WICHITA – Two Wichita businesses have been named by the U.S. Small Business Administration as winners of the agency’s 2013 Small Business Week awards. Randy and Darla Schaller, owners of Tree House Learning Center, Inc., have been named the Kansas Small Business Persons of the Year. Recipient of the Small Business Exporter of the Year award is MoJack Distributors, LLC and owner Dan Drake.
Since 2004, Tree House Learning Center has provided families in Wichita and surrounding communities with caring, high quality daycare services for children ages 12 months to 12 years. Operating as both an early childhood preschool and childcare program, it is the Schaller’s goal that every child considers Tree House as their “home away from home.” Innovation in childcare is what has made Tree House successful. “When we took over the business,” says Darla, “few daycares had cameras allowing parents to check on their children at any time via the internet, but we did it, and parents appreciate it.” They were also quick to add technology to their curriculum with computers in every classroom. Parents value the professionalism demonstrated by Tree House employees, a reflection of the Schaller’s’ belief that people who work with children are “early childhood professionals” - not just babysitters - and should be treated as such.
The Schaller’s journey into entrepreneurship began with their genuine love for children – a love exemplified by Randy and Darla’s commitment to serve as foster parents to more than 50 children over the years. After working on staff at a local franchise daycare and later operating her own home-based childcare business, Darla was excited when the opportunity to buy an existing, but struggling, daycare facility presented itself. After many hours of analysis, business planning and pouring over the numbers, she was rewarded with approval to finance the purchase through SBA’s 504 loan program.
The initial challenge was to rebuild the center’s enrollment, which had slipped under previous ownership. Within the first six months under Darla’s management, the center was operating at 85% capacity. After three years at or near full capacity, Tree House expanded their facility, creating space for 24 more children. The business has not only weathered the recent economic downturn, but continues to thrive with last month’s opening of a second west-Wichita location. Also financed with SBA’s 504 loan program, this new facility added 24 additional employees to care for 100 more children.
The roots of MoJack Distributors, LLC can be traced back to owner Dan Drake’s hometown of Atlanta, KS. It was there he crossed paths with a farmer that had designed a new product – a riding lawnmower lift that raised the mower bed, making it easier to do maintenance and repairs. Recognizing the product’s potential, Drake struck a deal with the farmer and the rest, as they say, is history. MoJack was founded in 2007 and the company began developing a worldwide manufacturing and distribution system for the new product.
To finance his plan of taking the farmer’s idea to a grand scale, Drake sought assistance from the U.S. Small Business Administration’s 7(a) loan guaranty program. “The SBA loan gave us the initial seed capital we needed to launch our business,” he says. “With our first loan we were able to prove our concept, expand manufacturing, and buy inventory.” In 2010, the company utilized SBA’s 504 loan program to purchase the building on Rock Road that now serves as its distribution office.
Today, the success of MoJack Distributors, LLC cannot be denied. In addition to its flagship lawnmower lifts, the company has expanded its product line to include hand trucks, dollies, ladders, work benches, and mower attachments. The company’s products are prominent in stores across North America, including Lowe’s, Sears, Home Depot and WalMart. In 2009, MoJack began exporting and its products are now sold around the globe, including Europe, Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. The company has filed patents in over 50 countries.
Now in its sixth year, MoJack employs 11 people directly and estimates over 300 jobs have been created or sustained with the work it outsources. In addition to being named SBA’s Small Business Exporter of the Year for Kansas, MoJack has been the recipient of many other honors including the Kansas Pipeline Initiative Growth Award in 2012, INC 500’s 208th Fastest Growing Company in 2011, and Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce Small Business of the Year Award Nominee, also in 2011. In addition, Drake was a 2012 finalist for the Ernst & Young National Entrepreneur of the Year award.
Both businesses will be recognized at the Wichita City Council meeting on Tuesday, July 9th at 9:00 a.m. The public and media are invited to attend. Tree House Learning Center and the Schallers were nominated for the SBA award by Grant Roskam, Senior Vice President of Carson Bank, and MoJack Distributors and Drake were nominated by Wayne Symmonds, President and CEO of Frontier Financial Partners, Inc.