First Steps Learning Center:
A Successful Dakota Business Lending Borrower
Jan 28, 2020
With a passion for children and education, Steve Arnold moved to the Bismarck/Mandan area to continue his career as an elementary teacher.
His plan took a turn, however, when he found himself accepting a job as a daycare director. Fast forward to 30+ years later and Steve is still working in the daycare industry, owning and operating the First Steps Learning Center in Bismarck, ND – a childcare center he purchased in 1982. But that’s just the beginning…
First Steps Learning Center provides childcare services for children ranging from birth to 12 years old. The daycare currently operates out of 2 locations in Bismarck, serving 200+ children in the Bismarck/Mandan community. What sets them apart, however, is their variety of extracurricular activities and individualized curriculums.
Since inception, First Steps has continued to grow and expand their extracurricular activities options both in and outside of the center, and now offer a wide variety including gymnastics, swimming, golf, tennis, and dance lessons as well as their own soccer and baseball programs. In addition, First Steps follows an individual curriculum for every age group at their learning center, focusing not only on the kids’ social development but their academic development as well.
“We are kind of like a preschool rather than a daycare,” shared Steve. “We do so much with preparing our kids by focusing on academics, working towards our main goal of making sure they are ready for kindergarten.”
Enhancing First Steps Learning Center hasn’t always been the dream, however. In the beginning, Steve’s initial goal was merely to keep the learning center up and running. “The first 10 years were really a struggle,” Steve explained. “For the first decade or so, our dream was simply to stay alive and open and hold our own financially. Once we were able to do that, we really honed in on becoming the best daycare in Bismarck/Mandan.” Because they were finally financially stable, Steve needed to get creative in order to enhance the learning center. He couldn’t afford to spend too much on various improvements, but one of the current facilities was maxed out and needed improvements in order to grow financially. This is when Dakota Business Lending came into play.
Steve worked with Dakota Business Lending and Dakota Community Bank to secure an SBA 504 business loan that offered First Steps a long-term fixed rate financing package with terms he could afford. He used the small business loan expand one of their existing centers and remodel it into a more modern and streamlined facility. “In order to grow, we needed to add on as well as give an entire new look to the building – both inside and out. The loan helped us make that next move.” The new and improved First Steps Learning Center can now provide services for 98 children, as opposed to 64. And to Steve, the whole thing seemed almost too good to be true.
“The only word I can come up with to describe this expansion is ‘painless’. I’ve gone through other processes like buying/building a home, etc., and they were far more complicated than this. It was a joy to work with Dakota Business Lending and they explained everything step-by-step along the way.”
This expansion brought more than just an updated look and larger accommodations. Steve has also noticed a large increase in morale among his employees. With the new space, employees have been able to streamline some of their processes in a nice, clean, and updated place to work. This, in turn, has increased parent morale. “Our parents love us and want to bring their kids here. We have streamlined some of our processes and services, providing them with a unique experience. Some of our neighbors have also commented on the ‘good feel’ our new facility has brought to their neighborhood.” First Steps was also able to add individual rooms for each of the age groups, allowing their employees to work in their own classroom and focus more on the curriculum for their children.
Looking back and reflecting on his career thus far, Steve has just one piece of advice for current and upcoming small business owners: to go as big as you possibly can. “We really should have gone bigger and prepared ourselves for growth…it’s way cheaper in the long run to have that infrastructure in place rather than trying to gain it back later.” All in all, he encourages others to not let anything hold them back from growing and following their dreams.
Today, First Steps Learning Center continues to serve children throughout the community of Bismarck/Mandan, working to impact the lives of children every day. In the last three years, Steve’s wife, Michele, has become more involved in the business as well.
“It’s so rewarding to work with the parents and children we serve every day,” they both agreed. “It’s a breath of fresh air to see the kids having fun and giving you a hug or a smile. To do our best every day for those kids and their parents is the biggest reward we can get.”