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By Gary Puleo, gpuleo@timesherald.com

New Times herald –Business

POSTED:  08/28/12

NORRISTOWN — Savvy entrepreneur Kym Ramsey knew that the business of providing much needed day care for children in places like Norristown was never going to be child’s play.

But thanks to a couple of equally savvy landlords, The Willow School opens its doors this week at 401 DeKalb Street as the second tenant in the historical Bell Telephone building’s grand $4.6 million comeback.

Parents and caregivers who check out Ramsey’s vision this week during The Willow School’s open house — through Friday — will get a strong sense of the compassionate curriculum she and her husband Ric are bringing to an under-served community and catch a glimpse of the solid business foundation supporting the caring environment.

The Willow School opening dovetails with the couple’s goal following the sale of their successful Goddard School franchise in 2008 — at a nearly 30 percent return on their investment — of nurturing young minds in an urban setting.

“When I sold the Goddard school, the big child care centers like the Goddards seem to go to suburban areas with high income levels and I noticed that they’re not always in areas where children need quality care as well,” Kym Ramsey said. “That’s why I’m so excited to do this on my own this time.”

Staffed by qualified and experienced teachers, The Willow School offers full- and part-time programs as well as reduced tuition rates offset by federal grants and subsidies.

The Ramseys had formed Ric and Kym LLC in 2001, dedicating their efforts to meeting children’s education needs starting as early as infancy.

As working parents of three girls, they understood what it takes to provide a safe and healthy environment that fosters early learning and development skills, particularly for minority children.

Back then, Kym and her husband considered many options for their business model, from starting their own center to operating one from their Plymouth Meeting home, to buying into an established chain of day care centers,

They chose to initially operate a franchised day care school, learn the ins and outs of the operation and then transfer that knowledge to the development of city child care centers that offer quality education, while using what they know to be pragmatic business practices.

“I learned a good quality system with Goddard,” said Ramsey, an Aurora, Colo. native with a Bachelor of Science Degree in International Economics and a string of sterling credentials that include an appointment as 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Army, commanding 1700 soldiers at the Headquarters Division at Camp Casey, Korea.

“I’ve been to child care centers where people have a lot of passion for teaching children but they don’t know how to manage the business side of things,” Ramsey said.

“And sometimes they go out of business or can’t keep their license and it’s just a shame for everybody. I try to combine my passion for children and the need for learning for everyone and then my business knowledge and put it all together,” she added. “I tried to convince Goddard to do centers in urban areas like Philadelphia but they didn’t want that big headache of trying to penetrate the market. So I tried myself. I scratched the surface in Philadelphia and had several great locations but I couldn’t find a developer who had a vision for working with the community and helping me break into the market … because it’s hard from a business end if I have an exorbitant rent and I don’t have children yet. But after you do, it becomes affordable. That’s the problem Goddard had with going into the city because they want to charge that large rent right at the door.”

In finally locating the space in Norristown owned by Ken Weinstein and Bob Kaufman — partners who were so inspired by the DeKalb Street building’s history and potential they incorporated its address into the name of their firm: 401 DeKalb Associates LLC — Ramsey said she also found landlords who “have a passion for community and understand the need to have a child care center in the community, and were willing to take the risk. Whereas in Philadelphia everyone will wait for the next Starbucks or the next pizza joint vs. taking the risk to build a community.”

From a discerning landlord’s perspective, Kaufman said the decision to convert an entire second floor into The Willow School was a no-brainer.

“This is a couple who live in Montgomery County and also do business in Montgomery County, so it’s exciting to bring a new business into downtown Norristown,” Kaufman noted.

“We spent a considerable amount of money working with our architect on additional renovations and working with Kym and Ric on renovations to the space to make it an exciting looking space. Like any landlord would do, we had to evaluate the management expertise of the tenant. They’re great people to work with and they understand how to grow the business.”

Growing The Willow School into a system that can ultimately be replicated and franchised in any location was Ramsey’s plan from the outset, she said.

“I hope to become like a Goddard School and open several more Willow Schools across the United States. But my first venture is here in Norristown, focusing on bringing a quality school to Norristown right now where it is needed.”