Case Studies

Will McCullough – Celebree Schools

Senior real estate director thinks creatively to provide safe spaces for kids

Will McCullough was meeting with developers in northern Virginia to get a daycare built for Celebree Schools when he heard something that “hit close to home,” he says.

“One of them said, ‘We’ve heard about Celebree; there’s a pent-up demand for premium quality childcare in this market, and I’ve got two kids myself, so I can’t wait to see you guys open,’” recalls McCullough, the company’s senior director of real estate. “So that’s always rewarding where people are personally affected.”

Indeed, since joining the company last spring, McCullough has heard similar comments from developers and real estate brokers from northern Virginia to Dallas, Texas, to Atlanta, Georgia.

Celebree is a Maryland-based company that owns, operates and franchises daycare programs for children 6 weeks to 12 years old. Its reputation precedes it, which doesn’t just make it easy to find trustworthy strategic partners to work with; it also clears the way for development to happen relatively seamlessly.

“We’ve found that certain projects need to be rezoned or get a certain level of approval from the county or city, and typically—you know, it’s never a rubber stamp, but when you’re selling the concept of what we do, that’s very well-received,” McCullough says. “It’s an amenity to the community; there’s a demand there, and the usage is very synergistic, often, with the neighboring tenants in the community.”

Celebree currently has 43 schools open, 26 of them Celebree-owned and 17 of them franchises. McCullough is aiming to get that total up to 150 by 2025. When he spoke to Blueprint in July, Celebree had 70 projects in various stages of completion, from site selection to lease negotiation to under construction.

Getting creative to give kids space to play

Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood plays host to one of Celebree’s newest locations. The 10,000-square-foot school itself was a relatively straightforward build, but carving out adequate parking and play areas proved a challenge, McCullough says. The urban property where the school sits didn’t include extra space for either.

So, he and his team had to get creative, negotiating usage of a park that sprawls behind the property, then getting permission to modify the park to bring it up to Celebree standards.

“We’ve worked out with the local city on the approval process and licensing to modify a portion of the top lot into a Celebree playground,” McCullough says. “Our typical play area is about 600,000 square feet, and it’s got a typical [furniture, fixtures and equipment] setup, with the play areas for different age groups, from 6 months to 5 years old. So, we were able to stick with our fairly standard package.”

The school occupies a first-floor space with high ceilings, lots of clear glass interior walls and ten classrooms laid out in an efficient floor plan. According to McCullough, the franchisee is pleased with early enrollment numbers and is preparing to open a second Celebree location in Philadelphia.

When McCullough spoke to Blueprint, he was busy rehabbing and rebranding a former daycare space in northern Virginia to convert it into a Celebree school.

After a groundbreaking in the spring of 2023, McCullough and his team started construction, working to get the building ready to open by fall.

Getting results through effective teamwork

A graduate of Towson University, where he studied finance, McCullough started his career in 2009 as a leasing representative for St. John Properties, a Baltimore-based full-service real estate company. In 2021, he joined Lee & Associates as a senior vice president, and in May 2022 became senior real estate director at Celebree.

At St. John, McCullough and his team worked with many daycares. It gave him some exposure to that industry, which he would draw upon after joining Celebree, and it also taught him the nuances of the landlord’s perspective.

“I feel like being on that side of the negotiating table enabled me to really jump right in at Celebree,” he says.

Today, McCullough says he is grateful for the opportunities he’s had to “run the gamut” in commercial real estate, handling everything from ground-up development to converting light industrial and flex space. And he takes a positive-sum approach to deals—he wants to get the best arrangement for Celebree and its franchisees, but he’s also seen repeat business from landlords who felt respected during the dealmaking process.

“I enjoy the team I work with and coming in and being able to utilize my experience as a commercial broker, as a landlord representative. Coming in, day one, they put a real value on that experience,” he says. “So, working with the team, gleaning quite a bit on the construction side from those guys… New markets, new franchisees, seeing schools get opened; I enjoy the process.”

Moreover, McCullough says Chris Kelleher, Celebree’s vice president of development operations, has been “an amazing resource” for him, motivating him to bring his A game. And owner and CEO Richie Huffman has inspired McCullough with his vision and the loyalty he draws from employees. McCullough says he’s felt a “palpable excitement” about going to work every day.

“We’ve got ambitious goals, but they also give me the autonomy to go out and reach those milestones,” he says.

View this feature in the Blueprint Vol. IX 2023 Edition here.

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