Family businesses generate over 50% of the US Gross National Product but less than one third of them survive the transition from first to second generation.
That statistic doesn’t hold true for an expanding 2nd generation business, the Center for Montessori Education, NY Inc. Here’s how owner and CEO K.T. Korngold is growing her business.
The Center for Montessori Education in New York is based on the Montessori teaching philosophy and method and has two arms, an extremely popular training center for Montessori teachers and Montessori school administrators along with a successful childcare facility.
The Montessori philosophy is based on the work of educator Dr. Maria Montessori who founded the movement in 1907, when she opened her first school. The underlying idea is that children are individual learners with an intrinsic desire to learn, who are helped by teachers who serve as guides. This focus on individual learning and mixed age grouping allows students to work at their own pace, promoting healthy development, developing executive function skills, and supporting intrinsic motivation.
“My mother started this company during the time of the second wave of the feminist movement," said K.T. “She heard Dr. Nancy Rambusch, founder of the American Montessori Society (AMS) and an active leader in Montessori, speak and thought ‘Oh my goodness, I want this revolutionary form of education not only for my child but also for myself.’ Mom opened a Montessori school but couldn’t find any qualified teachers so she founded her own training facility.”
The training center because the first to offer Infant and Toddler training for an AMS Montessori Credential and the first to offer Administrator training for an AMS Credential.
Her mother, Carole Wolfe Korngold, was very well equipped to follow an entrepreneurial path. “She has a business degree and worked for Bloomingdales department store as a buyer. She’s a very savvy person,” said K.T. “Opening a school was not daunting for her at all… She became a trail blazing leader in the Montessori world traveling all over the U.S. and establishing eighteen different Montessori training programs from Alaska to Puerto Rico to South Carolina. She was also on the forefront of bringing authentic Montessori education to children of all socio-economic backgrounds."
The Center for Montessori education trained teachers at some of the most renowned Montessori schools in America, such as Brooklyn Heights Montessori, Gloria Dei Montessori, Montessori School of Anderson, Penn Mont Academy, Washington Montessori, and The Whitby School, and also worked with underserved communities: the Foundation Center for Migrant Workers in Sacramento, CA, Hall Neighbourhood House in Bridgeport, CT, St. Mary's Hospital for Severely Handicapped Children in Bayside, NY, the Seneca Nation of Indians in Salamanca, NY, and public school districts including Jackson, MI, Pittsburgh, PA, Yonkers, NY, and Guaynabo, PR.
K.T. recalls that in the beginning the offices of the center were in her family’s dining room when she was growing up. “My sister and I stuffed and licked envelopes and were even pictured in the brochures. In the summers, I worked at the training program. I grew up with Montessori everywhere!”
However, it was not K.T.’s intention to take over her mother’s business.
“I received a Masters from Columbia and was going to go into editorial and publishing. But I just kept coming back to the family business. Everything I’ve done in my professional life has trained me for this job.”
In 2011, Carole was ready to retire.
“I was willing to take it all on. I had my Montessori Credentials, and my experience in business, so I knew how to read a balance sheet and do projections," she said. "I was also a Montessori child myself, so I think outside the box and I am persistent. When I hit a wall, I always look for a window or a door."
However, there were significant obstacles. In 2011, America was still in a recession and things were very tight economically.
“I’m very proud of the fact that I was able to turn this around and make the organization balance again,” said K.T. “It was important that I could stand on my own with my own knowledge and experience as a business woman. People could trust my information and ideas, and thus they trusted me. They knew I had the best interest of the community at heart.”
In addition to a training program, the business runs a Montessori program for children housed in a local hospital that offered a scholarship program for lower compensated employees.
Unfortunately, the business hit a few speed bumps. First the scholarship program was cancelled by the hospital landlord, then they were informed they had to vacate their location. After 26 years, they had just 14 months to move out. K.T. knew she needed funds to relocate, start over and succeed again.
“Although there are 'for rent' signs everywhere, it’s very difficult to find the right space,” said K.T. “I knew there were going to be lots of expenses - moving costs, set up costs, new equipment, and more. My mother mortgaged her home to start up the business. I made a decision that I wasn’t going to do that.“
She applied for a small business loan through traditional avenues.
“I had been with my business bank for ten years and had an excellent reputation with them. There was no reason in the world for them not to loan to me… But they didn’t.”
K.T. also approached her personal bank. She was an ideal candidate for a small business loan but heard another 'No.' “I’ve created jobs, been incorporated since 1991 and am a female-owned business. I have a sustained record of achievement but was still turned down,” she said.
K.T. started the loan application process for an SBA working capital loan with SmartBiz® after seeing a feature about the company on MSNBC.
“I was so happy because not only was this going to be viable but the loan would be reasonably priced. I felt that SmartBiz had respect for the work that we do and what we’ve achieved. I’m very proud of my SBA loan.”
K.T. found the SBA loan application with SmartBiz easy. “I was so delighted by that process,” she said. “When I was applying with the traditional banks, I had to fax and email confidential documents. They didn’t seem to have a process for secure uploading. I didn’t feel comfortable with that.”
During the process, K.T. found a new location for the Montessori center. However, it wasn’t zoned for childcare.
“I was told I’d have to hire a lawyer at a cost of $150,000 to get it approved through the town.” K.T. decided to do it herself and was successful in securing zoning approval.
“I stood up in front of the town zoning board and explained what we do: how we were one of the first Montessori childcare centers in the country, and that folks come from all over to observe and learn from what we do. The new center would also be a beacon. Not only would it serve the local community, it would attract educators from around the world to learn and get inspired to this way of providing high quality educational experiences for the very young children. I had just returned from Hanoi, Vietnam, where I had worked with 50 toddler teachers. I was able to stand in front of the board, and speak from my heart about the transformative power of the work we do. The council agreed. They said, ‘bring on the Montessori children.’”
During the SBA loan application process, K.T. hit another speed bump when a landlord subordination was required.
“The landlord didn’t want to do that initially. But SmartBiz has folks that won’t give up. They are as persistent as I am and it made all the difference.”
Once the subordination was granted, she received the SBA loan from a SmartBiz Loans® preferred SBA partner bank and is now is able to move her business forward. The funds she received will help in a big way.
“The building we’re moving the childcare center to is an old Citibank – it’s sort of funny because Citibank wouldn’t fund me,” she laughs. “The drive-through window will be transformed into a trike path, the teller machine will be an outside classroom covered portico.”
She’ll also purchase an integrated security and phone system, tables, chairs and Montessori materials along with a “big, beautiful banner that says Montessori Children’s Center”. The center is on track for July 1, 2018 opening, and she will also be hiring a new head teacher, three assistants and a cleaning staff.
Now that her mom is happily retired and living in Colorado, K.T. is proud to have brought the company to this next stage of development.
“The first generation when you open a business is pure energy – you do it all and you learn as you go. My mother was unstoppable, she was an energizer and an empowered,” she said. “If you are in the second generation of leadership, you need to be sure you bring your area of expertise to the table and that you have the credentials so folks can and do trust you. You also need a team of folks who make up your leadership community – whether it is a trusted board or trusted experienced advisors. I depend very much on my team of advisors, and I am glad that SmartBiz Loans became part of that circle!”
K.T. learned directly from her mom and 8 years later, has incorporated many of her mother’s skills. “I can say that now I’m a world traveler like she was and I recognize how important the relationships are between people in ensuring the on-going success of the organization.”
K.T. has advice for other business owners seeking an SBA loan. “First, they should apply with SmartBiz. Next, they need to have answers at the ready and a concrete knowledge of how much you need. It’s a reasonable process for a novice but not impossible.”
K.T. reflects on the best part of business ownership. “It’s great to be the person who makes the decisions. Even if I make a mistake, I can learn from that and correct and recalibrate. I like being able to move swiftly and solve problems.”
She also likes taking good care of her employees, and that often takes the form of sponsored Montessori training.
“Folks will sometimes leave our school but we have a high rate of them returning to work for us,” she said. “Not only am I creating a learning environment for children while their parents are at work, I’m creating an environment for women to have a fulfilling job. Just as we teach our children in Montessori classrooms, our value as human beings is not about achievement of externals rewards, it is about the way we contribute to others and the service we offer to make this world a better place. It is very satisfying to be able to create a real physical place in our community – a Montessori Children’s Center – that offers a career path for women with professional and joyful work and helps families by providing a beautiful place for children to grow and develop to their potential."