As the brand celebrates its 20th anniversary, Falzarano reflects on the company’s past and looks ahead to its future
In the mid-90s, Guy Falzarano was enjoying a successful career in the phone industry, but he was looking for something new, so he started a marketing company with three other people. It was created to help inventors bring their ideas to market. But the problem with this concept was that it required inventors to use the Internet for ecommerce– and it was only 1995.
“My partners said that no one would ever put their credit card on the Internet, so they started developing infomercials,” Falzarano said. “That was the beginning of the end. The company folded after a year and a half, and it was a low point in my life. I had a wife, three kids, and a mortgage – I needed to think of something quick.”
“Looking back, the reason I succeeded at the phone company was because they were moving into a competitive environment, but I left because I had always envisioned myself as an entrepreneur and if I didn’t do it then, I don’t think it would have ever happened,” Falzarano said.
But with failure, often comes new opportunity. Falzarano’s wife Julia had been working as a part time teacher’s assistant at a local preschool, and she suggested that they open up a little preschool in their garage. The idea stuck with Falzarano, well, not the garage part, but the child care part, so he began looking for real estate. The landlord of a new building only two blocks from where they lived, offered Falzarano 5,000 square feet even though he had only was looking for 1,000 square feet for two classrooms.
“I convinced him we could pull this off - my wife had all the child care experience and I had the business experience,” Falzarano said.
And the decision to open a child care center was made. They opened in November 1997 with 54 children, more than half of the center’s capacity of 103. Everyone under the rainbow was welcome, so they decided to call it Rainbow Academy. Falzarano led the charge in building a reputation in the community to deliver great customer service to working parents. They found a niche and the community embraced the center. In April 1998, that same landlord approached Falzarano and asked if they’d like 7000 square feet of a 10,000 square foot building three miles away, and they said yes.
“When I came back to the center that afternoon and told Julia, she looked at me and said, ‘I thought we were going to run just one center, not two!’”
But Falzarano had the right idea. That second center was making money on day one, opening with 98 children. And about a year later, with a strong local reputation for caring for the needs of parents along with providing top notch care and education for their children, these same parents began approaching Falzarano to ask about opening their own centers. But he knew they weren’t ready.
“We didn’t have everything in place to be a franchisor and the model hadn’t been perfected,” Falzarano said. “So, decided on a co-ownership arrangement in which those parents who wanted to run a center would handle the day-to-day responsibility of the business and we would handle the back office functions, like insurance, marketing, curriculum, development, and vendor relations.”
Rainbow Academy continued to grow with this partnership until 2007 when the brand had seven centers open and Falzarano approached a group of investors that agreed to invest in the concept to help grow the business. This plan continued until 2010 when the corporate team decided it was time to expand beyond their home state of New Jersey. Falzarano considered two growth options. The first option was to expand the group of company centers, and the second option was to create a franchise company. The first option required a large amount of capital to grow through company centers. Since they did not want to give up equity in the company, this was less attractive. Franchising however, required less capital and a structure to maintain the essence of the brand they had created and worked so hard to build.
The team decided to franchise and focus on five states they could easily travel to which would help ensure a high level of support –New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and continue.
During this same time, the company went through a rebrand. In 2008, Brenda Febbo was brought on to drive enrollment and strengthen the brand. Regardless of the fact that Falzarano had just completed a new website and logo a month earlier, Febbo had a different vision in mind. One of her priorities was to change the Rainbow Academy name because of the belief it was too generic and not ownable for the future. Falzarano held out on making that final call until 2013, at 6 p.m. when he received a call from a frantic woman who said a staff member at Rainbow child care was doing drugs in the parking lot in Connecticut.
“I told her we didn’t have a center located in Connecticut, and then I realized, that this was going to have to change. Then a Rainbow daycare in Florida left a child on the bus. So I finally felt like I had to do it,” Falzarano said. “We were so emotionally attached to the name that it was a real surprise to me when the rebranding went off without a hitch. It just made sense and the new name was embraced by our staff, parents, franchisees and even the children. We were able to maintain the essence of our brand with the new name “Lightbridge Academy”. It gave us a strong foundation on which to build our future.”
Twenty years later, Lightbridge Academy certainly stands apart from all the other child care centers. “When I started this company, my ‘why’ was to build a child care brand that focused on customer service and in doing so, would stand out in the marketplace,” Falzarano said. “We do that really well, better than anyone else. But my ‘why’ has evolved to include a focus on developing people. Franchising is a wonderful vehicle to do just that. It gives people an opportunity to create their own business but within a proven system to help ensure success. It’s a thrill to see how people have developed on our corporate team. I have individuals that started with me 19 years ago and have developed from teacher assistants to directors to VP’s. This focus is equally important for franchisees as they launch their child care businesses. It takes a team to make a business thrive. While we help children progress through their stages of development, we also can do the same by nurturing each other and our staff.”
Falzarano decided when he turned 50, he was going to retire. Now, at 65, he has no plans to slow down anytime soon. He asked his wife if he should retire, she jokingly looked at him and said, “Not really.”
“I had to agree. I love what I do, so as long as I’m healthy and can keep doing this, I’m not going to stop.”
With 30 centers currently open, and more than 65 more under construction or in development, and expansion into three new states (Ohio, North Carolina and Florida), the brand is hitting serious momentum. After 20 years of success, it is obvious that this journey has just begun.