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Richard Weissman, CEO The Learning Experience

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Richard Weissman, CEO  The Learning Experience

Richard Weissman grew his child education business from $17 million to $100 million in five years, and in the teeth of one of the worst recessions since the Great Depression. We talk to him about leading during adversity. From the June 2013 of PRESIDENT&CEO Magazine.

To listen to the entire interview, click here.

I’m really astonished at the level of growth The Learning Experience has had during this incredible downturn.  Starting in 2007 you went from $17 million in revenues to $100 million in 2012. That’s extraordinary.  How did you do that?

Hindsight is a great thing to have.  You know, I’ve got to be honest and tell you that maturity and living through recessionary markets on a historical basis definitely proved out.

I started in the preschool business when I was in high school with my father.  I was a janitor in his first school, so I’ve been doing this a long time. So, during that time from 1980 forward, [this is] not the first recession I’ve seen, so we were very prepared as a management team on what to do and react to.  It clearly feels like the worst of times when you are in a middle of it, and it clearly feels to everybody and all CEOs that I speak to that this is a different recession. But, I don’t think any management team can say, okay, let’s put away all our experience and say this is a different recession.  We took the fact that this recession is quite marked with things we have lived through before – our experiences and the mistakes we have made historically in recessions.  We certainly can live upon our experience and apply it to a model to push our way through it and actually accelerate growth.  I told most people that to be a great executive of a company, you’re only as good as driving a company’s results in the worst of times.  Anybody can get great results in the best of times and candidly, you know, you really prove a model out when you stress tested that during the worst of times.

We have a Board of Directors that consists of some Wall Street insiders, and we took a position [with them]. I think our board thought we were a little crazy, because our position was “Hey guys! This is great! Recession is coming about.  Let us push the pedal and let us actually accelerate growth.”   Our competitors were all doing just the reverse.  All the competitors and all the families we had competed with years and years ago had been consolidated, and the majority of them were being run by venture capital groups and large entities, so they were all applying a model to our industry that was retail-driven. We were applying the model that this is child care.  This is, as much as people want to put it into a box, a retail box, and the economics are the same sort, the comps and everything are important.  The real factor is we are in a very specialized industry and we take care of a precious commodity which are children, and despite what the unemployment rate may get to, we knew that we never catered to this 6% or 7% or 8% unemployed and we always catered to the 80% to 90% who were always employed, and therefore we had to lead by example. 

We had to kind of speak to our franchisees and our corporate employees and have them “drink the Kool-aid,” for lack of a better term. We told them:

We are going to face things you have not faced before.  We may have more of a revolving door with clientele, but as many clients that we may lose, we will gain more.

We need to control our cost so we do not have to pass on price increases to our consumer.  As difficult as it may be for the negativity of everybody going home and hearing the news – houses underwater and mortgages upside down and everything else – you cannot, in our business, wake up on the wrong side of

the bed.  You’ve got to be able to put that negativity at home aside and have a smile on your face. 

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