Entrepreneurs can usually point to the moment when their successful idea was born. Such is the case of David Persson, president and CEO of Marietta-based The School Box, a 17-store chain of education toys, games and school supplies.
“We didn’t start on our kitchen table,” Persson said. “We started in my wife’s classroom.”
In the late 1980s, when his wife, Chris, was a first-grade teacher at Murdock Elementary, she frequently enlisted him to help her prepare for the school year.
“She would drag me around to shop for her classroom, and there were not many places to go,” Persson said. “One day I innocently asked ‘We are spending a lot of money, when are they going to pay you back?’ When Chris replied that ‘They aren’t, I have to buy all of this stuff,’ the idea for business was born.”
At the time, Persson managed several East Cobb McDonald’s locations.
“I loved it, but I was at the tipping point where I was either going to enter the McDonald’s franchise program, go back to school or do something different,” he said.
Despite the two years he spent assembling a business plan, the banks — still reeling from the savings and loan crisis — turned him down for a loan.
“People didn’t understand what we were …. We weren’t like anything else out there,” Persson said.
He eventually found the nonprofit Business Development Corporation, which facilitated a $100,000 Small Business Association loan, and in 1990, the original School Box opened on Johnson Ferry Road in East Cobb, where it remains today.
With Chris still teaching, Persson worked in the store, and they both worked weekends. With the rise in popularity of home schooling came the trend of parents supplementing education more at home.
“Our generation was starting to realize that if our child was struggling in a subject, we needed to help at home,” Persson said.
“I opened the first store not visualizing 17 stores,” he said. “What I did know right away was that the teachers would come further (to shop), but the parents would only come from so far.”
A year and half later, they opened a second store near Town Center mall, and it quickly became the No. 1 store, paving the way for expansion.
“In the first eight years, we opened 10 stores and had two children,” said Persson. “We were doing what we wanted to do and it was working.”
After the birth of the couples’ first child, Chris left the classroom and began working in the business.
The company expanded throughout metro Atlanta and Tennessee, with three locations in Cobb. In 2008 they opened a 40,000-square-foot distribution center in an industrial park off Chastain Road, near Kennesaw State University.
Persson said that in 2009 the recession caught up with the business and has affected everything from store size to product offerings.
“The school system has no money,” Persson said. “Cobb is running on a $100 million less than it was three years ago. You don’t just make that up — you stop spending.” He adds that with the lack of teacher raises and additional furlough days, teachers are investing less in their classrooms.
“They now shop for just the basics,” he said.
“We have watched our business change,” said Persson. “The parents are the only ones who have not changed. If anything, they have become more energized to help the teachers and their children.”
Persson says a new store costs $150,000 for inventory and systems. They have not closed any stores, but have downsized or relocated several, downsizing their average store size from 8,000 square feet to 4,000 square feet.
The company employs 300 people, including 65 in Cobb. He says they will reach $17 million in revenues this year, down 12 percent from their high in 2008. They invest $700,000 annually in local advertising and catalogs.
“We are working hard to get back to that number, and I think we will, but it’s not going to happen overnight,” he said.
Judy Thigpen, head of Wood Acres School on Johnson Ferry Road, has known Persson since his first store opened.
“He is a true entrepreneur, a true philanthropist, a true supporter of education and a true gentleman,” she said. “He hires so many teachers and education students … He has supported educators in every school in this county … and he has done it without a thought of being recognized for it. I have never met a finer man
CEO PROFILE: DAVID ALLEN PERSSON
* Title: President, CEO of The School Box
* Age: 47
* Education: Graduate of Sprayberry High and 3 years at KSU.
* Family: Wife, Christine: Son, Michael, a freshman at Western Carolina University: Daughter, Anna, a junior at Mount Paran Christian school.
* First Job: At local movie theater.
* Best Job: Continues to be my current job.
* Lesson learned the hard way: Bigger is not always better. We have grown too quickly at times and even went through a phase of opening stores bigger than they should be. We definitely have to plan more cautiously these days.
(Reprinted from the Marietta Daily Journal, September 23, 2012. Written by Sheri Kell. Read more: The Marietta Daily Journal – Right place right time School Box CEO David Persson got his start in the classroom )