Making a Living: Bucks County Businessman Dives Into Entrepreneurship
Posted on Apr 26, 2016 byAmanda Cregan
At age 67, Stu Gelbord has opened British Swim School with locations in Warrington and Northampton. The national franchise provides water safety and swimming lessons for children.
Gelbord and his wife, Marisa Gillen, who live in Warwick, own a franchise territory that stretches from Lower Bucks County to Eastern Montgomery County.
As a boy, Gelbord worked alongside his father, a kosher butcher in North Jersey. He got an MBA from Rutgers University and entered the corporate food industry, spending 35 years building coffee and tea brands for companies like Coca Cola. He then joined Hatfield Quality Meats and Lancaster-based Kunzler Co. As he approached retirement, Gelbord became a private food broker and still represents a local veal and lamb processor.
While his friends talked of their retirement adventures, Gelbord had his own plans for what retirement would be like.
He embarked on the adventure of entrepreneurship.
“The thought of retiring — I don’t know what to do with that,” he said. “I love business.”
After he turned down numerous franchise opportunities, Gelbord said, he found the perfect fit with British Swim School.
“I’m a swimmer. I’ve never taught a swim lesson in my life, but I’ve been a lap swimmer for almost 30 years. There was an appeal there. There was a comfort level there,” he said.
After he toured the company’s most successful franchise near Washington, D.C., Gelbord knew he wanted to bring British Swim School to Bucks and Montgomery counties.
“It was such an unbelievable experience,” he said. “The smiles on these kids’ faces, the sense of pride, the sense of accomplishment and the sense of confidence — and the parents beaming with pride. I said, wow, this is not just swim lessons and teaching kids to be safe in the water, this is so much more. This is all about confidence and self-esteem.”
At British Swim School, children can learn as early as 4 months old. The youngest students are taught survival skills, like how to roll on their back and float with their face upward if they fall in the water.
“If a child falls into a pool, their instincts are to be face down,” Gelbord said. “It becomes a silent death.”
Instructors use gentle, fun methods in small classes to teach important survival skills and then continue with swimming lessons.
“We teach very serious skills, but we teach them in a fun way. I truly believe that children learn when they are enjoying themselves,” said Gelbord.
Gelbord’s two British Swim School locations have 115 students. He’s hired a full-time aquatics director and four part-time instructors and is looking to hire more certified instructors. He’s also looking to open a third location in Bensalem or near North Wales.
Despite Gelbord’s many years of corporate success, becoming an entrepreneur involved much more swimming upstream than he imagined. Still, he said he’s happy to be running his own business and making a difference in his community.
“I have probably never worked harder in my life. I told myself when I got involved in this, I’m here because this is going to be an adventure, he said. “I’ve built $100 million dollar businesses for large corporations, but you have all the corporate support.”
Building a business as an entrepreneur is a different and more challenging experience, he said. Yet, the payoff is greater.
“For 30 years I was dealing with egocentric, rude, aggressive, multi-million-dollar food industry buyers (who) treated people like garbage,” he said. “Now I get to work with these sweet kids and their parents.”