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Small Firms Work As Heavy Lifters Of Area Economy

By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 13, 2006

The Minnieland chain of day-care centers, started in 1972 so Jackie Leopold could afford to stay home with her toddler son, now generates $50 million in annual revenue and employs about 1,300 people. It has a full-time real estate scout to research new locations and recently hired an operations director with a doctorate in childhood development.

The Woodbridge company is not listed in the glossy business directory published by the Prince William County Department of Economic Development or trumpeted alongside Fortune 500 companies such as Eli Lilly and Co. and America Online Inc. as symbols of the suburban county's budding economic clout.

But when it comes to the heavy lifting of creating jobs and revenue, it is often the less glamorous businesses like Minnieland -- neighborhood stores, family-run businesses, local firms that have grown large -- that have helped turn Northern Virginia into one of the nation's hottest centers of economic growth.

"We don't have the sizzle and pop that a company like Eli Lilly has coming into Prince William," said Chuck Leopold, 61, vice president of Minnieland, which has 90 centers and programs in Northern Virginia. "But this is a bedroom community that needs services like ours because the bedroom's gotten so big so fast."

With 1,330 employees, Minnieland is no longer a small business: It has three times the Prince William workforce of AOL and Eli Lilly combined. Indeed, as a surge of new residents pushes the region's boundaries to Stafford County in the southwest and Frederick County in the north, scores of companies have sprung up, piggybacking off the residential and economic boom. New developments may bear the names of big builders, but companies like Minnieland have benefited from the activity, serving households with child care, landscaping and tax preparation.

Although government spending remains a foundation of the local economy, eight of 10 new jobs in the region are created at companies with fewer than 500 employees, from smaller government contractors themselves to day spas, builders and bookstores, according to Stephen Fuller, a professor of public policy at George Mason University.

In the Washington area, small businesses make up the overwhelming majority -- 97 percent -- of all businesses and employ half of the workforce, according to the Small Business Administration.

"As the government gets larger, certain areas of the economy flourish and continue to attract jobs here," said Chad Moutray, chief economist for the Office of Advocacy at the Small Business Administration.

As with many successful small companies, Minnieland's growth was not the result of a calculated business strategy. Neither Jackie nor Chuck Leopold has a background in education, but they were teaching toddlers and young children songs, the Pledge of Allegiance and the alphabet. Quickly, word spread about Minnieland among Woodbridge families, and parents asked the Leopolds to open another center.

"Back then, there were no such thing as day cares as we know them now," said Jackie Leopold, 60, president of Minnieland. "Women were just returning to work and commuting like Chuck and I were."

They bought another bi-level home on Minnieville Road and barely covered the mortgage with the school's tuitions and fees. At best, the Leopolds looked at the day-care centers as long-term real estate investments.

With this loosely defined plan, the couple slowly built their business, buying affordable homes, a convenience store and other properties in Prince William and Stafford counties and turning them into day-care centers.

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