Business advising promotes teacher to Montessori ownership

By Hope Belli Tinney, Washington SBDC

MONROE, Wash. – Sometimes Thea Heineman cannot quite believe that she and her husband Aaron are owners of the Monroe Montessori School. Founded in 1978 by Allan and Gayle Washburn, the school serves approximately 130 families in Snohomish County and has a student population of 150 with classes for toddlers through third grade.

“I have finally found my soap box to stand on,” said Heineman. “I have found a career that challenges me every day and honors my love of children, education and serving the local community.”

Training toward buyout

She had been a lead teacher at the school for about four years when the Washburns announced they planned to retire in five years. If Heineman was interested, they wanted to give her more administrative duties. If it all worked out, she would have first right of refusal when they decided to sell.

Aaron and Thea Heineman

“It was a once in a lifetime opportunity,” she said, and she jumped at it.

By year three she was handling nearly all of the day-to-day administrative tasks and leading strategic discussions about future growth, but she knew nothing of the financial side of the business. So when the owners announced in 2015 that they were moving up their retirement plans, she was both excited and worried.

The owners named a price, but Heineman didn’t know if it was fair. Even if it was fair, it was more than she could pay; so where should she go from there?

Steep financial learning curve

She called her brother, who had purchased a mechanic’s shop two years earlier, and he advised her to do what he had done – call the Washington Small Business Development Center (SBDC).

Monroe Montessori School staff.

From the very beginning, Heineman said, Jennifer Shelton – the SBDC advisor in Everett, Wash. – made her feel that she was pursuing a viable business venture and she was up to the challenge.

As a starting point, Shelton explained what documents and financial statements Heineman needed to obtain from the sellers. With that information in hand, Shelton was able to help Heineman create two valuation spreadsheets, one for buying the business and leasing the property (the owners’ preference) and another for buying both the business and the property.

Over the course of several months, Heineman got a crash course in business valuation and financial spreadsheets. She could understand how the owner arrived at the original sale price, but she was also able to present and defend her own offer using past performance and future projections.

Attaining her dream job

It took about three months of negotiation to agree on a price for both the school and the buildings, but in the end both sides were satisfied. So satisfied, Heineman said, that the seller agreed to carry financing on the property, which allowed Heineman to qualify for a Small Business Administration loan even with limited personal funds.

The business acquisition process was the most stressful year of her life, Heineman said, but she is thrilled with the outcome – and said Shelton’s advising was a big part of her success.

“The bottom line is that I have the utmost respect for the SBDC,” Heineman said. “I could not have done this without the support and help of my advisor. It changed my life.”


News media contacts:
Thea Heineman, Monroe Montessori School, 360-913-1291,
Jennifer Shelton, SBDC Everett, Wash., 425-640-1435,