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Young Ones to Watch: Chris DeJong, Founder & President of Big Blue Swim School

DeJong spoke with 1851 Franchise to discuss how he entered the franchise industry, what advice he has for up-and-coming business owners and more.

Chris DeJong, founder and president of Big Blue Swim School, began his career in competitive swimming during his college days at the University of Michigan, eventually turning to professional teams after graduating. He worked with the same coach as Michael Phelps, helping him earn the No. 4 rank in the U.S. and No. 5 rank in the world for his backstroke performance. DeJong had his sights set on the Olympics, but missed qualifying for the team in 2004 and 2008 by four-tenths of a second each time. 

Fueled by his personal disappointment, DeJong left the sport determined to help young kids fall in love with swimming the same way he did. He moved to Chicago and began giving lessons to three year olds. Seeing how excited the kids were to conquer their fear of the water and learn to swim inspired DeJong to open Big Blue Swim School in 2009. Today, Big Blue has plans to grow through franchising and have 150 pools open by the end of 2021.

1851 Franchise spoke with DeJong as part of our Young Ones to Watch series in order to learn more about his story.

1851 Franchise: How did you get into franchising?

Chris DeJong: After about 10 years of refining [Big Blue’s] unit model, we finally felt it was ready to expand out of our local market. We looked at all our options and determined that franchising was the best path forward for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the opportunity to leverage experience and skills of our franchise partners to help direct Big Blue Swim School’s future success.

1851: What do you love about the industry?

DeJong: The partnerships and friendships forged in the franchising industry are really special. We have the ability to offer operators the opportunity to be their own boss while providing an essential service to their communities. I have met so many hard working people in franchising that know how to roll their sleeves up, get to work and motivate a team.

1851: What makes someone a good fit for the franchise industry? Are there traits that are shared by the most successful franchise professionals you know?

DeJong: For the most part, the traits that make you successful in franchising are no different than other industries. However, I have noticed a unique demand for exercising both your strategic and tactical abilities which is what I love about the industry. Both high-level and front-line thinking is required almost on a daily basis.

1851: How do you feel about the industry's response to the coronavirus crisis so far? Are there challenges or opportunities that the industry still needs to address?

DeJong: I think everyone is continuing to do the only thing we know how to do at this point — take it one day at a time. Looking ahead to the winter, we know there will be challenging times ahead. It’s important that we all plan for a variety of scenarios which should include the possibility of full-scale lockdowns again. While I remain optimistic that we are closer to the end of this rather than the beginning, as leaders, we need to make sure our teams are prepared to respond to the ever-changing landscape that comes with a global pandemic.

1851: What advice do you have for other young up-and-comers in the space?

DeJong: I would encourage others who are looking to get into franchising or are just starting their journeys to find who their role models are. Ask yourself what success looks like to you and find someone who embodies your version of success. Learning from others who have already blazed a path is a crucial initial step to effective goal setting.