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Child's Play

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Charlottesville, Va.

In a beige stucco strip mall, sandwiched between Buddy's BBQ and Grill and the Early Times quilting shop, stands what W. Berry Fowler hopes will become a gold mine.

A few minutes before 9 on a fall Saturday morning, Ford minivans and faux-wood-paneled station wagons pull into the plentiful parking spaces in front of the Little Gym International. It's a local franchise of a company that started in Bellevue, Wash., in 1976 with just four locations. Since Fowler got involved in 1992, the firm has turned into a national network with 100 franchises.

That's not surprising, given Fowler's previous job.

In 1979, Fowler, a teacher-turned-entrepreneur, opened the first Sylvan Reading Achievement Center with $14,500. In 1985, he sold what had become the Sylvan Learning Corporation and its more than 300 reading and mathematics tutoring centers for a cool $5.2 million.

The philosophy behind the two companies is essentially the same: Give children a noncompetitive environment where they can take risks, get plenty of positive reinforcement, and show results--and parents who can afford the best for their children will pay for it.

One of those parents is Brenda Dierolf, whose two daughters, ages 7 and 22 months, take classes at the Little Gym. Dierolf shells out $76 a month for two weekly classes plus a $30 annual family fee. Denise, the 1st grader, also attends Brownie meetings and takes Yamaha piano lessons after school.

"It's kind of sad to have to pay money and leave the house just to have time with your kids, but we do things here that we couldn't do at home," says Dierolf, juggling a juice bottle and younger daughter Megan on one knee as she peers through the glass panel that divides the attentive parents from their stretching, tumbling children inside the gym.

Not for Olympic Hopefuls

Denise and the eight or so other children--who range from 6 to 12 years old--sit, legs akimbo, on mats divided into thick strips of bright yellow, red, blue, and green. After a warm-up set to songs parents can buy on tape for $6.95 each in the "pro shop," two instructors run the children through an obstacle course: cartwheel on an overstuffed mat, handstand practice against a wall plastered with cartoon-like children and animals, fast jump in and out of a doughnut-shaped mat, tumble down a ramp, and run to the vault to be spotted into a handstand dismount.

One turtleneck-clad boy hangs back, reluctant to try a handstand. After a few minutes of quiet talk, an instructor shepherds the boy back to the fold for an awkward first try.

"He's a little more daring on the playground than before," Cosmo Mirra says of his 1st grader, who's been attending the gym for 2« months. "Physically, he's not terribly gifted. This could help develop some skills, and the important thing is he's having a blast."

Mirra says the soccer league his son tried last year took the game too seriously. His son stood on the sidelines a lot.

"Here, they let all the kids go at their own pace," Mirra says, "but they challenge them, too."

Says Lisa Davis, a lead instructor and former gymnast: "This is not a place to produce Olympic champion hopefuls."

Sharon Krick Cole opened her Charlottesville Little Gym in late August. A registered nurse and mother of three, she was drawn to the company's emphasis on a low-stress, noncompetitive, reinforcing environment that focuses on physical and social development.

"The kids who fall on their face get just as much attention as those who are doing perfect cartwheels," she says.

That concept apparently has caught on. Her gym draws roughly 300 children a week, ages 4 months to 12 years. When Cole first opened, she thought she would start with 80 children and expand to about 250 in the first six months. She wound up with 264 enrollees within the first month.

On a typical Saturday afternoon, Cole will host three back-to-back birthday parties--which start at $125 apiece--in the gym's party room.

Saturday nights, the gym fills up with children whose parents are taking advantage of the "parent survival night" from 6:30 P.M. to 10:30 P.M. The evening is sort of a stimulating sitter service, replete with storytelling and rides on the cable pulley strung from one end of the gym to the other.

Moonlighting to Moneymaking

The success of the Charlottesville franchise would seem to bode well for Fowler's newest enterprise. But things didn't always go so well for Fowler, whom friends used to call the "Colonel Sanders of teaching" for starting up the Sylvan tutoring franchises.

The 47-year-old says he only really learned to read well at age 24 during his fourth attempt at college. The first time around, his grade-point average was 1.2, he recalls.

"I'd get frustrated and quit and try to do something else for a semester or so," Fowler says. "I was raised thinking I would go to college, so not having completed that was a burden that I carried around with me."

As a child, the embarrassment of being called on to read aloud in class, only to have his stumblings snickered at by classmates, stuck with him. It's part of the reason he became a teacher.

He enrolled in a speed-reading class at Chapman College in Orange, Calif. After the three-week course, his teacher pulled him aside and told him it wasn't speed that he needed, but reading fundamentals. So they worked on basic reading skills.

"It was like somebody turned on the light for me. It totally changed the way I felt about academics and education," he says. "I'd always been real successful in the real world, but not in school. It was kind of like confirmation that, hey, I wasn't dumb, it was just this problem."

The experience would prove to be pivotal for Fowler. He finally finished college with an education degree from Chapman. Through six years of teaching junior high geography and art in Anaheim, Calif., he would draw on his own reading struggles again and again.

In his art class, he had students put together a full-color eight-page comic book that had to have a fully developed story line. The project, naturally, required a good deal of writing and reading.

"So many kids had tremendous potential, but they felt like failures because they couldn't keep up with their peers. I always tried to give kids successes," Fowler says. "I knew how they felt."

Frustrated with his $15,000 annual teaching salary, he started moonlighting at The Reading Game, a Huntington Beach, Calif., tutoring company. In 1978, he left teaching to work at The Reading Game full time. After four months, he asked his boss if he had ever thought about franchising the company to other disaffected teachers. His boss rejected the idea. So Fowler ran with it.

"I saw lots and lots of kids who could benefit from this kind of extra help," Fowler says. "I saw a huge opportunity."

He spent the next year developing his own program, based on what had worked in his own classroom. With the $14,500 he got from selling his home, he set up a prototype center in Portland, Ore. By 1980, he had sold his first two franchises.

A Millionaire Paperback

Although Fowler had always had a knack for business--to subsidize his college education he ran art concessions at two California amusement parks--he owes some of his entrepreneurial initiative to his mother.

While he was still teaching, she sent him a paperback book for his 31st birthday. The book, Ten Young Millionaires, profiled the lives of such fortune-builders as Texas businessman H. Ross Perot and Ray Kroc, the founder of the McDonald's restaurant chain. He read it over the winter holiday break and was convinced he could do the same thing.

"I knew I probably wouldn't be able to make my fortune sticking with the public schools," Fowler says. "I constantly thank my mom for giving me that book."

But his friends in teaching told him he was crazy for leaving school for such a risky venture.

After Fowler sold Sylvan in 1985, he stayed on as company chairman. But when the Sylvan higher-ups decided to move the company headquarters from Bellevue, Wash., to Montgomery, Ala., Fowler, then 40, decided to opt for an early retirement.

So in 1987, he took off, family in tow, on his 50-foot "Ocean Alexander" cabin cruiser for a three-month jaunt. When he returned to his waterfront home on Mercer Island, near Seattle, he took up drawing and painting.

Eventually, he moved the family to Hawaii. He bought a luxurious house near a golf resort in Kaanapali, on the island of Maui. He swam. He golfed. He drove his kids to school. He was bored.

"I really started worrying that I'd turn into a big golf bum with no brainpower left," Fowler says. "It was just constant vacation mode."

A Teacher at Heart

In early 1992, the Fowlers flew back to Mercer Island for a visit. They never left.

When Fowler's wife enrolled their 3-year-old daughter Nicole in a Seattle-area Little Gym, the franchise bug bit Fowler again. He had met Robin Wes, the founder of Little Gym, just before taking off for the cruise, but he recalls: "I thought it was just a cute little program, but I didn't see the potential."

This time, he also saw the connection between Sylvan and Little Gym.

"They were doing all the things necessary to prepare for school, and, really, for life," Fowler says of Little Gym. Teaching such things as cooperating, taking risks, following directions, building self-confidence: "All the kinds of things I was working on with kids at Sylvan."

So Fowler signed on as the chairman and chief executive officer for the company, sowing the franchise seed and developing "Little Gym On Wheels," in which a fleet of vans takes the program to day-care centers and other sites.

Today, Fowler owns 42 percent of the company, which due to its rapid growth has not yet become profitable. Franchisees, who run the gamut from burned-out Wall Street bankers to former gymnasts, sit through training at the Little Gym International College of Fun and Fitness in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland.

Soon, gyms will be opening in Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand. And Fowler has begun planning a new Little Gym program that would help prepare children emotionally, intellectually, and otherwise for their first day of school. He plans to survey 1,000 1st-grade teachers across the country and field-test the program as early as this summer.

"I'm asking them to give me a picture of that child who's ready to show up for class," he says.

Meanwhile, Fowler's back to working 80-hour weeks. He's been back to Hawaii once for four days since he lived there.

But his ultimate goal is to return to teaching--this time teaching teachers.

"I'll always be a classroom teacher at heart," Fowler says, though he realizes it will likely require a pay cut. "It's just a question of when."

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