Company ProfilesIconic BrandPrevious IssuesSeptember/October 2023

Iconic Brand: Tried-and-True Teaching

Kumon offers franchisees like Neelam Bandali a fulfilling franchise opportunity that has stood the test of time

By Kym Wolfe

The basics of a child’s education, as the old saying goes, are reading, writing and ‘rithmetic. Kumon has focused on those fundamental literacy and math skills since it opened its first learning centre in Japan in 1956. Since then, it’s grown into one of the largest and longest-running supplementary education programs in the world, with more than 26,000 Kumon Centres worldwide.

It’s all thanks to the Kumon Method, a proprietary program that doesn’t follow any school curriculum. Instead, students progress at their own pace, using self-directed worksheets designed to build a strong foundation in math, reading, and writing skills before moving on to more complex material with the ultimate goal of studying content above their grade level.

The first Canadian Kumon Centre opened in 1980 and is still operated by its original owner. Many franchisees are long-term operators, and some are reaching retirement age. That, as well as increasing demand within newly built and growing communities, is creating opportunities for new franchisees to join the Kumon system.

Kumon currently has 411 locations in Canada. With a mission to bring the Kumon Method to as many children as possible, the franchise is constantly analyzing markets to identify new opportunities, says Craig Mayer, the manager of centre network development for the Canadian market.

“There is no one-size-fits-all profile for franchisees,” says Mayer. “A great starting point is people who have experience working with children—educating, coaching, mentoring—and have a strong understanding of both English and math literacy. Beyond that, we look for people with experience managing a business and employees, a strong network in their community, and a proven history of delivering top-notch customer service.”

Edmonton, Alberta franchise owner Neelam Bandali worked as a corporate accountant before joining the Kumon family. “I am originally from Pakistan and studied in Dubai and the United States before moving to Canada 17 years ago.” After her children were born, she wanted more autonomy and flexibility from her work, so Bandali decided to open her own business. Rather than starting from scratch herself, she decided to explore established franchises with good reputations. She opened her Kumon Centre in 2016.

“I always thought that if I didn’t go down the accounting path, I would have been a teacher,” Bandali recalls. Indeed, teaching seems to run in the family. Bandali’s husband works in adult education as a post-secondary instructor and her uncle is a Kumon franchisee, which was one of the reasons she was inspired to look into the franchise.

“Kumon’s philosophy of teaching students to be independent learners excited both my husband and me,” Bandali says. “Kumon has been around for six decades and is recognized as being the top educational franchise in the world. It takes care of most of the marketing and provides all of the worksheets and ongoing training and support.”

Mayer says Kumon can be a rewarding business for those who want to do meaningful work. “Being an owner-operated business, our instructors get to work directly with children to help them learn and succeed, and to bridge learning gaps caused by disruption to learning during the pandemic.”

This sense of meaningfulness is one of the things that Bandali appreciates most. “It’s so rewarding to see students progress, gain confidence, and become independent learners,” she says. Whether it’s the “Aha!” expression on a student’s face when they figure out a question on their own or seeing students who relied on finger counting do mental math with ease or having parents tell her that school has become easier for their children, she says, “I am so proud of all of my students’ achievements!”

Extra credit for students and franchisees

Franchisees are required to complete Kumon’s Instructor Development Program—a thorough series of training courses, hands on in-centre training, and individual coaching by a Field Consultant Specialist in all aspects of running their centre. Kumon provides ongoing training and coaching once the franchisee starts operations. At monthly meetings, franchisees discuss different topics of interest and share best practices.

Typically, a franchisee will handle assessments, orientation, lesson planning, and marketing and administration, as well as be present when the centre is open, marking worksheets as students complete them, and providing feedback. Each child’s program is individualized, and lesson planning can be time consuming.

Since classes happen after school and on weekends, Mayer says, “This is not a Monday-to-Friday, 9-to-5 job. The time needed to operate and grow the business can be substantial.” Franchisees hire assistants as the business grows, but Kumon does expect them to remain a hands-on owner/instructor.

When franchisees decide to hire additional staff, finding the right people isn’t always easy. “Staff retention is a big challenge in our business,” says Bandali. “Initially, it was very difficult to find the right group of staff who understood the business.”

To make hiring and retention easier, Bandali learned to ask the right questions during the interview process, created policies and guidelines for staff, and spent a lot of time with staff during the initial and ongoing training. “I have been very fortunate in that I have had a few long-term staff members who understand both the Kumon philosophy and my style very well,” Bandali says. “I am grateful to have a great team who is always there to support me and ensure the business is running smoothly.”

Bandali also struggled initially with finding work-life balance. In the beginning, it was more than a full-time job, she says, and she relied on her husband’s support to manage the household when she couldn’t be at home. “Ensuring the entire family is on board when taking on any new business venture is critical,” she says. “We made an informed family decision and knew Kumon would be our ‘third child,’ and that everyone would need to contribute.”

Technology-assisted teaching

Kumon Connect, which launched in 2023, may make Bandali’s job easier when she brings it into her centre.

The platform uses tablets instead of the traditional pencil-and-paper worksheets for both in-centre and virtual learning. “Offering our program on Kumon Connect allows faster turnaround time for grading and can help improve lesson planning and better remote learning, which benefits both our students and instructors,” says Mayer. “It links the traditional benefits of the Kumon Method and handwritten answers with the technology and convenience families are expecting.”

Initially Bandali didn’t bring tablets into her Kumon Centre. “I saw that people were fatigued from all of the online schooling during COVID, and I was reluctant at first to use Kumon Connect,” she says. But after speaking to other franchise owners who have used the platform, she’s now planning to introduce it in the coming year.

Seven years in, Bandali is still happy with her decision to franchise with Kumon. “Even though my uncle owned a Kumon, I did a lot of research on my own,” she says, and she advises all aspiring franchise owners to do the same. “Do as much research as you can, develop a business plan, and ensure you have enough savings just in case the business doesn’t do as well as you hoped in the first few years, as there will always be factors that will be out of your control,” she says. “Go into your new business venture with an open mind, realizing that it’s going to take time to see long-term results.”