Family Loss Fueled My Small Business Leadership Success

Family Loss Fueled My Small Business Leadership Success

Family Loss Fueled My Small Business Leadership Success

Dan Tarantin, CEO of Harris Research, Inc., franchisor of Chem-Dry and N-Hance Wood Refinishing Credit: Harris Research, Inc.

Grief is a powerful beast. While it may have the power to consume you, it also has the rare ability to chew you up and spit you back out as a stronger, more resilient person who is less fearful of the world and emboldened with a new sense of strength.

When I was 13 years old on my first day of high school, my father passed away. This was a tough age to lose a parent – I was still a kid, trying to emotionally manage the loss of my father while needing to take on a larger role within the household. To lessen the burden on my mother, who was going through her own grieving process, I began working outside of the small propane business my father started and where my brothers worked. I found a job in a sub shop, learning the ins and outs of running a small business before even finishing my freshman year of high school.

The early exposure to employee management, daily shop upkeep, and handling money sparked a fire inside of me. Learning to lead a team through a busy rush hour was not only a helpful distraction from my loss, but laid the foundation for my passion for business. I worked hard until I was ready to manage the shop on my own at 16, and then began forming my identity as a leader rather than an employee. I learned how to build teams of all ages that worked most effectively together, how to mentor and manage employees, and how to run a successful small business.

That experience led me to attend college and graduate with a degree in Hotel and Restaurant Management. While ultimately not staying in that field more than one year after graduating, I learned and internalized the essential importance of true customer service that I have carried with me and held as a core principle for the rest of my life and career.

Fast-forward eight years, and I found myself the CEO of Jackson Hewitt Tax Services in my early 30’s. Building upon the lessons learned early from my father and my job in that sub shop during my teenage years, I jumped into the world of franchising with an eagerness to pull together and strengthen teams that were built for success. With a focus on growing strong, healthy systems, franchising was the perfect way to hone that skill on a larger scale. In my four years with the company, we doubled in size to 3,600 locations, grew same store sales by an average of 16 percent per year and grew EBIDTA more than tenfold. Needless to say, my first stint in franchising was a successful one – I had found my calling.

In 2011, I became president and CEO of Harris Research, Inc. (HRI), franchisor of Chem-Dry Carpet and Upholstery Cleaning and N-Hance Wood Refinishing. As a driving force behind the continued growth and success of each of our brands, it was the consequences of my family tragedy that started and fueled my small business passion and success. Below were some of the key ingredients I learned and have used to become a strong and effective leader:

1. Take advantage of resources available to you. Your entire team is a resource. Your customers as well as vendors are key resources. Accept that you do not know everything and may not be the best at it. Surround yourself with people who are far stronger than you in their respective areas of responsibility.  Be sure to utilize the tools available to you, ask questions, internalize advice and most importantly, respect the guidance from your peers, colleagues and other stakeholders who have been in the business longer.

2. Be an active listener. Be mindful and empathetic, and engage yourself in conversations by asking questions to deepen your understanding of the problem or issues at hand. Seek out and listen carefully to the thoughts and suggestions of your employees and your customers and find a balance of the feedback you receive when creating your business vision. Both perspectives are valuable and vital to your and the company’s success.

3. Implement a flexible growth strategy. Recognize that the economy should not change your business’ development plans, only the approach of how you reach those goals. Businesses need to be able to adapt to various highs and lows that they will experience.

4. Hire smart. Create a diverse team with people who will challenge each other and instigate conversations that will open doors to different opinions and ideas. Passion is a must for a committed, hyper-productive, reliable team. Create opportunities for the team to have fun together because a team that enjoys and likes each other is also more productive.

5. Give back to things you’re passionate about. This is important on a personal level, but it’s also important professionally in creating the kind of company culture and value system that helps companies to be successful and desirable places to work. I am deeply involved in and on the board of Comfort Zone Camp, a bereavement camp with programs across the country. Comfort Zone helps grieving children who have lost a parent or sibling discover their capacity to heal, grow and lead more fulfilling lives. We have also found ways within the companies I’ve led to give back to the communities we serve, supporting and raising money for causes like breast cancer awareness/research and shelter pet adoption.

Taking all of the above into account, I still find myself most appreciative of my days in the sub shop, taking the helm of a small business like the one my father built. Whether managing a team of five during busy lunch hours or leading an international franchise system, it all comes down to people – be good to and serve your team, and they’ll be good to you.

About the author: Dan Tarantin is the president and CEO of Harris Research, Inc. (HRI), franchisor of international home services brands Chem-Dry Carpet and Upholstery Cleaning and N-Hance Wood Refinishing.

Edited for brevity and clarity by Nicole Fallon.

Back to My Roots: How I Relaunched My Parents’ Business and Beat the Recession

Back to My Roots: How I Relaunched My Parents’ Business and Beat the Recession

Back to My Roots: How I Relaunched My Parents’ Business and Beat the Recession

Credit: Richard Weissman

I was 16 years old when my entrepreneurial journey began in 1980. That year, my parents opened an independent early education childcare center called The Learning Experience in Boca Raton, Fla.

I started working there as a janitor, mopping floors, washing chalkboards, and making sure the doors were locked at night. I didn’t recognize it then, but it was a learning experience for me as much as it was for the children enrolled there. My parents were teaching me valuable lessons about accountability and how success is earned through hard work.

After high school and college, I went to Wall Street for a career in investment banking. While I enjoyed success for a few years, something felt missing, and I decided to join my parents’ business in 1986. By then, The Learning Experience was recognized as the largest single-center operating preschool in the southeastern region of the U.S. We had a proven for-profit business model. If we wanted to grow, now was the time.

To start expanding, we acquired a daycare firm, called Tutor Time, to serve as the brand. When we began franchising in 1990, it was one of the first branded childcare franchise companies in America. And, it grew fast.

When I left as CEO of Tutor Time, there were over 200 locations in four countries. I retired for about a year and half. Bored out of my mind, I decided to go back to Wall Street, and soon decided to open my own hedge fund. The new firm was to commence operations the week of 9/11/01, but as we now know, that was not the best time to commence anything.

While seeing the smoke rise the hotel room I was occupying on Sept. 11, I thought more about what I wanted to do in life. A few months later, I decided to return to a familiar industry and re-enter the preschool business.

In 2002, I relaunched The Learning Experience with my father and I as co-founders and chairmen.

In the beginning, much of our focus was on building a best-in-class proprietary curriculum that matched the requirements for successful learning achievement for years to come. We started with a flagship location in New Jersey, but after a year, I started thinking bigger and bigger.

With the family onboard, I developed a brand blueprint inspired by some of the most successful brands in industries outside of childcare. We applied McDonald’s simple yet brilliant real estate model of scaling the system. Our attention to detail and customer focus was influenced by Marriott Hotels, and led to a consistent look and feel across all our free-standing centers. We drew from Disney’s sense of brand loyalty to create characters like “Bubbles the Elephant” and colorful playrooms at each center called “Make Believe Boulevard.” We also focused on both owning company units and franchise-owned centers, knowing it would give us an opportunity to franchise, refranchise and repurchase our own units to grow the brand from within.

When the business model was firmly in place in 2004, we had 14 centers and $17 million in revenues and were ready for national expansion. Everything was pointing up – then the recession hit in late 2008.

Having been in this industry a long time – going back to mopping floors in the ’80s – it was not the first economic downturn I’ve seen. When something like that happens, experience and maturity go a long way.

Capable leaders can drive results in the best of times, but I believe that if you’re a true entrepreneur, you find ways to thrive in bad economies. When economies are tough, competition shrinks, lending itself to opportunity for brands that are built for the worst of times.

Instead of downsizing and waiting things out, we pushed the pedal and accelerated growth. We upped my visits to franchise centers and I spoke openly with employees, letting them know we’re going to face some tough times, and while we may lose some customers due to the economy, we will gain others.

We controlled costs and reinvested in technology, like video conferencing for all centers to put a face (and smile) to communications with “corporate.” Our point of sales system was consolidated and repackaged as an app for reporting and feedback with franchisees. We also put in new CRM tools, business intelligent reporting, and centralized all data to a new support center.

Some of the biggest strides we made was in our curriculum. We added interactive smartboards to classrooms, diversified lesson plans with science and foreign languages, and created a first-of-its-kind program on philanthropy in partnership with Make-A-Wish.

When the economy stabilized around 2013, The Learning Experience had over 120 centers. Today, we have over 300 centers open or under development in 22 states, plus an enrollment of more than 23,000 kids from 6 weeks to 6 years of age.

We’re going on 10 straight years of double-digit revenue growth and expect to hit a record of over $250 million in nationwide revenue this year. And we did it all without having to put extra costs on customers or sacrifice our brand.

About the author: Richard Weissman is co-founder, chairman and CEO of The Learning Experience, a national Academy of Early Education franchise serving children ages 6 weeks to 6 years with a unique blend of early childhood learning, enrichment programs and childcare services.

Edited for brevity and clarity by Nicole Fallon.