Sylvan started in a basement

Early days

August 26, 2002|By Andrew Ratner | Andrew Ratner,SUN STAFF

The origin of a tutoring chain named Sylvan was almost a personal act of desperation by a man named W. Berry Fowler.

At age 24 and struggling through an extended stay at college, he signed up for a speed-reading class.

`This isn't what you need," the instructor told him after a few weeks. "Based on what I've seen, I think you've missed out on some basic information in school."

An assessment that some would have considered as more discouragement Fowler viewed as life-changing. He decided to become a teacher, to help someone as he should have been. He earned a degree and got a job in the public schools in Anaheim, Calif., in 1973. His satisfaction was short-lived, however.

"Every year, my class load would increase and my budget would be cut," he said. "I couldn't give the students the individual attention, and I became frustrated that I wasn't making a lot of money."

He was down on life at age 31 and bedridden with the flu to boot, he recalled, when his mother gave him a book titled 10 Young Millionaires.

Rather than driving him deeper into desperation, the paperback about business prodigies inspired him to come up with his own idea for a business tutoring children. Though lacking in book smarts, by his own admission, he had an entrepreneurial streak, honed from selling caricatures he had drawn at Marineland and other Anaheim tourist spots since he was a teen-ager.

By 1979, he had quit teaching and opened a "reading center" in the basement of the Sylvan Medical and Dental Building in a well-to-do section of Portland, Ore., called Sylvan. Within about a year, he sold three franchises of his Sylvan Reading Achievement Center, including one to an assistant superintendent of the Portland school system.

"I remember thinking, `This is good. This is an excellent start,'" said Fowler, who had relocated to the Northwest from Southern California after he and his wife decided it would be a better place to raise a family.

His tutoring concept won media attention, including an interview on NBC's Today and an article in Newsweek magazine that described him as the "Colonel Sanders of education."

A friend put him in touch with KinderCare Learning Centers Inc. of Montgomery, Ala., which bought him out for $5.3 million in 1985.

Like the subjects of that book he'd read in a sickbed, he had met his goal of retiring by 40. He moved to Maui and for five years commuted only between the golf course and the beach, he said.

He later "unretired," peddled advice to budding entrepreneurs and got involved in franchising child fitness centers and pizza parlors. He now lives in Spokane, Wash., with his wife and four children. Through a new company called A Thousand Points of Knowledge Inc., he helps nonprofit organizations sell their own tutoring services at discount rates.

He doesn't regret seeing Sylvan grow into a half-billion-dollar company without him, he said. Baltimore schoolmates and business partners Douglas L. Becker and R. Christopher Hoehn-Saric bought the tutoring business from KinderCare for $8 million in 1993.

"I'm so proud of what Sylvan has done. Doug and Chris have done a superb job and maintained the quality to the highest level," he said. "I watch with a smile. I was surprised at their youth, but from the start seeing the things they did ... these guys are smart guys."

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