October 21, 2020

Taking the Plunge, A Swim School’s Story of Perseverance

Goldfish Swim School Banner

After thirty years in the financial services consulting sector, Tobey Kelly decided it was time to take a step back and develop a plan for her “second act.” She looked to her sister-in-law and brother-in-law for inspiration, as they had recently become a Goldfish Swim School Franchisee in Pittsburgh, PA. “They were loving life, had found something they were passionate about, so we took a closer look.” After additional research, Tobey and her husband, Tim determined the aquatics industry would be a good fit for them. Family and close friends certainly questioned their plans, as Tobey had been a lifelong marathon runner and not much of a swimmer. But nevertheless, Tobey was determined to find that same passion and excitement her sister-in-law and brother-in-law were experiencing, and with that they “took the plunge, no pun intended.” In June of 2018, Tobey left her job in the corporate world and by November 2018, her and Tim were the newest franchisees for Goldfish Swim School in Milford, MA.

Justin Thomas, of Northern Bank’s small business lending team, had the pleasure of helping Tobey secure financing for the build out of the school’s facility. We recently caught up with Tobey to see how their team has navigated the pandemic and what the future has in store for them and their little minnows.

The Challenge

After just a year and a half of being in business, the school had positive cash flow and enrollments were on an upward trajectory. Seeing the big smiles on faces as children mastered blowing bubbles underwater or paddling over to the edge of the pool, served as daily validation that Tobey had made the right decision. “There is nothing more rewarding than watching these students, and then witnessing the joy on their parent’s faces as their children gain confidence with every new skill.” Tobey hired a GM to handle the day to day operations, while she oversaw the finances, developed the marketing tactics and set direction for all programs – and then COVID hit! On March 13th, the school closed, and students were unenrolled. Tobey and her team had to make difficult decisions. They found some relief from a PPP loan, but ultimately had to shut their doors for four months.

The Pivot

As soon as the Commonwealth gave the green light, Tobey sprang into action to make sure all protocols were in place to get those kiddos back in the pool. With the opening date set for July 13th, “I had to completely retool the curriculum, taking into consideration building capacity, reducing the number of students in the pool, as well as reducing the number of lanes open by more than half.” Not being able to operate at full capacity, puts revenue hovering at about 30% of where they were pre-COVID. However, Tobey remains optimistic as they slowly build back up their enrollments, that were at zero only 5 months ago. Tobey and her team follow strict safety measures such as temperature checks and screening questions before being able to enter the building. They also allow only one guardian per student to watch the lessons. “We are taking those extra precautions because I care about the health of our staff and families and I want people to feel safe when they come here.” Tobey even purchased a hospital grade disinfectant sprayer and is sanitizing the equipment and facility surfaces after every lesson, basically every 30 minutes. Hiring a greeter to conduct the temperature checks and questions, as well as purchasing PPE equipment for instructors to wear during classes, has been expensive. The “positive reviews from families, where they get what we are trying to do”, has kept Tobey and her team energized and hopeful.

The Opportunity

In a world of remote learning or hybrid models, and the fact that most fall sports and activities have been cancelled, now more than ever parents are looking for ways to keep their children engaged and active. Tobey wants to provide children with an opportunity to get some exercise, burn off energy and learn new skills, as well as give parents much needed breaks! At the end of September, Tobey rolled out Bubbles Club, a beta group swim drop-off program. The children come to the school for 3 hours, where they have a 45-minute lesson, 30-minute free swim (pool games), partake in water-safety focused arts and crafts and activities based on the school’s Science of SwimPlay philosophy. This new program has been well received and welcomed by families and spots are filling up!

Tobey has also decided to revisit her expansion plans! In the coming weeks she will be reviewing properties and conducting site visits in Southern New Hampshire to be the next Goldfish Swim School. She is thinking that in approximately 8 months, “things will be back to normal”, and is hopeful that by this time next year, they will be celebrating the grand opening of a new school. Tobey’s tenacity and passion embodies the entrepreneurial spirit Northern Bank is proud to partner with and we are honored to share their stories.

Here at Northern, As Your Partner for Growth®, we celebrate the perseverance of our clients and support them when they need us most.

Do you have a vision for expansion? Or a new business opportunity? Let’s connect! Justin and the Northern Team are here for your SBA lending needs.

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About Northern Bank & Trust Company

Northern Bank is a full-service bank dedicated to providing practical, common sense financial solutions to help our customers live their lives and grow their businesses. From deposit products to loans to payment and collections services, we work hands-on with our entrepreneurial customers, both locally and across the country, to provide the financial support they need to realize their personal and business goals. Founded in 1960, Northern Bank has assets of $3.11 billion with 12 locations serving communities throughout Middlesex County. Northern Bank is a Member of the FDIC, and an Equal Housing Lender.


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