Saturday, November 25, 2017
Business

Couple fights for dream of opening a family-friendly business

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WESLEY CHAPEL

Kristin Green knew things weren't quite right. Most days, she didn't shower or leave the house. Some days, she forgot to eat.

Having two boys 14 months apart didn't bring the motherly bliss she expected. She was so focused on their care, she neglected her own needs. She missed working as a high school teacher and interacting with adults.

Her husband, Bradley, knew things weren't right, either. He sought help from a friend whose wife also struggled with postpartum depression. The woman told Kristin she needed to get out with the kids and socialize.

Entrepreneurial by nature, Kristin got to thinking about opening a business that caters to moms with young children — a place where parents could relax over a cup of coffee and kids could play. A sanctuary where moms could exhale.

She never expected it would put her family on the brink of financial ruin.

• • •

Kristin took up coffee drinking and set out to find a business. She toured a bunch of bounce house places but wasn't thrilled. To stay busy, she made party invitations but, with two toddlers at her side, it was tough and, ultimately, not fulfilling.

She decided to go back to work.

But the urge to start a business just got stronger. What had been a cure for her depression became her new mission. For the sake of other moms, she just had to do it.

A while later, in January 2010, her idea came into focus. Her parents called from her niece's fourth birthday party in Chicago. It was at a place called Little Monkey Bizness, a combination coffee shop/children's play area with climbing toys and a few inflatable slides.

"My mom said, 'Kristin, you have to call this number. You can do this.' "

By week's end, she had contacted the Colorado-based company, hired an attorney and started the due diligence to open a franchise. A few months later, the Greens met with Monkey Bizness president Jason Paulo and toured some locations.

Flying home, they knew their search was over.

They signed the paperwork to become franchise owners and paid the $30,000 franchise fee, feeling confident they could get all or most of it back if plans fell through. Based on other franchisees, they expected to be up and running within six months.

By that time, though, banks were putting the brakes on commercial loans. An avalanche of home foreclosures had sent lenders into a tailspin. Business loans that once got ushered through didn't get a second look. Banks that had loaned money to other Monkey Bizness franchises weren't doing business in Florida.

The Greens were working closely with the Small Business Administration but couldn't find a lender. Even if bankers liked the concept, their number-crunchers spit it out. Too many people were out of work and wouldn't want to spend money on that type of recreation.

A former business teacher, Kristin understood their reservations. She also knew the reality of being a parent desperate to stay busy with their kids.

"I know plenty of moms," she said, ''that will tell you they will give up their pedicures and manicures for a cup of coffee and some sanity and a clean, safe place for their children to play."

• • •

No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No.

That's how many times they got rejected for a loan, and that doesn't include all the initial contacts that fell on deaf ears.

By November 2010, well after they expected to be open, they cried "Uncle" and put the project on hold. Kristin was beaten down, discouraged and tired. She wanted to clear her head and enjoy the holidays with her family. Maybe it wasn't meant to be.

A few months later, the Monkey Bizness president called them about starting over. Were they still in?

The Greens consulted family, friends and business advisers about their prospects. They didn't want to give up on their dream.

"I had my doubts, but I've always wanted to own my business and be my own boss," said Bradley, a 36-year-old senior designer for a civil engineering firm.

The couple came across Square 1 Bank, a commercial lender based in North Carolina that often works with entrepreneurs. Its office in Denver was familiar with Monkey Bizness and eager to finance franchises nationwide. Yes, they would approve a loan.

By then, however, the rules had changed. Banks slapped for risky lending now required borrowers to put down more money up front. Suddenly, the down payment ballooned to six figures. On average, opening a Monkey Bizness costs $481,000 to $599,500, including the franchise fee.

The Greens dug deep for the extra money, raiding 401Ks and cashing in mutual funds. It seemed scary, but there was no turning back. Kristin's competitive side would not let her fail.

With the money promised, they set out to find a location. Kristin's top choice was the Shops at Wiregrass, a new outdoor mall in Pasco County, not too far from their home in Lutz. She had spent hours watching the stroller traffic to find out where moms hung out and which stores they visited.

She also looked in Citrus Park, Carrollwood, Brandon and South Tampa. Each had suitable sites, but the status was uncertain. Some strip centers were in foreclosure themselves or had been burned by tenants who up and left. Others didn't have adequate tenant improvement money to construct the business. Finding a landlord to devote 6,000 square feet to a service business — rather than retail — was tough.

Finally, luck came knocking. A Monkey Bizness had opened in a Colorado mall owned by Forest City, which also owns the Shops at Wiregrass. The location was doing well.

Wiregrass decided to take a chance. The couple signed a lease in February 2012 with the assurance the loan money would come through. Monkey Bizness was headed to a storefront the mall had been using for storage.

Because the space had never been developed, construction was going to cost more. The floors were rock and concrete. The roof had leaks.

The Greens had to go back to the lender and ask for more money. The bank agreed.

Construction of Monkey Bizness was about 70 percent completed when Kristin got an unexpected call at home from a vice president of Square 1 Bank. Her two sons, Spencer, now 7, and Cooper, now 6, were in the other room.

"He tells me, 'I'm sorry, but it's just not going to work,' " she said.

"I instantly fall to my knees and start to beg him. 'Do not do this. You don't understand. They are going to take my house.' "

• • •

She was told the bank had abruptly closed its Colorado office and was shifting its focus elsewhere. The bank had discovered some errors with the paperwork, and the loan wasn't going to happen. Bank officials did not return messages left by the Times.

Once again, she panicked. They had already leveraged or cashed in everything they could. All that was left was Bradley's settlement money from a serious car accident when he was 9. It was designated to cover future surgeries, including a knee replacement. They pretended like it didn't exist.

Their attorney laid out the options: They could file bankruptcy, admit failure and walk away, or fight the bank to make good on the loan (and potentially lose).

Crazy or not, they chose to fight.

After two weeks of what Kristin describes as "not eating, not breathing" and hiding her emotions, she got another call. The lender would grant the original loan — but not the bigger one to cover the extra build-out costs associated with going into Wiregrass.

Could they swing it?

Only if they touched the medical money.

• • •

Monkey Bizness opened at Wiregrass on July 14, two weeks later than planned thanks to Tropical Storm Debby, which dumped water into the business. The store is one of 12 locations nationwide and the only one on the East Coast.

They had a party to celebrate. Kristin, 37, stood on a chair to toast their accomplishments and reflect upon their ordeal. The room fell silent. Everyone started to cry.

In the weeks after opening, Monkey Bizness quickly caught on. They had to turn people away, which broke Kristin's heart. They worked around the clock making adjustments. Each lost 20 pounds. She lost her voice.

Moms flocked in during the summer when kids were out of school. Fall was up and down, and Black Friday was a bust because customers didn't want to fight the mall crowds.

The business hopes to turn a profit starting this summer — six months later than expected. For now, money is tight. "I can't get an Office Depot credit card," Kristin said.

And they aren't out of the woods.

About one-third of businesses fail within the first few years, with the percentage even higher for coffee shops, said Jim Parrish, who advises entrepreneurs at the Florida Small Business Development Center at the University of the South Florida. Being in a mall, while great for traffic, poses its own challenges. The rent is higher and getting in and out can be difficult, especially around the holidays when bouncy houses and play areas do a lot of their business.

The Greens take it day by day. So far, it's been worth it.

Soon after opening, a few moms who knew Kristin's story took her by the hand and asked if they could pray with her. They, too, had struggled with postpartum depression and found comfort in Monkey Bizness. They wanted God to bless and guide her.

"Before I knew it, tears were gushing. I hadn't cried in months because you just can't," she said. "It was so overwhelming."

After 21/2 years of rejection, doubt and hardship, she could finally exhale.

 
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