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The doctor is in Featured

8:02am EDT December 31, 2001
Carol Utay isn't your average entrepreneur because her business is secondary to her occupation as an educator.

After a long career as an educator and educational administrator, Utay decided to establish an educational center to address the specific needs of individuals. As executive director of Total Learning Centers, Wexford, that's just what she does.

Founded in 1999, Total Learning Centers offers a broad spectrum of services for school-aged children, adults and couples seeking professional help in adding to their skills or overcoming skill deficits. The services can be described as evaluation, tutoring, counseling and training.

Says Utay: "There are well-established models out there, national organizations that offer similar services. But there's a difference. They operate, in my opinion, on client retention, holding on to clients to generate more fees. Our philosophy is to focus very specifically on each individual and meet their needs in the most direct manner possible."

Utay admits her "get-them-in-and-out" philosophy may not be the best money-making technique, but she considers it both an ethical and effective long-term business strategy.

"If we do a good job for our clients and are affordable, our reputation will spread by word of mouth," she says. "In the big picture, that's where I'd like to see our business coming from -- clients, their families, their peers and educational counselors."

Return of the native

A Pittsburgh-area native who graduated from Mount Lebanon High School, Utay completed a bachelor's degree in elementary education at the University of Pittsburgh and earned master's and doctorate degrees at East Texas State University, where her studies emphasized special education and learning disabilities.

It was during a study abroad program that she met her husband, Joe Utay, a Ph.D. psychologist from Dallas. The couple settled in Dallas, where they pursued their careers in different but related specialties, and later lived and worked in Kentucky.

In 1999, the family, now including a daughter, Andrea, returned to the Pittsburgh area to establish a learning center. Joe Utay is director of evaluation and counseling services for the organization.

"When you study the demographics, you can see that Wexford is a natural location for us," says Utay. "Of course, there are other communities in and around the Pittsburgh area that are just as viable. So one of our future objectives may be to open a second center, possibly in the eastern suburbs."

All-star team approach

Initially, Total Learning Centers was Carol and Joe Utay. Today there are 10 full-time employees and three dozen part-time associates, necessitated by the wide variety of services offered.

Utay located her business in 5,000 square fee in the Pine Tree Shoppes, a shopping mall on Perry Highway.

"It's a really ideal location for us," Utay said. "Pine Tree Shoppes is located at a natural crossroads of the community. It's easy to find and there's ample parking. Just as important are the plenty of other facilities nearby. Many of our clients are young people who are driven here by parents or other adults. And not every adult wants to sit in the lobby and read a book while the client is working with us."

Culminating a life's work

For a woman who'd spent her career in large, public educational institutions and organizations, the shift to the ownership and management of a small, specialized private company has been an education.

"There is no single, dramatic moment in our development that stands out in my memory," she says. "The challenge for me has been to acquire skills and a comfort level for some basic and not so basic business, organizational and ownership activities.

"Sure, I was district technology coordinator for Jessamine County Schools (Nicholasville, Ky.) and administered a $1.2 million budget. But that didn't prepare me to negotiate with suppliers when we bought equipment and supplies for the center."

Total Learning Centers is not just another career move. Utay considers it the culmination of everything she's done.

"This is it," she says. "This is what I want to be doing for the rest of my career. I expect there will be major business decisions along the way, like whether or not we establish one or two more locations. But as for the work itself, this is what I want to be doing."

Her principal challenge will be to balance the demands of entrepreneurship against her talents and instincts for evaluating, counseling and educating.

"There's a natural concern about becoming too much the business person and less the educator," she says. "So I continue to think of myself as an educator and to value my interaction with individual clients, helping them develop their special and unique skills and helping them to achieve their dreams." How to reach: Carol Utay, (724)940-1090.