Keegan and Robert Pries of Green Bay didn't dream of being entrepreneurs. But when they started having children, one thing led to another.

"My wife (Keegan) was working at an automotive dealership about eight years ago, and we were expecting our second child. We decided to start an in-home child care center so she could spend more time at home with the kids," Robert Pries said.

Having other children at home was a good start, but before long, the couple started thinking about the possibility of establishing a center in the community.

"Keegan got on a mission to find a place, and there was a Victorian-style home (it had been converted to business rental units) that we liked," Robert Pries said. "We needed to do extensive remodeling to meet state requirements, and we opened it with a 21-child capacity."

That was the start of You Are My Sunshine Daycare. A year after that, another space in the building opened, and they added on two classrooms and brought their capacity up to 37 children. A third expansion saw them taking over the space of a former salon, and a capacity of 57.

But, with increasing demand, they began to consider a new facility. The location they were in needed continuous work and Pries was spending much of his free time (he was still working full time at a different job) doing maintenance. The next step was to decide whether he could leave his job and join his wife in the business.

"We wrote a business plan initially and revised it," Robert Pries said. "The best thing you can do is put it on paper so you can make projections and see areas where you might need to cut costs. When it came to planning the new center, our numbers needed to be updated."

They went to the village of Allouez for assistance in finding a location and were put in contact with a local developer. The initial plan was to lease, but as they got further along in the process, they decided they wanted to own the building. That led to the biggest hurdle of obtaining financing but after a lengthy process, they were successful.

The next challenge was just around the corner. Just when plans had been finalized and construction was set to start, the pandemic struck.

Pries said: "It was scary, but we were too invested at that point to change direction. The chance to have something built for our use was a dream opportunity."

While the building was being constructed, they were determined to keep the business going at their previous location. At the beginning, they lowered capacity to comply with restrictions but remained open to serve parents who were classified as essential workers. The center's proximity to the hospitals meant there was a need for child care.

"We needed to stay open and do our jobs," Pries added.

The next months were a balancing act as they added capacity at that center, followed additional sanitation and distancing procedures, and kept a close eye on the final stages of construction. That led to one of the greatest lessons the couple learned; to be patient and exhibit a calm demeanor with parents so they wouldn't worry and knew their children were a priority.

It was not an unusual practice; it was the way they have always operated. Since having children (they are the parents of four), Pries said their goal is clearly defined to provide the top level of care that they would want their children to have.

"My wife's tagline is 'An In-Home Feel.' She says that she wants the center to model what a home is like," Robert Pries said. "That's something simple that parents appreciate."

The new center (they moved in recently) is built with that in mind. Spaces are more open so parents have great visibility to teachers and classrooms when they walk in. There is an enhanced security system and a gym where children can run and burn off energy when they can't get outside. They continue to evaluate and improve their education curriculum, and as the virus lessens, they want to have more of an opportunity to allow community access to the gym space.

"Our goal is to provide really good care; secondarily, we want to have a positive impact in our community," Pries said. "When the pandemic hit, we had too much food, so we delivered hundreds of free meals in the first days. It was a unique opportunity to do something good, and that is something we always want to be able to do."

They say that they will continue to grow with the philosophy of being servant leaders and putting others first including both their families and those who work with them side by side.

Tina Dettman-Bielefeldt is co-owner of DB Commercial Real Estate in Green Bay and past district director for SCORE, Wisconsin.

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Robert Pries