How a Life of Entrepreneurship Led Mike Kelley to Sylvan Learning
How a Life of Entrepreneurship Led Mike Kelley to Sylvan Learning

With his wife Melissa, Kelley is preparing to take over ownership of seven learning centers this year

Mike Kelley’s long and diverse career began when he was just 12 years old. The pre-teen would walk his lawn mower around his neighborhood, offering mows for $20 a lawn. After parlaying that gig into a paper route, Kelley soon landed a job with a local home builder. By the age of 16, Kelley’s resume included room-cleaning for a hotel chain and even management experience, which he picked up as the supervisor of a 12-person shipping-and-receiving crew for an auto-parts wholesaler. He then received an associate’s degree in business, management, marketing, and related services at Rasmussen College. And at 21, Kelley transitioned into sales for a fitness equipment company, and at 23, he jumped careers yet again, starting a jewelry design business in partnership with a local family-owned jewelry store.

Business ownership was a good fit for the lifelong entrepreneur, who along with his wife Melissa, bought out his partners’ jewelry shop when they decided to retire in 2012. But Kelley wasn’t done exploring. After becoming a father two years ago, he decided to seek out a new business-ownership venture, taking a look at becoming a Sylvan Learning franchisee.

“During that time, my wife and I had our first child, a little girl,” Kelley said. “She has been an amazing blessing, and she puts everything we do in perspective.”

That change in perspective extended to his career ambitions, and Kelley says he began looking for an opportunity to help others with his work.

“It’s always been easy for me to get caught up in the daily or weekly grind, but when you raise a child and you see how they need you for everything, you start to realize how fulfilling it is to spend time teaching and helping a person to grow.”

When Kelley learned of the opportunity to purchase seven existing Sylvan Learning centers in his market, he saw the perfect chance to merge his ambitious entrepreneurship with his newfound dedication to nurturing children’s growth and development.

“Sylvan struck me as a strong business opportunity but also a chance for real personal fulfillment,” Kelley said, “and that’s exactly what I was looking for.”

Kelley knew there were other supplemental education opportunities besides Sylvan, but he says it didn’t take him long to rule them all out.

“Everyone I spoke to said Sylvan was the premier brand for supplemental education,” he said. “It’s time-tested and has the strongest brand. I wanted to provide the best service by joining the best company; it was a no-brainer.”

Beyond the franchise’s branding and longevity, Kelley says he recognized a number of operational benefits to the system, many of which stem from what Kelley sees as a prioritization of people and technology.

“At its heart, Sylvan is a people business,” he said. “It’s about people helping people. On top of that core philosophy, Sylvan uses amazing technology to provide the best possible services. It’s a simple business model that they have absolutely perfected.”

That model also aligns comfortably with Kelley’s own business philosophy, which he says he applies to every business he works in.

“My business philosophy is simple: take care of people. If I take care of my employees, they will take care of our customers,” Kelley said. “That goes for any business. When I was in fine jewelry, people expect the highest level of service and quality, and meeting that expectation comes naturally to me. That’s the same level of service and quality I plan to instill in my Sylvan centers. Whether you’re in jewelry or education, whether you are selling a $10 product or a $10,000 product, people deserve to be treated respectfully and with exemplary customer service.”

As Kelley prepares to run his first Sylvan Learning centers, he says he already has a long-term growth plan for the business. “We’re going to start slow, then we’ll ramp up aggressively over the next three to five years,” he said.

To facilitate that growth, Kelley says he’s going to focus first on people and second on marketing.

“We’re going to invest heavily in our people,” he said. “We’re going to have intermittent and ongoing training for all staff to make sure everyone on our team is operating at the highest level. The next priority is making aggressive investments in our marketing and sales efforts, which will include digital and online media as well as community events and partnerships.”

Kelley says he is also dedicated to fulfilling Sylvan’s mission of making each of its learning centers neighborhood hubs, integral to their communities.

“We intend to pursue partnerships with local schools and community programs,” he said. “There are so many students and families looking for extra help, and Sylvan is so well-equipped to fill that need. Establishing those roots in each community is a top priority for our first two to three years.”

Guiding all of Kelley’s plans for his new venture is a commitment to family, both his own and those of his clients.

“Sylvan may be a corporate brand name, but make no mistake, my centers are going to be local, family-owned businesses, run with my family values at heart,” he said. “We are always going to put people and families first. Sylvan has a slogan, Learning Should Be Personal, and that’s exactly how we plan to run our centers: personally.”