/product and essentially turning them into ambassadors for your business: their satisfaction and success is […]

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Create engagement. Attend events and network. Build your contact list of key people who can fortify your foundation. Start promoting your work. Develop campaigns. Listen to feedback. Build a loyal base by incentivizing early consumers with the quality of your service/product and essentially turning them into ambassadors for your business: their satisfaction and success is one of your greatest selling points.

As a part of my series called “Five Strategies I Used To Grow My Business To Reach Seven Figures In Revenue”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Richard Huffman, founder, president, and CEO of Celebree School. He founded Celebree in 1994, growing the brand from a single preschool into the company it is today. Over the course of more than two decades, Richard has grown Celebree from a single location into Maryland’s largest privately held chain of child care centers.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path? Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

Early in my career, I joined a Baltimore CEO group called Vistage. At one meeting, we had guest speaker who greeted everyone entering the room with the same question: “What do you do?” My response was that I owned preschools. Again, she asked, “What do you do?” I figured she didn’t initially hear me, so I repeated myself. The speaker then said, “No, that’s an industry. What do you do?” I hurried and found my seat, but for the entire day, her simple question distracted me. So, I took it back to my team and that’s when we determined our company values: protect, educate and nurture. The speaker’s question changed the course of my company by helping me find clear purpose and a brand promise for our families.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There are so many and the list grows each day. That said, my success begins with my parents and particularly my mom, Betty Huffman, who herself is an extremely successful businesswoman. She gave me opportunity, motivation and inspiration, and she continues to be a great mentor even to this day. Right out of high school, I got a job selling bakery products to restaurants and hospitals. I still remember that I received 21% of everything I sold. It was an awesome education in learning how to hustle and sell, and I managed to save 14,000 dollars. My mom then suggested I purchase a rental property — a townhouse I could turn into apartments. With her encouragement, I pulled the trigger and had no problem finding tenants: 450 dollars monthly for the first floor and 325 dollars for the second. I was hooked; there was such a sense of accomplishment. My goal then became: “How many 14Ks dollars can I save?” Seven years later, I owned 12 townhomes, 24 apartments, and 780K dollars in real estate. Next, I opened a tanning and nail salon, and my big opportunity came in 1994 when I opened my first preschool — again under my mom’s mentorship. That one preschool became 26 and in 2019, Celebree began franchising.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I’m not sure where I heard it, but what always sticks in my mind is: “True entrepreneurs own the show and are beholden only to their vision and imagination.” So many people spend their time worrying about how they are going to accomplish things, and that’s where they get stuck. How would you know if you have never done it before? Instead, focus on your vision and imagine yourself accomplishing whatever you desire, and the feelings and emotions that would bring into your life. Then, through time and desire, you will begin to figure out how to succeed. For example, I initially knew nothing about how to franchise Celebree, my early childhood education company, but I understood its value and potential for growth. So, I surrounded myself with people who had franchising experience. We set the goal and vision of having 100 schools by 2025. Two years in, we are well on our way.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?

I own Celebree School, a leader in early childhood education, with 50 open or under-development school locations in 12 states. Our schools ensure families have a safe and educational option for childcare.

The franchise side of Celebree helps entrepreneurial families start their own business by eliminating the pain points of starting a new venture from scratch. Owning a Celebree School allows driven individuals to realize their potential. From training through team development, we guide franchisees in all aspects of establishing and running a quality early childhood education school.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

We like to say we grow people big and small! We, as leaders and school owners, really focus on the “grow people big” part of the business, so everyone in the organization has an individual growth plan (IGP). They decide the direction in which they want to grow. I think this commitment to ensuring our employees excel and find growth to achieve happiness and success helps set Celebree apart from the competition. Watching an employee rise from a teacher’s assistant to director or even to owning their own school is incredibly rewarding. That’s actually happened twice, and it’s an honor to be a part of that journey. We also strive to support our franchisees as business owners — helping them to grow and develop not only themselves but their team. This approach helps position our franchisees for accelerated business growth, enabling them to fast track their path to owning multiple units.

When you first started the business, what drove you, what was your primary motivation?

I wanted to shoot for extraordinary. I’ve always been unwilling to accept an average lifestyle or level of success. I love going for the dream, always raising the bar (vision), and enjoying the amazing lifestyle that creates.

What drives you now? Is it the same? Did it change? Can you explain what you mean?

I continue to strive for greatness, though I’m also driven by helping others to do the same, and making a bigger impact on our communities. I still have a lot to learn from others, like how to raise children who have been fortunate to grow up with resources greater than most. I want them to be strong, independent, confident adults themselves, so they can continue strengthening our family as we head toward another generation.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Expanding Celebree School through franchising is my current passion. I’m really focused on helping our franchise partners find their ideal locations and bring a new resource to their communities. Early childhood education presents a solid opportunity for entrepreneurs looking for a satisfying business venture. Environments like the ones provided by Celebree School promote lifelong behaviors that demonstrate curiosity, empathy, kindness, respect and self-confidence, as well as a desire for continued learning. That’s what excites me.

The topic of this series is ‘Five Strategies I Used to Grow My Business to Reach Seven Figures in Revenue’. Congratulations! Seven figures are really a huge milestone. In your experience what was the most difficult part of being able to hit your first million dollars in sales revenue?

I think that whether it’s your first million or your 50th, you have to understand your customers’ needs and always be looking for ways to bring them more value. Considering that increasing value for customers often impacts margins, it’s not a simple task. But it’s a vital one if you want to find success.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you or your team made during a sales process? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I started Celebree at the age of 26, before I became a dad. I thought I could relate to parents because I had dogs — who I thought of as my children. I learned very quickly that parents do not appreciate you comparing your feelings about your dog to how they feel about their children. Instead of helping calm an upset parent, I made the situation worse. You have to understand your customers!

Does your company have a sales team? If yes, do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?

We have teams focused on enrollment at our corporate locations and attracting new franchisees. However, I believe everyone within a company plays a role in “selling”. From the receptionist to the CEO, we can all be brand ambassadors. Building a brand’s reputation ultimately drives revenue.

Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Five Strategies I Used to Grow My Business to Reach Seven Figures in Revenue”. Please share a story or an example for each.

I would start by saying there is no one sales strategy, I’ve been looking for that and there is no such thing. We believe it takes the understanding of what business are you really in, building a strategy around that business and hiring the right people to help you get there. And that is just the tip of the iceberg.

Find the right business for you. Explore and research markets that match your interests and passion. Know your strengths and the skills you’re good at. Learn from successful models and identify gaps in the market. Arm yourself with knowledge and do comprehensive studies of the business you want to build.

Identify your target audience. Validate your consumer market. Know the answers to these key questions: Who will your business serve and how big of a market is it? How will your business cater to their everyday needs? How will these improve their lives? Gather direct data.

Plan and strategize. Focus on creating solutions to the problems you identified. Develop products and/or services that will address these areas and how you can fill the demands in the market. Build a solid business plan. Tailor these to your target audience.

Create engagement. Attend events and network. Build your contact list of key people who can fortify your foundation. Start promoting your work. Develop campaigns. Listen to feedback. Build a loyal base by incentivizing early consumers with the quality of your service/product and essentially turning them into ambassadors for your business: their satisfaction and success is one of your greatest selling points.

Cultivate a strong support network. Sometimes, the entrepreneur himself/herself can be the one who limits the business’s growth. Don’t try to do it all alone. Surround yourself with a trusted team and people with the experience and knowledge that can help propel you to success. Find a mentor or a mastermind group. Learn from your peers and people from different industries and absorb what works for your business.

What would you advise to another business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill? From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?

Connect directly with your key audiences. Each year we survey our stakeholders, parents, teachers and children on what additional value we can bring the next school year. That is how we base our strategy and initiatives to drive and retain our customers. This is also a great way to turn over the engines each year.

In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?

Every parent wants the best for their children and quite simply, that’s what we deliver — because we listen. As I mentioned earlier, we get to know our customers and understand what’s most important to them when looking for a preschool. Then we put the resources behind it to deliver. And from there, success breeds success.

Based on your experience, can you share a few strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?

Communication on both sides. For example, every morning between 6:30 and 9, our franchisees or school directors greet both the teachers and student families as they arrive. We call this PCTE (parent, child, teacher experience) and it’s used as a time to connect and find out if there is anything we need to know. It’s best to determine if there are any issues brewing early in the day and address them before it’s too late.

As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?

The child-care business has both advantages and disadvantages, when it comes to customer retainment. Regardless of how well we do, we know our customers will eventually leave us as their kids grow up. But we also know that many of our customers have multiple children, extended families, and influence over their friends’ decision making. Specifically, we use a third-party software called Listen360 to better understand how our customers are feeling and whether they would recommend Celebree School to others. It’s incredibly insightful.

Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I am a believer that today’s education system fails to prepare too many of our youth for the real world. Children need to study real-life subjects such as making the most of their money, how to invest that money and the value of entrepreneurship. It’s never too early for them to gain that understanding. It’s also critical they are exposed to real life scenarios, such how to budget and balance a check book. It amazes me that so many people exit the education system without that knowledge.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I have been a fan and reader of Tony Robbins since I was 24 years old, not just for his inspiration but for his teaching on human behavior and how the brain really works — your psychology is 80% and the mechanics is 20%. Tony, thanks, lunch is on me.

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!

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