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DELAWARE – Just three years away from his U.S. Army retirement, Phil Kitson, who was formally trained as an LPN, never dreamed he and his wife would manage a booming daycare business with six locations.
Today the daycare is thriving, but getting it started took a lot of work.
“I didn’t know I wanted to run a daycare business – I figured I would stay in nursing in retirement,” said Veteran Phil Kitson. “Even after two successful centers, I honestly didn’t see this as a full-time role.”
Kitson entered the U.S. Army at 17 as an EMT and LPN. He was stationed in San Antonio, Texas for a six-month training. Because he didn’t have a car, he relied on public transportation, which turned out to be where he met his wife, Aretha. The couple was married in 1996.
Phil’s last assignment, which began in 1997, landed the couple in Delaware, where he assisted with training at the local LPN schools.
Pregnant with their youngest of three children, Aretha was concerned because the couple could not find a place they believed would provide safe and stimulating child care without a year-long waiting list for an infant.
“I decided I wanted to stay home and open my own daycare. Eventually enrollment grew to the point that we needed to move it out of the house, mainly because we saw the opportunity to expand it,” said Aretha.
One day while running errands, she spotted a place for rent that was owned by a retired Air Force military officer. The Kitsons jumped on the opportunity and immediately renovated the 6000 sq ft. building, expecting they might enroll up to 20 children.
“In 1998, we opened our doors to 60 kids and were at capacity within the first month of being open. We remained full for 2 years straight, and in our second year we won A Governor’s Award in Excellence from the Delaware Women’s Law Association.”
Phil’s plan was to retire and utilize his LPN degree; however, with the wildly successful daycare, he decided to continue to help manage the business. When he retired in 2001, the couple rented another site from the same veteran landlord, which also reached full capacity shortly after opening.
What started as a home-based business, now operates under the Kidz Ink umbrella. The Kitsons currently own six Delaware locations in Bear, Smyrna, Middletown and Dover, with 146 employees and approximately 110 to 130 children at each site.
Since the pair had no background in daycare and no business history, Phil and Aretha did not have any loans for opening the first two centers – they were self-funded and started everything from scratch.
“We used our two incomes, credit cards, borrowed money from my parents, but most importantly, our landlord took a chance on us,” said Phil. “He gave us an abatement while we did renovations and worked with us on county issues. He understood what we were trying to do.”
Meanwhile, the Kitsons thoroughly researched everything from how much square footage they needed per child to how many bathrooms. They even had to have the ground certified and tested at one facility location because it previously functioned as an ice factory that used chemicals.
When the business first opened, Phil and Aretha not only worked all day at the daycare, Aretha worked at a separate job at night. They opened the center at 6 a.m., and stayed late to wax floors after the children left after 6 p.m. All three of the Kitson children were there to help through the renovations. The family business was a 24/7 operation.
After the second center was flourishing, they knew they wanted to continue to expand, but needed financial help.
“We went to several different banks, and we ultimately landed on PNC. PNC also helped with an additional loan and we’ve been with them since then,” said Phil, a PNC customer since 2003.
Kathy Lawson, a PNC business banker, has been working with the family throughout the relationship.
“We’ve worked with PNC on multiple deals, and I can communicate with them at any time. I always say I have an accountant, a lawyer and Kathy,” said Phil.
Phil Kitson’s military skills have transitioned into his work at the daycare, specifically his financial organization skills.
In the military you learn to manage your men, your mission and yourself. Learning how to manage those can be applied to any position you choose to take.
Although Phil preferred the combat side of the military, he also did a lot of administrative work. He capitalized on his love of numbers, which he got from his accountant dad, and ran logistics with his officers, including budgets and unit spend.
Now he manages the financials for Kidz Ink., while Aretha handles the daycare operations and staffing.
The couple employs their own system of checks and balances that Phil likes to call the ‘separation of church and state.’
“Most of our friends ask us how we can work together all the time, but we just came together and figured it out,” he said. “She picks out the furniture, and I tell her if we can afford it.”
The Kitsons continue to think about how they can further their love for business and the daycare.
“We’ve been on quite a journey the last 18 years,” said Kitson. “You have to put so much time and effort into your business. Many people look at the shine of our business, but don’t realize the grind it takes to get it there. You have to put in a whole lot of work before you can see the piece of coal start to shine.”
The Kitsons have been approached by many people for advice on how to open a daycare – even a daycare in a Pa. casino. They also have become a staple in their local area for business advice.
“I’ve had people come to me for advice on how to get started with opening a business. I believe in advising people when you can, based on your experiences,” said Phil.
I always say it is important to pick people’s brains and ask questions, but to be successful you have to do your research and just be willing to talk about the stuff you need to hear, not just what you want to hear.
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