He’s learn­ing on the job

HOWI MADE IT: BO KA­PLAN

Los Angeles Times - - WORK LIFE - By Sa­man­tha Ma­sunaga sa­man­tha.ma­sunaga@la­times.com

The gig: Bo Ka­plan, 40, is chief ex­ec­u­tive of Lakeshore Learn­ing Ma­te­ri­als, which has more stores than any other re­tailer of ed­u­ca­tional prod­ucts. The Car­son com­pany ex­panded froma sin­gle store in San Le­an­dro to 60 stores in 29 states, aswell as an in­ter­na­tional net­work of distrib­u­tors. The firm em­ploys about 2,000 peo­ple. All in the fam­ily: Ka­plan’s grand­mother, Ethe­lyn, came to Oak­land from Omaha with her three chil­dren and $10,000, de­ter­mined to start her own busi­ness. Her first ven­ture was a toy store on Lakeshore Av­enue— hence the com­pany’s name— which she even­tu­ally sold for a “nice profit,” Ka­plan said. Af­ter re­al­iz­ing the “un­tapped mar­ket” in the ed­u­ca­tion busi­ness, she opened a store in San Le­an­dro, which still op­er­ates as a Lakeshore lo­ca­tion, he said. Her re­tire­ment left the busi­ness in the hands of sons Charles and Michael, Bo Ka­plan’s fa­ther. “Grandma put us in a great in­dus­try,” said Ka­plan, who took over the top jobs in 2009. His younger brother, Josh, is pres­i­dent of mer­chan­dis­ing. First job: Ka­plan be­gan work­ing at Lakeshore at age 8. The boy needed money to re­pair his bro­ken bike, and his fa­ther told him he could work on the com­pany’s as­sem­bly line for $5 an hour. “I fell in love with the com­pany,” Ka­plan said. “The com­pa­ny­was re­ally small back then, and I loved the peo­ple. I loved what we did.” Change of plans: Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from the Univer­sity of Ari­zona in 1996 with a fi­nance de­gree, Ka­plan was of­fered a po­si­tion at an ac­count­ing firm. Then he got a call fromhis dad. Michael Ka­plan had an is­sue at the com­pany and needed his son at Lakeshore im­me­di­ately. “I look up tomy dad end­lessly,” Ka­plan said. “He’s al­ways been re­ally good to me, and hadn’t asked me for much. So I said, ‘I’ll be there Monday.’ ” Ka­plan worked in ev­ery de­part­ment at the com­pany. Teacher’s pet: Since the 1980s, Lakeshore has de­vel­oped its own prod­ucts, which make up more than 70% of what it sells. Ev­ery mem­ber of the re­search and de­vel­op­ment team is a former teacher. “That is one of the rea­sons we’ve been able to in­no­vate and stay in touch in our space,” Ka­plan said. “They still do fo­cus groups, class­room tours, we go to all the ma­jor shows, and that’s re­ally where the ideas stem from.” Sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy: Someof the most pop­u­lar Lakeshore prod­ucts come from the sci­ence, tech­nol­ogy, en­gi­neer­ing and math line geared to­ward chil­dren who are el­e­men­tary school age or younger. “It’s about mak­ing learn­ing fun and trick­ing kids into learn­ing,” Ka­plan said. “You can’t get that solely froma com­puter screen. But there’s noth­ing wrong with tech­nol­ogy— how­ever some­body learns is the right­way.” Be­com­ing the boss: Ka­plan was chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer be­fore be­ing pro­moted to CEO. The tim­ing was less than op­ti­mal be­cause the coun­try was go­ing through the re­ces­sion. He also had big shoes to fill. “I al­ways con­sid­ered my dad… kind of the Michael Jor­dan of our in­dus­try,” Ka­plan said. The ex­pec­ta­tions didn’t in­tim­i­date the son for long. “I couldn’t wait,” he said. “Therewere so many things I wanted to do. I thought it­was our mo­ment to in­vest in our peo­ple and in­vest in our busi­ness.” Grow­ing up: For years, Lakeshore’s pri­mary cus­tomers were teach­ers who came to shop for their class­rooms. But as the com­pany opened more stores, Lakeshore gained another cus­tomer base— par­ents. School fund­ing dropped dra­mat­i­cally be­tween 2008 and 2010, Ka­plan said, and mar­ket­ing to par­ents en­abled the com­pany to di­ver­sify and stay prof­itable. Lakeshore nowhas a par­ent-spe­cific cat­a­log. The par­ent fo­cus and a re­launched web­site helped make 2014 the best year the com­pany ever had, Ka­plan said, adding that the com­pany doesn’t re­veal rev­enue and profit fig­ures. Next gen­er­a­tion: The fam­ily con­nec­tion to Lakeshore ex­tends to Ka­plan’s wife, Dawn. The cou­ple met when she­was store man­ager at the Pasadena Lakeshore. They live in Pa­los Verdes Es­tates with their five chil­dren, ages 7 to 20. All of the chil­dren ex­cept the youngest have worked at Lakeshore’s preschool. “We’re try­ing to do for them what my dad did for me,” Ka­plan said. “He made it fun. He made it a place I re­al­ly­wanted to be.”

Luis Sinco

CHIEF EX­EC­U­TIVE Bo Ka­plan vis­its Lakeshore Learn­ing Ma­te­ri­als’ store and show­room in Car­son. For years, Lakeshore’s pri­mary cus­tomers were teach­ers shop­ping for their class­rooms, but now par­ents are buy­ing the com­pany’s ed­u­ca­tional prod­ucts too.

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