William S. White Winnetka studied building construction at the Georgia Institute of Technology before continuing at Columbia University, where he received his Juris Doctorate and his MBA in Finance.
White began working for Lehman Brothers’ real estate and investment banking but quickly decided to go into private equity at NorthStar Capital Investment Corp. He worked in New York for three and a half years, focusing on a large billion-dollar company that they owned and helped oversee all the legal documents and all aspects of financing, acquisitions, and dispositions for hotel assets.
William S. White Winnetka continued working at various real estate companies in the condominium market and hospitality sector until 2005 when he co-founded the Montessori Academy of Chicago. A few years ago, they opened a middle school and now serve children from infant to grade eight. Currently, the school has more than 330 students in Chicago’s West Loop.
This father of two teenage boys enjoys all kinds of outdoor activities, from cycling to wakeboarding/surfing to skiing. White also enjoys woodworking, specifically making furniture.
How did you get started in this business? What inspired you to start Montessori Academy of Chicago?
I moved to Chicago when my oldest son was two. My business partner and I saw that Chicago lacked early childhood education centers. They were predominantly cookie cutter daycares. My mom worked for the American Montessori Society, so when my partner and I saw this opportunity, I suggested she get in touch with my mom. Then we started researching real estate investments to start our school.
How do you make money?
We are continuously trying to understand the needs of the parents in our community, and we work to try and create a program that meets those needs.
How long did it take for you to become profitable?
Probably about four to five years.
When you were starting out, was there ever a time you doubted it would work? If so, how did you handle that?
It wasn’t so much that I doubted it would work. It was just a matter of making sure the finances gave us the flexibility to get through the period and time we were building the business. That’s a very stressful process as you are constantly making decisions with limited information. There’s really no perfect decision. There are only your decisions that are being made with what’s available to you at the time.
How did you get your first student?
We created a webpage with the expectation that we were going to be building the school in one location, and we were able to take enrollments based on that expectation. What’s interesting is we ultimately weren’t able to acquire that space and our first students actually attended class in my apartment until we were able to obtain the space that we currently use.
What is one marketing strategy (other than referrals) that you’re using that works well to generate new business?
A lot of it is referrals. I would say that the majority of our client base is coming from a referral. Outside of that, it’s really web based. Having an understanding of Google Analytics and ads is a major asset for us.
What is the toughest decision you’ve had to make?
For me, I think the toughest decision, and we’ve had to make several times, is deciding when it’s appropriate to expand the school. I think with any business you see the opportunity, and you see the clients’ needs, but filling the gap between decision with execution and expending capital dollars before there’s added revenue is always a very stressful decision process to go through.
What do you think it is that makes you successful?
It’s the continual analysis of what I don’t know. I’m continually trying to understand what new skills I need to gain to be competitive and to be of use and value.
What has been your most satisfying moment in business?
It’s that I’m able to use my background in real estate and finance and overlay that with the operational needs of the business, and through that, I’m able to enhance operations and the function of the business.
What does the future hold for your business? What are you most excited about?
We just recently opened our middle school a few years ago, so we now serve children from infant through grade eight. That’s an amazing accomplishment for a school that’s been in operation for 13 years. Beyond that, I’m very excited about the administrative team that’s in place and operating the school on a day-to-day basis.
For me, I’m excited that I have the opportunity to step out and go back to my roots in real estate finance while the school continues to function and operate at an exceptional level.
What business books have inspired you?
Lincoln on Leadership: Executive Strategies for Tough Times by Donald T. Phillips. I read it 20 years ago, and I was very impressed with it. It said a lot about how he made decisions with often conflicting information and managed people who often didn’t agree with what he was trying to do or understand what he was trying to do. I think it’s a good representation of how people function when working in a real corporate setting.
What is a recent purchase you have made that’s helped with your business?
When the school last expanded, we built out a technology room with computers for the students and a smart board for the teacher. This was incredibly helpful in allowing us to develop students’ technological competencies. Through this we to a vital step in the growth of the school and its efforts to educate the whole child.
What is the best part of your job?
As a school, our philosophy is to educate the whole child. So, we don’t only focus on the practical skills of Math, English, and Science. We also focus on social skills of interaction, community, and understanding one’s place in a global community. It’s very rewarding to be able to impact the lives of children in such a way.
What are some of your future aspirations?
I’m looking forward to watching the growth and development of the school from afar while re-entering the real estate, finance, and development community.