Sponsored by Oregon Business

Expanding universe

| Print |  Email
Linda Baker
Tuesday, May 28, 2013


05.28.13 Blog TomWyattThe recession took a toll on the child care industry, as double-digit unemployment rates reduced parental demand for child care services. Portland-based Knowledge Universe-United States, the largest private provider of child care in the country, did not escape unscathed. In 2012, company revenues were about $1.45 billion, down from about $1.6 billion in 2010.

Now Knowledge Universe, which operates about 1,700 childcare centers nationwide, most under the KinderCare brand, aims to reverse the downward trajectory. In February of last year, the company brought on veteran apparel executive and former Old Navy president Tom Wyatt as CEO. Known for shoring up flagging companies, Wyatt has since hired a new executive team, pulled together a new 3-year strategic plan, and restructured and streamlined a company that at one point had dozens of brands in its portfolio.

Besides KinderCare, the company now runs Children's Creative Learning Centers (CCLC), a client-led child care division, and Champions, a before-and-after-school care program.

Under Wyatt’s leadership, Knowledge Universe, Oregon’s second largest private company, also aims to connect more with its teachers and the community — and better align its corporate image with its child care mission. As I wrote in my 2011 OB profile, Knowledge Universe, which employs 550 in its Portland headquarters, comes across as very secretive and very corporate. Company executives are fond of repeating marketing themes such as “talent, innovation and quality” but say little about two of the biggest problems facing the industry: high turnover and low teacher pay.

Today, a kinder, gentler slogan, “sharing meaningful moments,” decorates the walls of the company's Lloyd District headquarters, as do playful “Be Heard” posters featuring photos of the senior executive team and field vice presidents prancing about with microphones.

I caught up with Wyatt, 58, an affable Alabama native this past week.  The grandfather of three talked about high-quality education outcomes, integrating the company's three brands, the political push for universal preschool and navigating other challenges and contradictions of the highly fragmented child care sector.

Here are a few highlights from our 90 minute conversation:

Hard Times

"Knowledge Universe went through tough times in 2010, ‘11 and ’12, driven a lot by the economy and unemployment. But we're happy with where were going. We're taking care of 127,000 children in KinderCare, the largest number of children since 2010. It’s the math: 10% unemployment is very different than 7.5% unemployment.

When I got here, we were very siloed as businesses, as brands, and we weren’t leveraging each other the way we should. So out of the strategic plan came the story of one company, three brands. When we look at where do we want to take the company, we want to focus on those three brands.”


“I just came from Old Navy, the largest apparel brand in the U.S. It does about $5.5 billion and 30 million people shop there every month. The most loyal customer shops there about 7 times a year. In apparel, that’s a great cadence. At Knowledge Universe, we see our customer twice a day; they are dropping off their child and picking up. So if we don’t engage with you, if that child doesn’t drop your hand and run over to hug a teacher’s leg, we haven’t done a good job. So a focus of the strategic plan is we 'share meaningful moments,' not just with you but with each other. We see a lot of first steps: we see the first word, it's where children successfully have their first potty experience. So shame on us if we aren’t sharing all of that.“

Education excellence

 “Where I believe we have differentiated ourselves significantly and we’re doing a lot more of it today than even two years ago is in the educational quality and curricula we offer. It is world class. We want to take care of your child; we want them to feel safe and secure, but more important is we want to develop that child academically, to give them an infatuation for reading, to give them an understanding in mathematical thinking, which many child care companies don’t do.

About seven years ago, 45 states adopted the Common Core curriculum, which was in the spirit of raising the bar for children. It was an opportunity for states that adopted it to consistently perform at a level that will make us competitive again in the world. We are just now bridging the gap in Common Core with our curriculum. We are rolling out partially in July of this year, and next year we are finishing that rollout.  All of that will give us the opportunity for children from 6-months old through grade school to have the best possible foundation of learning relative to the new levels of expectations."


"If we truly believe we are changing people’s lives, I want proof of that. I want to partner with every state we possibly can and as a child goes into kindergarten and literally takes first assessment in kindergarten.  I want to know how our children stack up to the entire state’s population of kindergarten kids. [Wyatt pulls out a chart showing KinderCare kids in Maryland, including those from low-income families, outperformed kids statewide on key school readiness indicators.] We are now out to many states getting that information. We are going to track our children going forward through 3rd grade, sixth grade, and junior high, because we sincerely want to know: are our teaching standards creating a leg up for these children."

Subsidies and universal pre-school

 "We target middle and upper income families. But one third of our business is economically at-risk kids. They are subsidized from the states working with us. The stimulus that came from Obama — when that went away in 2011, that affected us. Right now, we’re seeing one state go up a little bit, the other go down.  It's come down a lot over last 5-6 years but right now don’t see a risk to the subsidy, even in California, which obviously is in a terrible financial position.

“We’re excited that Obama is talking about preschool education. But what’s going to come from that, who knows. There was going to be a cigarette tax, and that’s gone up in smoke."

Teacher turnover

We’re at a 48% turnover rate, which is too high. It means since we have 28,000 teachers, we’re hiring 14,000 every year. So we make an effort to pay them what is appropriate. Of course, I’d never say it’s appropriate for what a teacher actually does, nor is the military paying what’s appropriate for public service, nor is a policeman getting paid what they should. But they choose to follow that purpose in life.

 The challenge is how do you retain and attract the best teachers. We give them opportunities not just to be a teacher, but if they want to expand to be center director. Many teachers have been with us 20-30 years because it is their calling. We’re also developing our teachers. We have a curriculum to hone their skill sets, and we have two professional development days a year where we literally close 1,600 KinderCares and put all teachers into classroom for professional development.

This year, we’re spending $3 million on a meeting bringing all 1,700 center directors to Disney World. We haven’t pulled these people together in over 10 years. (I got chills saying that). I can’t imagine how you expect a consistent experience without bringing them together, getting them excited about the new curriculum and who we are and helping them develop as managers and educators.”

New business development

 “We brought in a new group of highly-regarded professionals that are working with the best companies around country: JP Morgan, World Bank, Damler, Intel. We are leveraging relationships with those clients saying, yes we have the CCLC group, but we’re trying to extend what was sort of an on-site little benefit for those chosen few.

We just did this with Intel. They said: 'we are expanding into New Mexico, but we can’t afford to add a facility there.' We said: give us your zip codes, tell us exactly where your population lives, and we will map the zip codes against locations we have at CCLC, Champions and KinderCare in the local area.  We just did that for a company yesterday, and within a 5-10 mile radius took care of 100% of their employees.

That has not been done here — ever.  There has never been in the history of the company a banded-together approach to say we have one business development group that is offering a solution to meet your needs.”

From apparel to child care

“When I left Old Navy, it was 8 months before they replaced me because there was no sense that I was leaving.  But I got a phone call from an executive search firm saying we know you’ve run large multi-unit companies; you’ve enjoyed turning companies around that have maybe lost their way and you’ve been successful at it. We would like to talk to you about going into private sector to help children and manage largest company in the space. 

Well, I like being number one. I like the challenge. So I met with [KU cofounders Michael and Lowell Milken], I met Elanna Yalow [KU CEO of Early Learning Programs] and got smitten by it. I also became a grandfather.  That's a life-altering experience.”

Opening up

“It’s amazing what a well-kept secret this company is and that’s a disappointment. We have done a poor job of marketing the company in Portland. I made it a prerequisite for the executive team to live in Portland. 

We have also engaged with Gallup, the world class engagement survey. We’re investing significant dollars in employee engagement to be sure we’re listening to our population. We need them to be happy and excited about what they’re doing here. In the beginning of 2014 we will add to the Gallup survey family engagement. We will compensate teachers, center directors, and field management down to the classroom level as to how well they engage with families and their children.

 We know we’ve been challenged, and we know volume is $200 million below where it was probably when you asked that question before. Ultimately, the community will embrace us, the family will embrace us, the child will embrace us and I’m not at all worried about the top line."

Linda Baker keeps tabs on CEO and public policy issues.




0 #1 DirectorGuest 2013-05-29 15:45:36
Reading the spoken words of Tom Wyatt is as inspiring to me as if he spoke them directly to me in my office. I have been with the company for over 9 years and have seen the ups and downs over the last few years. I run our center close to 90% capacity, 100% last year, because of the fabulous staff that are here each and every day. I am so excited to see the changes that have already started to trickle down to our level. These changes have been much needed and finally our words and requests are being heard. I believe in Tom's passion as I do in my own passion. I tell parent's that tour our center, "My goal here is to have a kindergarten teacher look at my KinderCare children and say, That is a KinderCare child through and through." Not only do we teach them the education that they need, but also the citizenship and kindness that we as adults need to model and reinforce in our young children. I have the most dedicated group of people here at my building and they have started to feel their importance through the great changes that have been put in place. I am looking forward to the ideas, spread of knowledge, new curriculum, and simply the recognition that the teachers of our company are starting to feel and be rewarded for. A big, Thank you to Tom's ideas and leadership.
Quote | Report to administrator
+4 #2 Expanding IssuesGuest 2013-06-04 21:10:47
A pretty picture is painted with pretty words throughout the corporate offices, to distract from the issue. The real issue isn't bouncing back from a recession. It comes from a place where low wages and high overturn continues to be a critical issue to those people who care for very young children. For the childcare workers (aka teachers)that KU manages across the country. The problem the article suggest is that company revenue is down and they will seek to reverse the downward trajectory with a new CEO who reflects an impressive background in the "retail industry". Would that mean Tom Wyatt will address the backbone of their industry, their "childcare workers" who've been long overdue changes to reverse their low wages, no sick days, little vacation time and a health care package they can't afford? Will the crisis for their employees who work everyday to care for the physical, mental, emotional needs of all the children in their care, not be addressed but washed over with more pretty words? Does boost in revenue arrive from an outside source or the only place it can come from, "increased fees on tuition". Will everyone in the office receive their raises and bonuses from these new figures? Or did you give your executive staff a salary freeze until childcare staff receives fair wages? Will Tom Wyatts the CEO with no background in education, child development or childcare (having grandchildren is great, but doesn't count when staff has to be certified, credentialed or degreed) find the necessary financial adjustments come from a pay cut in his own paycheck? Or will the master plan be in the form of tuition increases for parents (as they manage to stay employed in a weak economy)for the same services? Chances are, parents will receive a tuition increase notice to be deposited in a pretty box wrapped in a poster of pretty words! Lets be honest, surveys (no matter how pretty they are)won't pay the bills, food, provide medicine/health care. How many surveys does a Corporation need to know the real issues facing their employees are, are they that disconnected they don't know what they offer employee as starting salary? Let's just say, that childcare workers, the children they care for and their families, "are not shirts and pants". If you're seeking real solutions, address your childcare staff about being paid fair wages (which is why you have high turnover, which provides an unstable environment for children to succeed, which leads to a mirage of problems is society). Care for your childcare staff, not just with pretty words!
Quote | Report to administrator

More Articles

100 Best Nonprofits announced

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

1015-nonprofits01Oregon Business magazine has named the seventh annual 100 Best Nonprofits to Work for in Oregon. The rankings were revealed Wednesday night during an awards dinner at the Sentinel Hotel in Portland.


The List: 100 Best Nonprofits to Work For in Oregon

October 2015
Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Oregon Business magazine’s seventh annual 100 Best Nonprofits to Work For project attracted more than 150 nonprofits from around the state from a variety of sectors, including social services and environmental advocacy.  More than 5,000 employees and volunteers filled out the survey, rating their satisfaction with work environment, mission and goals, career development and learning, benefits and compensation, and management and communications.


Reader Input: In or Out

October 2015
Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The refugee crisis has put immigration and border issues on the front burner, in Europe and at home. In Oregon, attitudes toward illegal immigration haven’t changed dramatically since 2006.



Linda Baker
Thursday, November 12, 2015
111215-taxilindaBY LINDA BAKER

Raye Miles, a 17-year taxi industry veteran, lacked the foresight to anticipate the single biggest trend in the cab business: breaking the law.


Back in Black

Guest Blog
Friday, November 20, 2015

It’s been a volatile year in equities and heading into the holiday season, it doesn’t look like these market extremes will dissipate.


Photos: 100 Best Nonprofits to Work For in Oregon awards dinner

The Latest
Thursday, October 01, 2015
100best202thumbPHOTOS BY JASON E. KAPLAN

Images from the big 2015 celebration of worker-friendly organizations that make a difference.


Roll On

November/December 2015
Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The myth of a freight-dependent economy.

Oregon Business magazinetitle-sponsored-links-02