Jan and Hong Chen decided to open a child care franchise to stay in Wake Forest

sbarr@newsobserver.comApril 23, 2014 

— When Jan Chen got word last year that he would be transferred back to his native Denmark, he knew right away that he wouldn’t be going.

Jan and his wife, Hong, had lived in Wake Forest since 2009 and had two young sons. They had bought a house, made friends that were like family and loved all their community had to offer.

The town was home; they didn’t want to leave.

So, the couple instead decided it was time to branch out with a business of their own.

“It was a fairly easy decision to say, ‘No, we need to do something different,’” Jan said.

Figuring out what kind of business to open wasn’t so easy though. Based on their research, they quickly decided they would be taking less of a risk as franchise owners than if they started from scratch.

Jan, who arrived in the U.S. as a senior director at the biotechnology company Novozymes, said he liked knowing that a franchise would have at least some of the backroom functions he was used to, such as finance and legal departments, with an established company.

Then, Jan, 45, and Hong, 36, had to narrow down their franchise options from hundreds to a handful, searching for one that they could imagine growing with for decades and that they thought would make a real difference.

After months of research, they settled on child care, and signed with Discovery Point Child Development Centers almost a year ago to begin the process of designing their center, hiring staff and building the facility. They liked that the company’s curriculum for children was clear but flexible and would allow them to try ideas of their own.

Discovery Point has 51 locations in Georgia, Florida and Tennessee and is planning a push into North Carolina. Six to 10 more locations could come to the Raleigh area during the next three to four years.

So far, Jan and Hong have put hundreds of thousands of dollars of their own money and plan to open this fall. They’re still waiting for the United States to issue the investor green cards that will ensure they can open, a fact that has them nervously eying the calendar..

While they’ll hire staff for the center, including a director, they’ve also taken early childhood development classes along the way to prepare for their new roles. Jan’s background is in engineering and business, while Hong’s is in economics and environmental policy.

Marla Akridge, president of the Wake Forest Area Chamber of Commerce, said the Chen’s story isn’t unusual among local businesses. Career switches are common, and she can even name two business owners off the top of her head who moved from the corporate world to child care. Other small business owners also have struck out on their own to avoid uprooting their lives in town.

“It’s a common theme,” she said. “Once you get here, you drink the water.”

Jan and Hong met in Tianjin, China, when he arrived in the country for work. They married and spent several years in Denmark before moving to the United States.

Jan said that while China could feel like Hong’s home, and Denmark like his, they’re on equal footing in Wake Forest.

“We feel extremely welcome here,” he said.

Hong said that her interest in child development has grown as she and Jan have reared their own sons, ages 2 and 6. She remembers how hard it was for her on some days to drop her older son at daycare and is dedicated to creating a place where families can feel comfortable and confident in the care their children receive.

“It's more like a job from my heart than a business,” she said.

Barr: 919-836-4952; Twitter: @barrmsarah

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