Tapping into a longtime love for education, Joe Liu began searching for real estate in Southern California to open a Sylvan Learning location. While looking at potential sites, he came across an existing location in Irvine. Liu decided two locations were better than one, so he took over ownership of the Irvine center with plans to open a Tustin Foothills center less than four months later.
Liu’s interest in Sylvan Learning was a logical extension of a long career in education. Liu grew up with a family of teachers. As a child, Liu would hang around the high school where his mother taught, and at family gatherings, he’d listen to his mother trade school stories with his grandfather, also a teacher.
Still, Liu wasn’t always certain that he’d pursue a career in education.
“The only thing I was sure about after college was that I wanted to have a firm grasp on how to manage my own finances,” Liu said.
So, Liu found work at a bank, reasoning that first-hand financial experience would come in handy no matter what path his career took. Eventually, he was offered an opportunity to teach at a local after-school program, and he felt a welcome sense of direction. Liu worked at that after-school program for two years before heading to Melbourne, Australia to pursue a master’s degree in education.
With that commitment to a career in education established, the only question was how exactly to apply his experience. Liu was already an able and compassionate teacher, but he also had a wealth of experience in finance and operations. As he began to look for ways to intertwine business experience with his education, becoming a Sylvan franchisee became a frontrunner.
“Before I went to graduate school, I had been interested in Sylvan,” Liu said. “What stood out to me is their holistic approach to learning. It’s a brand built around the idea that a child’s education is completely integrated with every other facet of their life.”
But Liu was not immediately convinced that a franchise model was for him, and after graduate school, he opted for a more traditional environment in higher education. Liu found various administrative roles with Loyola Law School, Saddleback College and Irvine College.
Liu was happy to be successfully applying his dual expertise in education and operations, but after a few years of working mostly in admissions and records, he felt he had more to offer. Specifically, Liu had been workshopping an idea for a new education program for international students.
Liu decided to leave his admissions job and dedicate himself full time to developing that program, which he launched with his wife, Shelby Wu, in 2014 as LUD, Inc. The program provides educational services to international students, taking the same holistic approach that Liu had noticed in Sylvan years earlier.
“Immersion is central to education,” Liu said. “Our program provides international students a full and true cultural experience by immersing them in a thoroughly planned study tour, and the program continues to evolve to offer more supplementary services to our students.”
Invigorated by LUD’s success both as an educational service and business, Liu felt equipped to take on another venture, and Sylvan was at the top of his mind.
“When we were developing LUD, I did a lot of research on supplemental education, and I learned a lot more about Sylvan,” said Liu. “I already liked their approach to education, and I knew they had a great reputation in the education community, but I also found that the franchisees really benefited from a strong support system and widespread brand recognition, which is really valuable.”
After three years running LUD, Liu learned of a Sylvan Learning center in town that was in need of a new operator, and he jumped on the opportunity to attend a Discovery Day and learn more about becoming a Sylvan franchisee.
“I looked closely at the business model and the individual programs they were offering, and with every new thing I learned it seemed like a better fit,” Liu said.
For their part, the Sylvan development team was excited to help a new franchisee extend the brand’s presence in Southern California. Liu’s hunt for real estate ended perfectly with the option to not only open a new center in December, but to also acquire ownership, which comes with existing families and awareness, in Irvine. Due to the timing of the acquisition and construction of the new center, Liu will be responsible for operating two Sylvan centers within four months.
“Sylvan saw enormous franchise development growth in 2017, and a major piece of that has been bringing in new franchisees to our existing markets. It’s a clear sign that our model is catching on among consumers and business owners alike,” said Georgia Chasen, Sylvan Learning’s senior director of franchise development. “The idea of growth is central to our model as educators, which applies not just to our work with students, but to our own services and approach to education. We are always evaluating which of our programs are most effective and updating our methods accordingly.”
According to Liu, that progressive approach to education is reflected in Sylvan’s franchisee support as well.
“Sylvan is a trendsetter in education,” Liu said. “The company is always thinking ahead to find how they can better their system, not just in their offerings to students, but also in the policies and services they provide for franchisees. It’s been a great partnership.”