Lakeshore chief learns on the job

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 from a single store in San Leandro to 60 stores in 29 states, as well 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 company was really small back then, and I loved the people. I loved what we did."

Change of plans: After graduating from the University of Arizona with a finance degree, Kaplan was offered a position at an accounting firm. Then he got a call from his dad. Michael Kaplan had an issue at the company and needed his son at Lakeshore immediately. "I look up to my 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: 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 from a computer screen. But there's nothing wrong with technology — however somebody learns is the right way."

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. "There were so many things I wanted to do. I thought it was 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 now has 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 Dawn was store manager at the Pasadena Lakeshore. They live in Palos Verdes with their five children, ages 7 to 20. All of the children, except the youngest, have worked at Lakeshore's on-site 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 really wanted to be."

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