Busy Bees: John Woodward

Twenty-one years ago private nursery chains were unheard of

Twenty-one years ago private nursery chains were unheard of. Both parents returning to work was an unsavoury thought. So when John Woodward and his five co-founders set up Busy Bees in 1983 with £15,000 of their own money and an £80,000 bank loan they had to deal “a lot of flak”, he says.

The three couples were parents of young children. After looking for and failing to find provision for working parents they create their own business and initiated a multi-million pound market, loved by the City and endorsed by government through the recent introduction of non-taxable childcare vouchers. “And if we double, treble or quadruple,” says Woodward of the 60-site business, “we'll still only be scratching the surface.”

For Busy Bees the obstacles were manifold. All hailed from the teaching profession and had never run a business, the banks understand the sector was and how it worked and being first mover forced them to “make things up as they went along”.

While not commercially naïve, the team made “uncommercial” decisions, such as charging when the month was up and not charging days when a child failed to show. For Woodward though this was consistent with their ethos: “We'd taken the view of child-centred childcare and didn't want to be corporate about it or the sites we set up.”

As a result the company shirked uniformity, feeling each site should reflect the parents, staff, child and area and should only maintain the necessary constants of health and safety, contracts of employment and training.

Another area that set them apart and continues to set them apart was sharing the responsibility for running a business between six (and now eight) fairly equally. For six years two of the group, Woodward's partner Lynn and Margaret Randles, quit their teaching jobs and worked full-time on the project while the others remained in employment to repay the bank loan. In 1989 John Woodward joined full time. The team also brought in a specialist as finance director – Simon Irons from Deloitte & Touche – and immediately gave him equity in the business. Clare Spottiswoode, the former director general of Ofgas, followed as chairman.

Eventually, the climate changed and the NHS, among others, moved to counter losing key workers to maternity leave. “And once the public sector reacts the private sector has to. You can see the shift from a way back, but it still takes time,” says Woodward. The recession of 1989/90 forced corporations to concentrate resources on core areas and led to many outsourcing care. Busy Bees now works with Land Rover, Ikea, Customs & Excise and various universities among others.

In 2000, it capitalised on heavy City interest in the sector by raising a £50m facility with Gresham Private Equity and the Royal Bank of Scotland. The funds will ultimately help take it from 60 to 200 sites nationwide in six years. Controlling growth at a manageable rate has always been evident, according to Woodward. “We've always gone down the route of spreading risk, combining organic growth with acquisitions, buying both freehold and leasehold sites and saying no when necessary. You've got to choose the right projects as it's dead easy to cut your legs from under you and get too excited.”

New market: Outsourced care – private nurseries Company: Busy Bees Founded: 1983 Focus: Private nursery chain Owner-manager: John Woodward Key factors: Their own need; sharing risk; commercial and uncommercial motives in tandem; pragmatism and a willingness to say no


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