If baseball season is just around the corner, it won’t be long before schools are out, the pools are open, and summer pursuits begin. For a lot of families that means summer camp. Increasingly, similar to a staycation, it’s possible to send the kids away at home, to area day camps. The person who has turned it into an especially profitable endeavor in the Washington area is the founder of Headfirst Summer Camps, Brendan Sullivan. No, not the renowned Williams & Connolly litigator—his son.
Brendan Sullivan III was born loving baseball. He grew up in DC, where he graduated from St. Albans in 1993, after pitching for the Bulldogs. He went off to Stanford and pitched there, and after college he played in the minor leagues for six years, through AAA ball. That he eventually started Headfirst Summer Camps was basically a happy accident of looking for something to do in the offseason. But it has grown to a business that has even his very successful father in awe, and it’s a model for other camp programs. Headfirst grew from baseball to other sports and now is a general, all-purpose camp that includes cooking, science, arts and crafts, and games. Headfirst has also expanded beyond the Washington area, and does baseball camps for the Nats and other major-league teams.
We checked in with Brendan Sullivan on Tuesday to talk about his business and get tips for parents looking to sign up their children for summer camp.
First, we have to ask: What’s it like carrying that name around Washington?
No one has ever called me for legal advice, but on more than one occasion folks have called him about camps.
[Having his father’s name] is an honor. He’s a respected guy by many, respected by me. But in this town, when I introduce myself, there’s a pause as they figure out if I’m that guy. But if I need to get a lawyer, I drop the “third” from my name, and my calls go where they need to go quickly.
No thought of following in his footsteps?
I was in law school briefly, at Georgetown. He cast a shadow—a big one, but a good one. The path I’ve chosen is a little different from that.
When was Headfirst founded?
In 1997. It was founded while I was playing minor-league baseball for the San Diego Padres. It was an offseason opportunity. I love working with kids, interacting with them, teaching baseball and character development. That first offseason I worked with 20 kids. Last summer, 2012, we had about 7,500 kids across the country.
When you started, did you have any idea the business would become so big?
[Headfirst] started with no business plan. I invested 25 bucks to have my baseball card Xeroxed, and I mailed it to families I knew who were interested in sports programs.
How did you grow it from there to here?
We created a really special environment around our programs and an ability to use the sports and activities we were teaching to include leadership skills, build character, and enrich the lives of the young people we were working with. We got good feedback. It had the same impact on me. I found that as much fun as I had playing baseball, back in the day, this part was every bit as fulfilling, if not more. Those two things combined to allow us to grow.
Where do you have camps?
In DC at St. Albans; in Bethesda at Mater Dei school; in McLean we have Nationals camp at Potomac School. We’re also in Chicago, New Jersey, Westchester County, New York [City], Boston, Sacramento, and Long Island.
What is Nationals camp?
We run the official camps of the Boston Red Sox, the New York Yankees, the Chicago Cubs, and the Nationals. Nationals camp is a one-off program. It’s a very specific partnership with the team—and the other teams, too—where we are a turnkey operator of their official summer camp. It’s just four one-week sessions for boys and girls ages 5 to 13 who are Nats fans, baseball fans. Every camper gets a full Nationals uniform. Every session includes a VIP tour to Nats Park, and [participants] get to meet a current Nationals player. All the themes and teachings are Nationals based. The idea is to engage the next generation of fans.
When do the general camps begin?
They run from June 10 through August 24. Our core programs are for younger kids, ages 3 and a half to 12. They are selling out already. We’re fortunate. We have a loyal customer base. There’s availability in various programs, but Nationals camps are sold out.
What do parents need to know?
It is going to be a safe environment. The reason our brand has become popular is we’ve created a fun and challenging environment. They are having an absolute blast every day. We’re also giving them tools to develop as young people, as leaders, to take back to their community, their schools, and become leaders among their peers.
Are you looking for counselors?
Yes. We’re always looking for great people. Last year we had 1,300 applicants for 350 seasonal positions. You have to be a high school graduate. We use a lot of teachers, coaches, school administrators, and grad students in education. We like to hire people who are looking for a career in education.
How have you amended your rules based on current concerns about concussions?
We’re very sensitive to that. We have incredibly strict protocols about what happens in the case of an injury. Any issue that involves contact to the head, regardless of how minimal, is an absolute call to home, right away. We have safety personnel on site at all times.
Do you think the concern about concussions is overblown?
I don’t. There’s a fine line between being safe and cautious and allowing kids to be kids and to be active and learn in a competitive way. There’s too much evidence showing head injuries to kids—and adults—are causing real damage. Keep it playful, not too sterile, but [ensure] every kid is safe.
How do parents find the right camp for their child?
My recommendation is to ask your friends first. I also highly recommend picking up the phone and calling the camp directly to ask all your questions about your child’s needs, or to talk about what your child enjoys. If you don’t feel your child is going to be cared for in the right way, then that’s not an incredible camp.
Do you miss that you didn’t go into the majors?
I had a great time playing baseball. I dreamed since I was five about being a major league player. But I got every last bit out of my career. I got to travel the country and have lots of learning experiences. It gave me a lot more than I ever expected. Would I have liked to make it to the majors? Of course. But I feel the work I’m doing now is more rewarding.
Given your line of work, are you married with children?
I’m recently married—last September. No children yet. My little brother and sister recently had girls. I’m an uncle times two. I look forward to that opportunity. I’m sure I’ll be thrown a few curveballs when it comes to parenting, but I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.