When Eileen Huntington took a leap of faith and left her teaching job to set up a tutoring business, she could never have imagined where Huntington Learning Center would end up 42 years later. “I was working as a high school teacher and I really saw a need for individualized tutoring to help kids who were struggling and falling behind,” she explains.
“My husband and Co-Founder Dr Ray Huntington had a background in business, and together we built our vision for Huntington Learning Center. Our goal then was the same as it is now – to give every student the best education possible. With that in mind, we designed a learning system addressing the students in a personalized, one-to-one way, looking at their individual needs in the area of growth that they needed.
“It’s very humbling to think, here we were – two kids who opened this business, and now as the CEO today to see it in action, to see the fabulous team we have in place, people with skills in each of the areas that are significant in growing a business – it’s just an amazing feat. It amazes me every single day.”
And grow that business they did. Renting their first office in Oradell, New Jersey, in 1977 – next door to the current Huntington headquarters – the couple opened a second center within 10 months and 16 more between Philadelphia and New York over the next seven years. In 1985, they began franchising, and now Huntington operates 300 centers across 41 states.
Just like for their students, those early years were critical for the business and represented a steep learning curve for the teacher and her husband. “Going from teaching to running a business, it’s like anything – the beginning can be filled with highs and lows,” she says.
“But in our favor in this whole endeavor is the dynamic of my teaching experience and my husband’s business acumen, because prior to this, Ray was a senior business analyst for a Fortune 500 company in addition to being a college professor.
“Any business decision we make, we make it with the student in mind.”
“From the start, we created systems and procedures that were key to our success. I was busy recruiting and attracting certified teachers and enrolling students, and Ray was establishing processes and procedures. It took a lot of perseverance to take one idea and move that idea into action. One thing we learned along the way is growing right, not growing fast – that’s key.”
Now Huntington is the number one revenue producing tutoring franchise, with franchisees earning 53% more than the closest competitor. Between 2009 and 2017, average center revenue increased by 33%.
Huntington students see an average increase of two grade levels in reading and math, a 5.3-point increase in ACT scores and a 226-point increase in SAT scores over a three-month period. And it’s estimated that incoming college freshmen last year secured US$140 million in scholarships with help from Huntington test-prep programs.
“We really stand out from our competitors because every business decision we make, we make with the student in mind,” Eileen adds. “Huntington is about building the confidence and motivation that really turns these children around. We see the difference we make in people’s lives – and that’s what makes me come to the office every day.”
She’s also been busy for the past six years training daughter Anne to take over the business, but Eileen doesn’t show any signs of being ready to step away just yet. So what lessons can she pass on to her eventual successor?
“I tell people: listen more than you talk, and you learn more.”
“If I was doing something else, I wouldn’t be as passionate as I am,” she says. “For me, it’s about listening to what’s going on in the business, talking to people across different departments, listening to franchisees. I tell people: listen more than you talk, and you learn more. I also feel that, as a business leader, empathy is very important.
“As a former teacher and a mother, I try to put myself in the shoes of a parent who comes through our doors. I try to put myself in the shoes of a franchisee who’s starting a new business to understand the challenges they face.
“As CEO of the company, through all the fantastic people we have in all our different departments, I think about how I make a difference with each group that I am responsible for,” she continues.
“I would say the most important lesson that I learned over the years is to fire fast and hire slow. You’re only as good as your team, and if you have a weak link in the team holding everyone back, it hurts your mission. Our mission is so important because we do change children’s and families’ lives every day.”