July 15, 2014

After nine years, Little Otter Swim School expands to a new location in Huntersville

As John and Lory Kirk learned years ago, it’s not easy winning over landlords when you want to launch a swim school on someone else’s property. So when it came time to expand their Little Otter Swim School business, they took a different approach for their second location in Huntersville: buying the land outright and building their own campus.

As John and Lory Kirk learned years ago, it’s not easy winning over landlords when you want to launch a swim school on someone else’s property.

There’s something about saying, “ ‘I want to dig a hole in the ground and fill it with water,’ ” that makes some people skeptical, Kirk says.

Eventually, they found a willing landowner – and light-duty warehouse space in south Charlotte – that could work. Their Little Otter Swim School opened nine years ago off Sardis Road North and now sees up to 1,800 kids a week.

When it came time to expand their swim business, the Kirks took a different approach the second time around: They invested $3 million to $4 million to buy land and build a 16,000-square-foot campus from the ground up, this time on Reese Boulevard in Huntersville. Their new facility, a bright space defined by a floor-to-ceiling window wall for natural light, opened in April.

It’s a common goal among many entrepreneurs to want to grow, but moving too fast can sacrifice quality, Kirk says. Building a swim business, he says, is a lesson in patience on multiple fronts: There’s the deliberate, “handmade” factor of building pools, with miles of reinforcing steel underneath. There’s evaluating prospective hires, who must be the right types to work with children.

And then there’s meeting the original goal behind the business – to teach more youngsters how to swim. Little Otter classes range from 6 months, to 6 and up. “By moving geographically, we could expand what we were doing” and reach more families, Kirk says.

“Swimming is a great form of exercise, but it’s also a life skill. You never know if you’re going to fall in water and need to protect yourself. ... Hopefully they’ll be able to take care of themselves and enjoy themselves in the water and be safe in the water.”

Deliberate approach from the start

Living in Charleston and raising a young family, the Kirks returned to the Charlotte area around 2004 to help John’s parents. His family roots run deep in the University City area; his family’s farm is now Kirk Farm Fields, a Mecklenburg County park. Street signs bear family names, including John Kirk Drive and Suther Road.

John, now 52, owned a video and film production company. Lory, now 51, was a gymnastics coach with two degrees in early childhood education. When they decided to launch a business, they knew it would involve teaching children, and eventually focused on swimming because of their fondness for the activity.

Then came meetings with leaders at the U.S. Swim School Association to learn standards. Locally, they drove around searching for the right site to launch their program. After finding their south Charlotte location, Kirk says they invested nearly $600,000 in renovations, and an additional $1 million to eventually buy the property.

As interest and enrollments climbed, the Kirks focused on growing at a rate that they could sustain. “We had fairly young children at that time,” he says. “We didn’t want to neglect them.

“The demand was good, but Lory and I were brand new at doing this kind of business. ... It was very important for us to build a business and not be constantly consumed by the swim school.”

They take that same deliberate approach toward hiring. Job applicants spend a half hour on deck, so the deck manager can explain how they work. Then, once in the pool, managers watch to see how well a prospective hire jokes and interacts with the kids. Applicants also sit with parents in the viewing area to get their perspective.

“We hire slow because it takes a while to be sure,” Kirk says.

Kid- and parent-friendly setting

Little Otter instructors seem patient and relaxed and don’t rush the children to learn new skills, parent Amanda Booth said. She lives in Concord and drives past locally offered lessons to take daughter, Jessica, to the school in Huntersville.

Instructors start lessons by holding a water bucket with holes in it over children’s heads so their faces get wet, as opposed to having them dunk underwater. Varying skill levels are taken into account.

“Just because a child is ready to float on her back without holding on to the noodle, another child might not be,” Booth said last week. “Her third lesson was today. There have been no tears. She begs to go.”

Even the fish mobile hanging from the ceiling, designed by a French artist, provides a rainbow of distractions. Kids are encouraged to find the yellow or the red fish while floating on their backs.

Since the viewing area is in the lobby, not on deck, children don’t expect parents to be in the water with them. “It’s kind of a relaxing time for me, too,” Booth says. “I can unplug from all the noise.”

White walls are lined with aquatic blue posters containing facts about the new facility, such as how the pool’s 125,000 gallons of water is enough to fill more than 2,000 bathtubs. Since the school is located in a shopping and residential area not far from a greenway, Kirk says some families walk to lessons.

Members of the U.S. Swim School Association get a look at the Huntersville school in October. As part of the association’s conference, Little Otter will host fit and toddler classes, and a class for children with special needs.

With about 3,000 square feet more than the south Charlotte site, there’s room to ponder new offerings, such as adding squad swimming for youngsters, or adult swim lessons.

For now, Kirk says, they’ll keep their focus on their current schedule, teaching swim lessons and safe water skills. Kirk says he’s heard from parents whose kids naturally turn on their backs to float if they’ve fallen in a pool.

“We have taught thousands of kids to swim,” he says. “It does send a tingle up your spine when a parent comes in and tells you that story.”

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