Entrepreneur catering to needs of parents

ENGINEERING BETTER CHILD CARE

October 02, 1991|By Ellen James Martin

You supply the kids. Kenneth Looney promises to provide just about everything else: child care at all hours, hot meals, baby sitters on New Year's Eve and bus rides from your office.

A nuclear-engineer-turned-entrepreneur, Mr. Looney plans to open a Columbia child-care center this month offering so much help for parents that it could make traditional centers seem obsolete.

"This center is going to say, 'What do you need?' and go from there. We're going to fit the center's needs around the needs of the parents," says Nancy Bogage, the director of the facility, WeeCare of Columbia.

The center -- due to open in the Gateway Industrial Park Oct. 22 -- will offer seven-day-a-week care for children of all ages, including infants, who are rarely accepted in Maryland child-care centers. WeeCare will transport children to and from major employers or public schools throughout Columbia. The business's new, red-brick building -- the size of 10 elementary classrooms -- has a commercial kitchen to serve hot meals, state-of-the-art security and three custom-designed playgrounds featuring such amenities as tricycle paths.

Even with all that, the question is whether the center will succeed in a Howard County market believed to be saturated with child-care businesses. But Mr. Looney, who borrowed $1.2 million from the Small Business Administration and the Bank of Annapolis, is convinced his idea will work. "Obviously they never would have loaned us $1.2 million if we didn't have a business plan that knocked people's socks off," he says.

WeeCare is not the first attempt at a flexible, child-care center in the Baltimore area, but it might be the most comprehensive. It is the second try for Mr. Looney, 34, who is struggling to make a profit at a smaller center in Severna Park, which has lost $170,000 in the past 2 1/2 years.

Parents have responded well to the Severna Park WeeCare, he said, noting that more than 1,000 children have been registered for drop-in care there.

But the center is small, which has inhibited growth and kept per-capita costs high, he says. Once the center is able to move to a larger space and pay down its short-term debt, it should be profitable, he predicts.

It's not by accident that he chose a location near the intersection of Interstate 95 and Route 175 in Columbia for the new WeeCare. He expects to attract parents who live in the area, and those who commute between Baltimore and Washington.

With its extended hours of operation, WeeCare targets parents who work odd hours, travel on business or have other needs for flexibility.

The Columbia center hopes one day to provide regular care for at least 150 children. It also hopes to accommodate parents seeking alternative baby-sitting for spur-of-the-moment work or social events.

Parents can register offspring for regular, full-time hours or opt to use the center on a drop-in basis for a $30 registration fee, or both.

Rates will be $115 a week for regularly scheduled care during business hours. Drop-in care will be $3.80 an hour for one child or $5.25 for two. In an attempt to keep the facility in full operation during off hours, WeeCare will offer discounts for late night and weekend care.

Unlike most child-care centers -- typically open until 6 p.m. weekdays and closed on weekends -- WeeCare will stay open until midnight weekdays and until 2 a.m. on weekends. On Halloween, New Year's Eve and any other times parents request it, the center will be open all night, Mr. Looney promises.

Rather than thinking about the customer, too many child-care centers are oriented to the provider's convenience, he says. "They're caught up in standardization rather than flexibility and service."

Mr. Looney was driven into the field by his own experience as the working parent of two small children. During his tenure as a Navy officer on nuclear submarines, he was stationed in Virginia Beach, Va., where a drop-in child-care center was available. He was impressed with its convenience and quality.

He left the Navy in 1987 to work for an engineering firm in Annapolis but kept his interest in flexible child care.

He began the Severna Park center in 1989 and left engineering to concentrate on child care. He says he works more than 100 hours a week.

Mr. Looney believes demand for flexible care in Severna Park -- where many families have grandparents or other relatives to help with children -- is weaker than it will be in Columbia. "Columbia is more affluent, more transient, more career-oriented and has more young parents with young children. They need us more there," he says.

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