Inside Track: Still in charge and going places
Adversity has never stopped Bridgett Tubbs-Carlon, the founder of the highly successful AppleTree Learning Centers.
Growing up in a single-parent household in the early 1980s, there just wasn’t money for luxuries like traveling in Bridgett Tubbs-Carlon’s world.
Since age 12, she’d worked summers, weekends, and before and after school at all kinds of jobs — especially babysitting, and she often had the additional responsibility of looking after her younger brother.
So it was a great disappointment when, in her junior year, Martin High School said there would be no more class trips. “I wanted to go to Cedar Point,” she said. “I said to myself, ‘I can organize this.’”
And she did. She called Greyhound and found out how much it would cost to charter a bus, and then recruited classmates to commit to the trip and to get some of their parents to volunteer as chaperones.
“Everybody paid their way and away we went,” she said. She did it again the next year, too, that time needing three Greyhound buses.
One of her high school jobs was as a short-order cook at a diner in Martin, often before school starting at 4:30 a.m. and sometimes after school. Summers, she worked on farms baling hay and at Vande Bunte egg farm, “pulling” eggs out from under the hens.
And always, she did a lot of babysitting, which she liked because, even as a kid, she liked being the boss. “It always seemed like I was the one in charge,” she said.
She wouldn’t recommend it, but Tubbs-Carlon said having to work from an early age, without much parental supervision, and having to figure out how to get things done actually had a silver lining.
“Today I’m not afraid of 50- or 60-hour work weeks. As a matter of fact, I’m not sure I would know what to do with a 40-hour work week.”
She didn’t go to college after high school. Instead, she got married, and when she was 19, she adopted an 11-year-old girl. For work, she ran a day care business in her home for seven years.
When her adopted daughter became an adult and moved out, Tubbs-Carlon divorced her husband and moved to Grand Rapids. At age 28, she began attending Davenport College.
“That’s where I really started deciding that I wanted my life to be different. I didn’t want to live in poverty. I wanted to surround myself with people who had like values and like morals, and I really wanted to make a change,” she said.
She studied small business and accounting at Davenport, and she had a plan — but it wasn’t to start a business. She wanted to join the FBI and work in forensic accounting. In the meantime, she married Doug Tubbs, a carpenter employed by the city of Grand Rapids.
When she graduated with honors, earning an associate’s degree at Davenport in 1997, she decided to use the degree and start her own business: a daycare center — but not the usual daycare center. She wrote a business plan and had a professor at Davenport look it over, with encouraging results.
“In the interim, my house had burned down,” she said, and she and her family were living in a hotel while the insurance claim was being worked out. The settlement provided the seed money for starting AppleTree.
Tubbs-Carlon’s first business landlord provided a big break. She had found a building for lease owned by Bill Kozak, one of the founders of Moore & Bruggink Consulting Engineers. She said a lot of commercial property owners, when considering a new tenant, “want you to have experience and background and a lot of money behind you. I didn’t and I didn’t and I didn’t — on all counts,” she said with a laugh.
But Kozak decided he would take a chance on her, so she and Doug, with help from family and friends, began to renovate the property: “the old Boy Scout building” on the corner of Ann Street and Monroe Avenue. They soon discovered they didn’t have enough money for the state-mandated fire sprinkler system, so Kozak helped with the financing.
As a carpenter, Doug “knew how to build,” she said, and “we worked together to get (AppleTree) off the ground.” It opened in February 1998. That fall, Doug was diagnosed with cancer, which he struggled with almost 10 years before it killed him.
“He was sick the whole time AppleTree was being born,” she said.
On opening day, AppleTree Learning Center had a dozen kids in attendance and a staff of six. It was designed from the start to be a pre-school facility, not just a daycare center where kids whiled away the hours while mom and dad were at work.
Tubbs-Carlon said she still has her time cards from the first few months of AppleTree’s existence. She said it shows she put in 100-hour work weeks, seven days a week, doing the bookkeeping, payroll, teaching — virtually anything that needed to be done.
“But it took off really fast — we didn’t expect it,” she said. “Within 90 days, we were full with 100 kids.”
Her daughter Anna, dubbed “the original AppleTree kid,” was there from the start and always served to remind Tubbs-Carlon that her business was aimed at doing the best possible for the children’s benefit.
Tubbs-Carlon says AppleTree pioneered the Internet web cam now in use at many pre-school centers. In fact, it had one when it opened, which enabled the parents with computer access to check on their kids in real time. She had discussed the idea with friends who were computer geeks at Davenport; they told her they could make it work.
It was such a new concept that one day Tubbs-Carlon got a call from somebody identifying himself as Gov. John Engler. At first she thought it was a joke, but then he explained how the state government had heard about her Internet camera system and wanted to make sure it wasn’t something unauthorized individuals could hack into. State officials realized it was a great idea that would probably spread, so Engler sent a government official to Grand Rapids to check it out first-hand, and Tubbs-Carlon got the official go-ahead.
One of her biggest challenges today is that “public schools are kind of becoming our competitor. It seems a bit unfair that my own tax dollars” are being used to set up child care centers, she said. In fact, last year she was invited to Lansing to talk to state representatives about state funding for pre-school educational centers.
“It needs to be fair and equitable across the board, so that private and for-profit (centers) are able to qualify for these funds,” she said.
Today there are 17 AppleTree locations in Michigan. Each offers preschool classes in math, science, reading and more — “development of the whole child,” said Tubbs-Carlon. AppleTree has created about 500 jobs and served more than 20,000 children over the last 17 years, according to Tubbs-Carlon. Three more centers will open next year in Lansing and Kalamazoo.
This year AppleTree launched a new national brand called Gilden Woods, child care centers “exactly the same as AppleTree” but designed to be a national chain.
2014 was also a major year of recognition for Tubbs-Carlon and AppleTree, beginning with an EPIC award from the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, honoring a Woman-Owned Business. Then she won the Hy Berkowitz Professional Excellence Award at the Davenport University Alumni Awards Celebration. Most recently, she was the recipient of the Business of the Year Award from Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women.