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How to Grow a Franchise: Tips from Franchisor Drew McWilliams of Ivybrook Academy

Ivybrook Academy co-founder discusses franchising his business

Drew McWilliams discusses franchising and scaling his brand to over 75 locations in 17 states.

When Drew McWilliams' wife, Jennifer, came home from her job as a first-grade teacher in 2005 and announced she’d found a new calling, the couple had no idea they would soon be taking their first steps toward a wildly successful franchising career.

“The brilliance of Ivybrook – the creation – all the kudos go to my wife,” says Drew McWilliams, franchisor and co-founder of Ivybrook Academy, a private half-day preschool, kindergarten and daycare franchise system that also offers summer camps for young children.

In 2007, the McWilliams opened Ivybrook Academy’s original location in their home city of Weddington, North Carolina, after Jennifer took a two-year sabbatical to focus on writing the fledgling school’s curriculum. Almost immediately, the couple knew they had something special on their hands.

“We had a massive success in a short period of time. … We were very fortunate on our very first day in business, being in the black,” McWilliams recalls, noting that the school’s success continued even as the nation’s economy faltered over the next few years.

“There was a Great Recession from 2008 to 2010, and what does every good business owner do? They probably shrink during those times. We decided to double down – we opened a second location. And that was the best decision we ever made. We took advantage of a down market and opened a second location, and it was equally successful out of the gate,” McWilliams says.

Since opening that second location in Fort Mill, South Carolina, in 2011, the McWilliams have grown Ivybrook Academy to over 75 locations across 17 states as franchisors. The secret to their success? Education – and drive.

Room to grow – and helping others

Over the decade that followed, Ivybrook Academy’s two locations thrived under the McWilliams' shared leadership. Despite their success, however, the couple never considered growing the business further.

“Franchising was never on our radar,” McWilliams says.

That began to change, though, as students’ parents began to relocate from the major banking region to other states due to promotions and job transfers, often begging the McWilliams to open additional schools in those locations. After the president of the Parent Teacher Association of one of Ivybrook’s two initial schools relocated to Des Moines, Iowa, the McWilliams began to take the pleas to open more schools out-of-state seriously.

“She called my wife every day for 30 days saying, ‘You need a school here in Des Moines. My first two children graduated from your school and my third didn't. I'm worried my third is going to regress and not have the same head start in life.’ And that was really the catalyst for us to look at how to expand,” McWilliams says.

Ultimately, the McWilliams decided to franchise Ivybrook Academy based on two factors: having the opportunity to enrich the lives of more young children around the nation, and because the parents of their former students had already conducted almost a decade’s worth of organic market research for them – proving to the couple that their brand had a strong chance of succeeding in locations beyond the borders of North Carolina.

'You don't know what you don't know'

For McWilliams, whose successful career in real estate helped finance Ivybrook Academy’s startup costs, learning the ins and outs of the franchise industry was critical to succeeding as a franchisor.

“Getting into franchising, I had no idea what franchising was. Thankfully, I was connected to the right person at the right time,” McWilliams says.

McWilliams credits Steve Beagelman, founder and CEO of SMB Franchise Advisors, as a key figure in shaping his knowledge of the franchising industry – and knowing the right steps to take as a startup franchisor.

“I'm a big believer in education. … You don't know what you don't know. Go seek advice from others that have gone through it before,” McWilliams advises.

At Ivybrook Academy, a key part of that education centered around partnering with franchise owners (a phrase McWilliams is adamant about using in place of “franchisee”) whose values, skills and drive are aligned with the franchise system itself – something McWilliams believes can make or break a franchise.

“We go through an interview process. … You’ve got to really get to know the person. [We don’t approve] everybody that applies to be a franchise owner,” McWilliams says.

In addition to interviewing prospective buyers, a critical part of the interview process at Ivybrook Academy includes the opportunity for candidates to interview the franchisors – something McWilliams says helps ensure the franchise relationship is a good fit for everyone.

“I want [candidates] to interview us as much as we interview them. I mean, it's got to be a right fit. You're about to sign an agreement, a piece of paper that says we're in business together. We're married for the next 15 years,” McWilliams says, noting the importance of making sure everyone is on the same page and shares common business goals and values.

Building lasting relationships – and success

When it comes to choosing the right franchise owners to partner with, McWilliams says drive is a major factor for franchising success.

By avoiding franchise buyers who are on “autopilot” and partnering with entrepreneurs that are willing to actively invest their time, energy and resources in their business, McWilliams believes there’s a higher likelihood of success for the franchise – and the franchise system as a whole.

“I'll take someone that has drive and no experience all day because they're going to be able to figure it out, rather than someone that has 40 years of experience and thinks that it's just going to come to them just because of the last 40 years of success that they had,” McWilliams says.

At Ivybrook Academy, McWilliams’ philosophy has already paid off – and contributed to building lasting relationships with the company’s employees over time.

“We have three vice-presidents of our company. Two of them have been with us since we started 17 years ago. They went from being part-time teachers to full-time teachers, then they just kept moving up the ranks,” McWilliams says.

As a franchisor, investing in lasting relationships matters. McWilliams says one of the greatest highs he’s experienced since embarking on his franchising journey was when his first franchise owner came back to him, asking about buying a second unit.

“When the first person comes back and says, ‘I want to do it again,’ – that's pretty special,” McWilliams says.

For more information about franchising opportunities with Ivybrook Academy, visit

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