Chris DeJong may have missed the qualifying for the U.S. swim team in the 2004 and 2008 Olympics by a few seconds, but so far, he’s not missing out on business.
The Michigan native started a swim school concept in the Midwest that not only is unique in its target market but also for what it does for dying strip malls.
Now, he’s bringing his franchise to Arizona – with an eye on Ahwatukee as one of the ideal sites for his Big Blue Swim School.
With a meeting for investors scheduled in Phoenix on July 23, DeJong has identified about a dozen Valley communities for his franchise, which started in 2012 and has recently opened its fifth Illinois location.
As a student at the University of Michigan, DeJong, now 35, was a competitive swimmer, ranking among the top five in the world along with Olympian Michael Phelps. In fact, he and Phelps had the same coach.
While he lost to Phelps for a qualifying spot on the 2008 U.S. team by a mere 3/10ths of a second, he couldn’t stay out of the water.
“After that, my swimming career was over and I just started teaching,” said DeJong, who describes himself as someone who was always around water because his dad ran a marina on the shores of Lake Michigan.
“It was just kind of a reflex and a way to make ends meet when I realized that it was a really rewarding way to make a living,” he said.
So out of a rented commercial pool in 2009, he started offering swimming lessons, targeting only children 6 months old to age 12.
“I loved it and got to share my passion with young kids,” said the father of two, 10 months and 3 years old.
And so Big Blue Swim School was born, first at a commercial pool he rented until he got together the money he needed to gut an abandoned supermarket and create his first official School.
Big Blue’s business model offers new life for dying strip malls abandoned by a big-box anchor, DeJong said.
Though he stressed that “our primary focus as a brand is to be in the path of least resistance for the consumer.”
That means being located in a community with families with young children “who know the importance of learning how to swim” and operating in a building “where it’s easiest for them to come and have some lessons.”
“Institutional landlords or the big landlords that own a lot of these shopping centers love our concept,” he said. “We’re bringing families to the shopping center to do their swim lessons. And then ultimately after their swim lesson, they’re hungry. So, they’ll go grab lunch and then usually run another errand within that same shopping center.
“Hard-goods retail is getting hit the hardest with Amazon and the like and so we’re able to backfill those spaces and landlords really get excited about us because we bring 1,700 to 2,000 families a week to the shopping center.”
“That being said, we do have stand-alone locations,” he added, noting one school is located in an old car dealership.
As far as teaching is concerned, Big Blue’s concept aims to fill what DeJong sees as a hole in the billion-dollar swim-lesson industry.
With 4-foot-deep pools where the water is kept at 90 degrees, Big Blue relies on technology and full-time teachers to ensure that students learn to swim – and that their parents can see their progress.
Open only in the evenings and weekends, Big Blue offers continuous weekly lessons that give parents the flexibility to start and stop lessons whenever they choose.
“We track each child’s progress every time they swim with us, so you’ll see new skills gained at every lesson,” he said, explaining how the company developed a software platform, called Lesson Buddy, that virtually manages the entire operation and provides a mobile app so parents can chart their child’s progress at will and schedule or cancel a lesson.
By employing only full-time instructors – and giving them a career path aimed at keeping them – DeJong said Big Blue also benefits from his own love affair with swimming.
“I bring a lot of high-level swimming knowledge to a curriculum that is designed to help kids learn how to swim faster,” he said. I don’t mean that they learn how to swim across the pol faster. I mean they learn to swim in a shorter amount of time because we think our curriculum is the best out there. It touches on all different learning styles, so whether you’re an auditory or visual or kinesthetic learner, we make sure that every little skill that we teach addresses the needs of those different learning styles.
“And then we require mastery of every step in our curriculum before kids move on to the next. What that means is you’re not going to have an instructor just reciting a tired curriculum and hoping that some of it is absorbed by the kid. We actually call our instructors teachers because they’re trying to get mastery of the skill before they have that kid move on to the next skill. Then we track that progress on a daily basis and, and return that data back to parents on the phone.”
DeJong said he is optimistic about the prospects offered in Arizona – and Ahwatukee, one of his company’s top-five targets in the Valley.
He declined to discuss potential sites, but said he is looking forward to talking with investors in Phoenix next week.