Dennis Maple comes from a family of educators. But instead of standing in front of a whiteboard teaching students, the high-powered corporate veteran is now running a for-profit school system, Goddard.
Maple was recently installed as CEO of King of Prussia, Pennsylvania-based Goddard Systems Inc., which licenses more than 500 franchised schools with more than 65,000 students in 37 states. Now the Memphis native, who spent the past two decades in the education sector in positions such as head of Aramark Education, which manages food services and facilities for K-12 schools, and president of First Student Inc., North America’s largest bus transportation company, has been designing a new curriculum for evolution and growth at the franchisor that specializes in early childhood education.
One plank of Maple’s agenda is “new school growth.” Becoming a Goddard franchisee is not a low-cost proposition though: The license fee is $135,000 with a required minimum investment that exceeds $700,000. However, the company states that a franchise earns an average EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) of $371,321, based on 2018 results of a school open more than 18 months.
As part of our BLACK ENTERPRISE C-Suite Interview Series, Chief Content Officer Derek T. Dingle talked with Maple about his new role that marries his business acumen with a passion for education. The following are edited excerpts from that conversation:
As CEO of Goddard, how do you ensure the uniformity of quality education throughout the franchise system?
The business has been here for approximately 30 years, and during that time they’ve built a really strong reputation and brand for having premium-based education that we make available to the communities through a franchising system. The whole concept behind Goddard from an education standpoint is that we have a comprehensive, play-based curriculum. Our goal here is to really stimulate the child’s cognitive, emotional, physical, and social development starting as early as 8 weeks of age. We have our educational advisory board of experts that do research all over the world, and we leverage them to inform us about ways to touch on those four areas.
When you think about this educational environment, a lot of people would probably reflect on it as daycare because historically that’s what it was. But there’s been a great deal of research that suggests that the most formative and impactful years of the development of children start at a very early age. We are confident in our thesis because the government is now beginning to focus disproportionately on early childhood funding as a way to improve education for all kids. So we’re happy to be on the forefront of that thinking.
With that focus, how do you effectively implement instruction for students?
We have a prescribed model we refer to as STEAM. It incorporates the traditional STEM elements at an appropriate level for kids around science, technology, math and so forth but we add to it this notion of the arts because we think that stimulating kids’ interest in music and other types of developmental activities are good cognitively and also good to expose them to these things early on.
Through this franchised system, we have extensive training for those that get into the business without experience and those who are restarting the business with follow-up training over the course of time that allows them to remain current on the curriculum that we believe is important. One of the things that I’ve learned working with educators is [that they should] be able to craft their lesson plans on a daily basis based upon the capability of the young people that they are teaching. So while we have a framework, we actually give a degree of flexibility, unlike some of our competitors, where we can actually customize the solution for the children in a particular classroom at a particular point in time.
How are Goddard schools structured so franchisees can meet education standards and, at the same time, be successful?
We’ve built a series of classrooms throughout the school that are largely derived based on age. They each have a different designation. There are specific objectives for each of those respective classes.
There is a defined curriculum that instructs the franchisees. We support them with ongoing training from the very beginning, throughout their tenure as licensed franchisees in our system. Then we have a very robust Q&A and also coaching mechanism with our field teams that are in two parts. There’s an education team that is responsible for franchisees’ execution of the education curriculum within the guidelines that have been established. And we have an operating team that is there to both coach, but also to drive compliance with the operational standards around things like certification of teachers, review of their background credentials, the safety of the facility, the maintenance of the facility in a certain way, utilization of certain equipment, room sizes, ratios, et cetera.
How do you identify the right franchisees for this type of business?
In terms of the identification of potential licensees, I would say that we use a traditional mode of gaining interest in our business just like any other franchisor would. We go to the conventions. We use trade publications. I think BLACK ENTERPRISE is a wonderful opportunity for people of color to perhaps learn something about a franchising model that may not have considered before. I’m not sure other than educators how many people wake up every day and say I want to [operate] an early childhood education school.
One of the biggest ways of identifying new franchisees is through word of mouth from existing franchisees. So our model allows existing owners to partner up with other owners, or other perspective owners including sometimes their education directors. We have a lot of parents that were historically in our system, loved Goddard and wanted to impart that same sort of connection with parents in their community. So there are a variety of ways that we identify people.
What should prospective franchisees be aware of before seeking opportunities?
You have two entities inside the school—the business side, which is led principally by the owner, and the education side, which is led principally by an experienced educator. The owner’s job is to really make sure that he or she hires the right educational director responsible for the execution of the curriculum, identification of teachers, culture, teacher development, relationship development with parents and students. Collectively, they share the responsibility for executing the curriculum and providing a safe, nurturing developmental environment for kids.
As you came aboard, you gained feedback from franchisees, employees, and parents. How did that process inform current business challenges and adjustments?
I had a fairly prescriptive process that I’ve held myself accountable for, which for me was spending an extensive amount of time in schools and learning from parents, franchisees, educational directors, and basically observing how we execute the Goddard model. In addition to that, we spent a lot of time in sessions with existing employees to understand the work that they do, how they measure performance, what accountabilities and expectations are established and how we celebrate success. I have reached a conclusion that the company continues to be, in my opinion, [one] that’s had a great history but also is positioned for evolution and growth at least at the rate that we’ve seen in the past and probably faster. The trick will be to balance growth while making sure that we maintain the integrity of the business model, which really is about the culture of the company, the academic model, and the outcomes that we want for young people. We’ve engaged in a very comprehensive marketplace assessment, meeting with parents and consumers, using outside agencies. We also have consultants looking at some of our internal structures and accountabilities and really every aspect of the business to make sure that we’re moving ourselves toward being best in class in every category.
So what is your strategic growth plan for Goddard and how does it align with metrics for success?
We’re looking at one of our preliminary market assessments, which really started with an indexing of just how large is this overall early childhood development market space, what is our share in that space, and what are some early indicators about the vitality of the business. When I first came on board, I think the sense was for me, not being versed in the existing business model, that the history of growing the business was primarily focused on new school growth. And we believe that will continue to be a major element of how we grow the business. However, I would also tell you that a secondary priority, one that’s very important to franchisees and one that we want to fully embrace and support to an even greater degree, is on what we call full-time equivalence, or FTE. It is basically the number of students enrolled in a school that marches them toward full capacity. So on average, we have a capacity rating of around 88% to 90%, which is approximately 10% less than our capacity available at any point in time. So the range is some schools at 100% capacity or even greater based on after-school programs and other schools that are 75% or 80% capacity. The point is there’s always opportunity to grow capacity. Along those lines, I’m becoming increasingly interested in learning more about additional services that parents are willing to pay for that provide enrichment after school.
In terms of diversifying the franchisee mix, will you look at opportunities in more urban environments?
Our model has historically been much more focused in suburban communities. I don’t think that’s any secret. This is not the cheapest of the early childhood education models. It’s because we believe the value that we bring is significant and of course, we want our franchisees to be compensated for the level of investment that it takes in order to deliver the curriculum. In terms of markets, I’m not displeased with where we are but I think there’s room for growth. In terms of ownership, I would also say that we have a fairly well-represented, diverse population. But it’s not as diverse nor as many in numbers as I’d like to see. So I can’t tell you today that we have a specific program that’s focused on that but I would say that we’re very open to all groups of people interested in being part of a premium quality system that really cares deeply about educating kids around the country and all communities.