Covering New Ground

By Bill Boyer
Chagrin Falls, OH

In 1992, my wife, Martha, and I started a small pre-school business in an empty building I owned. Our kids pitched in to help painting, cleaning and prepping the space and grounds to qualify for a state license and in September, we opened. Martha had been subbing in local public and private schools since the children were all in school and had over 20 years experience teaching, even earning the outstanding teacher of the year award from our newspaper. But permanent jobs were scarce and so she gambled on starting her own. She called it “KidsFirst Learning Center.”

The front page to our website

The front page to our website

The first week, she was so nervous she overnighted at the school on one of the little kids’ cots, fearing she’d miss the 7:00 AM daily opening. By the following week, she had several students and soon hired more teachers and had the building filled. Meanwhile, I returned to my real estate business while she perfected her system of teaching and managing. I stayed out of the day-to-day and helped with financing, A/P, payroll, property management and occasional business questions.

Three years later, we sold the building and I built her a new one twice the size. Then that one filled and we added more classrooms. In 1997, we bought an old high school in an adjoining town, converting it to a new city hall, a community recreation center and a large new school for KidsFirst. We now had capacity for 200 children in two locations. In 2000, we expanded the 2nd location to bring our total capacity to 330. Again, the school filled and we searched for a 3rd site, which we belatedly assembled in 2004-6, built in 2007-8 and opened with fanfare in September 2008 – not a propitious time, as we all recall. And more importantly, our total child capacity reached 475 and the new school stretched our management team past its abilities.

A successful mom-and-pop operation now needed a variety of business services formerly not required – management and HR systems, marketing, research, website,, PR, community outreach and the like. With commercial real estate on hold, I stepped in as business manager for the larger operations. 2009-2010 were tough years as we focused more and more on business issues in the Recession, but 2011 has solidified as we instituted “KidsFirst 2.0” with a new management and marketing focus.

My career is now 75% KidsFirst as I wrestle with growing the business, building an admin team and waiting for banks to reopen. Martha and I are evolving our joint management style, helped by an advisory board and consultants. Enrollment is up under our new regime and smiles are replacing worried frowns.

This experience has been far more difficult for this old dog than he expected. The stresses of management, employee and financing problems strained our marriage considerably over recent years, but we’ve had lots of good help and believe we are on a new, more gratifying trajectory both personally and professionally.

We both hope to see you all at the 50th next year.

Yale '62

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