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Sylvan Learning Franchisees Discuss Multi-Unit Ownership and Scaling Their Businesses

Many franchisees approach business ownership with intentions to own a single location. After experiencing the Sylvan community, these franchisees were encouraged to grow and expand even further.

By Morgan Wood1851 Franchise Contributor
SPONSOREDUpdated 4:16PM 06/17/22

Sylvan Learning has been a longstanding name in households nationwide. Founded in 1979, many people even have had at least some experience if not generational relationships with the learning center. These four franchisees joined Nick Powills, 1851 Franchise publisher, to discuss what first brought them to Sylvan and how their visions have grown and changed over the years.

It is incredibly common that Sylvan franchisees have previous experience in education when they first begin looking into the brand, and this was absolutely the case for both Kulvinder Griffin and Nizar Bhulani

Griffin began teaching at a Sylvan Learning prior to pursuing a career in public education. Though she loved having ownership of her classroom, she came to realize that the student-to-teacher ratio made it incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to serve each student as thoroughly as they required — not for a lack of trying. Griffin made a cross-country move and decided to reach back out to Sylvan before pursuing a position in public education, and she was brought on to the team. After serving as a director of education for a short period of time and a center director for approximately 16 years, business ownership felt like the natural next step, she explained.

Bhulani, on the other hand, grew up in an incredibly education-oriented family. After working as a university professor for 10 years, he began to explore how he could approach entrepreneurship in a way that would further education for others.

Our other franchisees, business partners Kent Kolbow and Sarah Miller, have slightly different backgrounds. Kolbow had obtained multiple degrees and, in 1991, fully intended to work for NASA. He was asked to work as a substitute teacher at a Sylvan location one night, and that was when everything changed. 

“I remember working that night with that student, and a couple of days later, I received a letter from that student saying that he passed his first math test ever,” Kolbow explained. “I remember how that made me feel. In the moment I thought, ‘This is what I want to do. This is how I want to feel for the rest of my life.’” 

Miller came to Sylvan from the nonprofit world where she had focused on serving at-risk youth. To her, Sylvan was a way to continue working toward this overarching mission in a slightly different modality.

All of the franchisees agree that their confidence to scale came with experience and support. Whether it was in the form of a spouse, business partner or even Sylvan corporate, knowing that a network of support, resources and encouragement existed soothed the nerves as the owners grew. Each individual shared their unique stories.

Griffin approaches scaling in an incremental manner. After owning and operating her first unit, she had gained the experience and confidence she felt necessary to open a second. Now she continues to learn and grow with intentions of soon opening a third location. Viewing the growth process as something to be done step-by-step allows her to feel prepared at every point in the process.

Bhulani, who now owns and operates 12 units, had envisioned a multi-unit operation from the beginning. Of course, the revenue potential that comes with so many units is appealing, but he says that the potential to serve a larger number of communities in such a widespread manner is one of the main things that encourages continued growth. For Bhulani, one of the hardest transitions was making the leap from operator to owner. After a certain point, there will be too many centers to be intimately involved in each. 

“You cannot run your center if you want to run your business,” he explained. Building a trusted team that can be accountable for daily operations allows the owner to step back and focus on the bigger picture. 

Kolbow and Miller, who also own 12 units across Indiana and Florida, experienced a bit of a push — a sign, some might say. When Kolbow approached Miller about expanding beyond two centers, she had expressed a bit of hesitancy, saying that she did not want to miss important milestones in her daughter’s life, like first steps. Little did they know, Miller’s daughter would take her first steps in a Sylvan Learning center that same afternoon.

They also share Bhulani’s sentiment. Developing a strong, trustworthy team is what will enable growth. And, though it may be difficult, you’ll eventually have to accept that “you aren’t the only person who can do it,” said Kolbow.

As the owners continue to grow, the community response and corporate support provide constant encouragement. Kolbow continues to teach five to 10 hours per week, even after 31 years of involvement with Sylvan. His business partner, Sarah Miller, notes that they have been able to see growth in more aspects than one. “Not only do we impact the lives of children in our communities and families in our communities, but also the lives of leaders in our communities.” Buhlani reports that “It’s been a great ride up until now, and we love what we do every day,” and he is excited to expand further and continue to deliver quality education.

For Griffin, the knowledge that each student who enters her centers is able to get whatever help they need is so encouraging, and the community response is even better. She has received multiple parent and teacher notes remarking on a child’s increased confidence, even going so far as to say that Sylvan “gave them their child back, and the child doesn’t hate school anymore,” she said.

Watch the full video here.

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