Growing a business from start-up to successful requires more than luck. It takes hard work, dedication and the right education. For Paul (’94) and Christy Bales Prevo ’97, the trajectory to their current successes started more than a decade ago at Union College.
“The business division and professors had a huge impact on us and our future,” Christy says. “Union gave us a great foundation for building and running our own business.”
Paul and Christy (who went by “Chrissy” until after college) were high school sweethearts at Sunnydale Academy. The two initially chose different colleges, with Paul attending Union in fall 1993 and Christy bucking family tradition—her grandparents and parents had attended Union—and enrolling at a different Adventist college.
But it wasn’t everything she had expected.
“I don’t think a single professor knew my name,” she recalled. So she moved back across the country and enrolled at Union. “The perspective I’d gained during that first year showed me what a special place Union is,” she said. “Rob Weaver and my other professors made it their goal to learn every student’s name. That made a huge difference—just having the teachers know my name showed that they knew me and wanted me to succeed.”
Paul attended Union for only one semester due to financial reasons, but he too experienced the welcoming atmosphere. “I was around campus a lot, but I was never just ‘Christy’s boyfriend,” he remembered. “The teachers knew her personally and cared enough about her that they knew me by name, too.”
That personal involvement helped shape Christy’s professional future. When the president of Adventist Health System spoke at Union, professor and chair of the Division of Business and Computer Science, Barry Forbes, encouraged Christy to ask about internship opportunities, she did. The president recommended adding leadership experience to improve her resume. That spurred Christy to run for student body financial vice president before applying for a coveted internship position.
“Sure enough, the next summer, I got an internship at Florida Hospital,” she said. “I had that phenomenal experience all because of Barry and his interest in my future. He really cared about where I was headed and helped me set the path that led me to where I am today.”
She is so thankful for her experience at Union that she currently serves on the Division of Business Advisory Board, a position that allows Christy and other professionals to help formulate initiatives and create programs that guide students toward being successful employees and business owners. Advisory Board members also help finance board-suggested initiatives.
“It’s an honor to help set the course for current students and give toward the fund that makes sure those initiatives are carried out,” said Christy. “It helps keep courses relevant for students and is a great opportunity to give back to our school.”
Paul agreed. “There’s so much to be said for the connections we made at Union. The teachers and students were a community that supported us while we were in school and are still a system of support for us, so it’s great to be able to give back.”
From theory to practice
After graduating cum laude with a degree in business administration and emphases in finance, management and accounting, Christy served for two years as business manager at College View Academy and Helen Hyatt Elementary. But the couple missed their families and dreamed of living in the country, so they moved home to Columbia, Mo.
Christy was development director and alumni coordinator at Sunnydale Academy before moving to a large real estate company. There, she worked her way up to Controller within six months. She credits her success in large part to the education she received at Union.
“Our professors made sure we had the experience we’d need to be successful in the business world,” she recalled. “They pushed us to become well-rounded and get a true sense of what business is and what it takes to run a successful company.”
Along with their day jobs in real estate and property management, the Prevos also flipped foreclosed properties, including a building they intended to turn into student housing for the nearby university. However, on the advice of friends and family, the couple renovated the property as a child care center. But illness forced their planned business partners to back out after the Prevos had completed the remodel.
“We’d put a lot of time and money into the building, so we were stuck,” Christy recalled. When friends offered to run the center with the Prevos acting as silent business partners, they excitedly moved forward.
Paul came up with the name Tiger Tots, referencing the local university’s mascot, and the community latched onto the idea. The center was up and running, but when it was clear the time commitment was overwhelming for their business partners and their young family, the Prevos offered to buy out their friends’ interest in the business.
“The only way to do it right was to run it ourselves,” Paul shared. “This year, we’re celebrating the eighth anniversary of Tiger Tots.”
Christy doesn’t consider this luck. “My professors convinced me to take management, accounting and finance courses,” she said. “That advice has played a huge role in my life and gave me the tools I need to run my own business.” She and Paul have built a strong team by drawing on lessons from college and their ventures since graduation. “I still use the information I learned at Union,” she said. “It makes me a better business owner.”
Growing up and out
The Prevos’ array of experience and education—Paul’s experience in marketing and Christy’s expertise in business—proved to be the keys to their ever-growing success.
Tiger Tots started with 15 students. Eight years later, it celebrates an enrollment of 262. “We’ve averaged one new building and openings for 25 more students each year,” Christy affirmed. “God has blessed everything we’ve tried our hands at, and it’s been an amazing journey.”
In fact, Tiger Tots is one of the largest preschool programs in mid-Missouri and was recently nominated for the Small Business Administration’s Persons of the Year Award for the Eastern Missouri Region.
Today, Paul and Christy each lead a Tiger Tots location. While they are regularly asked by clients to consider expanding to serve their sprawling community, the Prevos are happy with their current setup. “There are only two of us, and we are content with our two locations,” Christy laughs. “That gives us each a location to run and allows us to be hands-on with day-to-day operations.”
This gives the duo a unique perspective on what goes on daily in each classroom, and makes them teammates in their students’ education in ways they wouldn’t be able to do as outside managers or silent partners.
“We offer a team dynamic, and we appreciate and support our teachers,” explained Christy. “Our work is all about the kids, which is different from businesses that simply try to make as much money as they can. Making enough to be viable and take care of our employees is important, but only if we are also successful in our core values and loving our kids.”
Paul stresses that Tiger Tots is more than a daycare center. “It is really an early childhood education center,” he said. “We emphasize education, and our goal is to create a lifelong love of learning in all of our kids.” When students graduate Tiger Tots for kindergarten, they already know how to read, write and count, he adds.
“Research has proven that most of a person’s responses, coping mechanisms and preparedness for school are formed between three and five,” Christy said. “We take that seriously, and we do everything we can to keep our kids engaged in fun and exciting activities so they fall in love with learning. We’ve been taught, ‘Train up a child in the way they should go.̓ We are really doing that here.”
In addition to Tiger Tots, the Prevos own about 30 rental units in the Columbia area and stay active in real estate. While the couple has chosen not to expand their own family, they are content with the equilibrium they’ve struck in their lives.
“It can take 60 hours a week to keep our locations running smoothly, and that would be impossible if we were raising children of our own,” Christy explained. “We care for a lot of kids, and we need time to recharge. We couldn’t do this and have a family. It takes so much work to keep our parents, students and teachers happy and to maintain balance.”
Paul agrees. “I spend at least two hours a day giving hugs and fist-bumps. It doesn’t get any better than that. These kids feel like my own, and we’re giving them a foundation that will direct the rest of their lives.”
Supply and demand
Tiger Tots graduates are recognized in local private and public schools as being well-prepared for kindergarten, and that positive reputation has helped the business grow. In fact, centers like Tiger Tots are in higher demand across the country as national leadership and private donors allocate more funds to education.
“People are starting to realize that early childhood education is at the forefront of economic policy,” said Paul. “Every dollar spent on educating young children gains even more over time and makes a positive impact on that child for life. It’s a simple factor of providing the services parents want and children need to make their lives and the country better in the long run.”
As a business major at Union, Christy learned that supply and demand is the foundation of any successful business, and Tiger Tots is proving that to be true.
Christy vividly remembers the lesson about supply and demand that Dr. Gibson illustrated during an early morning class when he auctioned off a single donut to a classroom of hungry college students. “I’m pretty sure I paid $10 for that donut,” she laughed. “I didn’t care what it was going to cost me, it was early and I was tired and I had to get my hands on it.”
Long after she’s forgotten the taste of that expensive donut, the illustration still lingers for Christy. “That donut was worth every penny—the lesson really stuck with me,” she recalled. “I learned that if you can create demand for yourself and your business, you’ll always be successful.”
By Lauren Bongard Schwarz ’05