Topsy Turvey: Dulcie Rowe

The company putting the fun back into family days out

Some of the best business ideas are borne out of necessity.

Dulcie Rowe’s Topsy Turvy, an indoor children’s play centre focused on giving parents a nice time, was created out of sheer desperation. The mother-of-two explains: “I simply couldn’t take any more of standing at the side of a ball pit drinking tea that tasted of washing-up liquid from a plastic cup – that’s not my idea of family fun.”

Topsy Turvy looks to turn the concept of Wacky Warehouse-type child-led play centres on its head: while there’s just as much fun in the play, mum and dad get a stylish, relaxed environment to “read the papers over a good cappuccino or get something tasty to eat”. Each centre has a café and restaurant offering a menu containing natural ingredients – chicken nuggets are banned and for fizzy drinks and sweeties, read freshly baked muffins and smoothies. Rowe insists on the place being “spotless” and is a stickler for customer service.

“It’s about being parent-friendly,” says Rowe. “We’ve created somewhere parents want to go. It was an unexplored and untapped market, and the only offering was stale and stagnant.”

While Rowe admits there were a few, mostly childless, financiers that didn’t get the concept, there wasn’t a shortage of those happy to pile in. Indeed, Hammerson, owners of the site for Topsy Turvy’s first centre at Brent Cross, was so convinced by the idea it invested funds to cover the building costs. A further £1.2m has come via private equity house Investory, with the group’s David Mattey taking the role of FD on the Topsy Turvy board.

He joins an impressive management team. Each director has run or still runs his and her own business. Development director Spencer Lesley rolled out hairdressing chain Supercuts, and Rowe insists it’s this experience that will ensure the company fulfils its potential.

Rowe’s trump card, however, is undoubtedly the appointment of serial entrepreneur David Lloyd as chairman. “I met him at a conference and knew he had experience not just in the leisure industry but of running an indoor play centre. He’s been a great champion of the brand for us.”

Brand is massive for Rowe. She’s determined that every aspect of the offering reinforces the Topsy Turvy message. Taking the healthy eating approach a step further, she’s launched own-brand bottled water, ice cream and baby food. “It will become more powerful as we expand around the country and acts as a barrier to entry,” she confidently predicts.

The third Topsy Turvy site opened in Hatfield this month and turnover for 2006 will be £1.3m. Not a bad achievement inside two years, although Rowe says she’s kept growth on a leash. “We could have grown quicker, but I wanted to ensure the operations, management and formula were absolutely sound before roll-out.”

Rowe says that time is now and aims to have 20 sites by 2010, which will be partly funded by an AIM flotation early next year.


Company: Topsy Turvy

Proposition: Children?s soft play centres for parents

Founder: Dulcie Rowe

Formed: 2004

Turnover: ?1.3m


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