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Never let it be said that the road to successful nursery ownership is a smooth one: “The first setting I opened was in Ruislip, and whilst it was lovely, it was a complete flop,” Olivia Foley, founder and director of Hungry Caterpillar Day Nurseries, confesses. “I had no idea about marketing, I’d chosen the wrong location and it didn’t go well. I had to buy myself out of the lease.”
Such a chastening experience might have put many people off for good, but for Olivia – who at the time had next to no experience of running a business, and only an in-progress NNEB qualification by way of early years credentials – it was merely a learning experience.
Determined to find high-quality childcare for her daughter, and certain that she could provide something better for parents than what was on offer elsewhere, she didn’t hesitate when a second opportunity, in Yeading, Middlesex, fell into her lap.
“I went to have a look, and it was perfect – a fantastic location, with no other nurseries nearby,” she remembers. “I grabbed it with two hands. When we had our open event we were half-full before we had even finished – people were turning up and registering there and then because there was nothing else locally. It kind of went from there.”
Hungry Caterpillars has come a long way in 18 years. Olivia, now Early Years degree-qualified, and her husband, Tim, today operate 10 nurseries, with numbers 11 and 12 on the way.
Theirs is a diverse business, comprising both settings in the affluent commuter belt and others operated from children’s centres on behalf of Ealing council.
What is consistent is their quality: three are rated ‘outstanding’, and the others are ‘good’. And for a sense of what their provision is all about, their newly opened flagship nursery in the village of Chalfont St Peter is the ideal place to go.
Just like Olivia’s first foray into the early years sector, the journey to opening the doors at Chalfont St Peter wasn’t without its challenges, though you wouldn’t know it today.
What used to be the local pub “where the fights happened, the dirty deals were struck and the underage drinking went on” has been transformed into an early years setting that’s airy, welcoming and full of opportunities for children to learn as they play – not least outdoors, where a combination of natural grass and all-weather surfaces ensure the weather won’t stop the fun, and a lovingly decorated mud kitchen is just one of the features that catches the eye.
Indoors Olivia points out the secure entrance and spacious reception area, a meeting room for training opportunities and parent gatherings, and the large kitchen – “we can really go to town on the children’s food,” she explains.
This nursery, in particular, was a project close to her heart. “Chalfont is where my children went to school, where I go out, where my friends are,” she tells us.
“When the pub came onto the market we were very lucky to secure it, but we then had the building for four years before it was finally a finished nursery. When we first put in planning permission it was viewed very negatively – so much so that we looked at other things, putting flats upstairs and renting downstairs out as a restaurant, or even opening it up as a restaurant ourselves [Olivia’s husband, also early years-qualified, is a chef by trade]. We had plans drawn up for that, and were about to push forward, but we both agreed to try to get permission for the nursery one more time – it’s what we really wanted.”
After four years of disuse, and with a new housing development to service, this time the planning authority decided to give Hungry Caterpillars the go-ahead.
Getting planning permission was only part of the story, as a significant renovation was required – “Some of the supporting beams had been removed, so there was the threat the upstairs was going to fall down!”
Olivia tells us – not to mention a traumatic two-week relocation after opening to allow sections of concrete beneath the floor to be relaid. But with the 65-place nursery now fully up and running, the investment, patience and hard work is finally paying off.
The building itself is only a small part of the nursery’s appeal, of course, and Hungry Caterpillars has flourished as a provider because of Olivia and her team’s efforts to offer a high-quality service that nurtures happy, confident children.
Helping to make this a reality is a relatively large head office team, whose members can free up setting managers – such as Chalfont St Peter’s Ela Konyardi – to step out of the office and spend more time with practitioners and parents, as well as drive up standards or address problems in a timely manner.
The burden of marketing, dealing with fees and HR and recruitment are also alleviated in this way.
For the children there is an emphasis on natural activities and time spent outdoors: “We tell parents Chalfont is an all-weather nursery, and all of our settings provide outdoor suits and wellies – so if you don’t want you children to go out in the rain, don’t bring them!” Olivia explains.
“Our preschool children also go out for weekly forest school sessions, and we have many staff across our nurseries who have finished, or are training towards, forest school qualifications. It’s something we’re moving towards in a big way.”
Rooted in Olivia’s motives for opening her very first nursery, there is also a focus on ensuring the care delivered is of a standard that would satisfy her as a mother of three children: “It’s something I say to the staff all the time,” she explains.
“If these children were yours, what would you want for them? How would you want that situation dealt with? What sort of activities would you want them to do? When you’re laying out the sleep mats for nap time, you should look at them and think, ‘I want to go and sleep there!’ When you look at the way you’ve resourced the home corner, you should want to go and play there. I want all my practitioners to feel that passion, and to work in this way from an intrinsic place, not just because this is what their job is.”
While Hungry Caterpillars has grown into a profitable business, the commitment to putting the needs of children and parents first has remained.
Alongside the care and education, plans are in place at Chalfont to offer time-poor mums and dads additional services – from haircuts and dry-cleaning drop-offs, to take-home evening meals and parenting classes – all designed to make life that little bit easier.
For Olivia, this isn’t about finding ways to squeeze additional money out of paying customers, but of adding genuine value to her provision.
“I didn’t go into the nursery sector for the sake of money,” she says.
“I wasn’t an investor or silent owner. I went into it because I wanted to deliver outstanding care and education for children locally, for them to experience what I wanted for my own children. We’re a family-run business delivering care for families, because of our own family. When we opened before and after-school clubs, it was at our children’s school because we needed before and after-school care. When we put on holiday clubs, all of our children attended them. All the services we’re developing are things we know mums and dads need in order to function. Our focus is always on being the best we can be, for the children and their parents.”
1. Going places
Hungry Caterpillars grew quickly in the early days. Within 18 months of opening her Yeading setting, Olivia had found larger premises, and she was then offered her pick of 19 health club creches to turn into nurseries, two of which remain part of the business today. Later, successfully tendering for a children’s centre nursery in Ealing, and achieving ‘outstanding’ in just six months, led to yet more opportunities.
2. Support for all
“Working in children’s centres has given me a completely different perspective on the difficulties some families face,” Olivia says. “That has motivated me, because there are so many children out there who need support, or parents who need guidance – it’s something very different to a nursery like this, where our families are more affluent and have a different set of challenges.”
3. Attention to detail
“When I was opening up lots of new nurseries, I used to go in and, for the first six months – because we knew Ofsted would come on the dot after six months – I would manage them,” Olivia says. “I would make sure everything was set up exactly how I wanted it. I’m meticulous to the point of checking how the folders on the computer look!”
4. Confident learners
“I’m not interested, particularly, in sending a child off to school reading, writing, counting to 100 – that’s irrelevant,” Olivia tells us. “For us, a child is ready for school if they are able to put their own coat on and toilet themselves and wash their own hands; it’s about having good social skills, being able to share, being confident and being happy.”
5. Working together
“We’ve invited everyone in – the local preschools, the local schools – and we’ve been out to visit all those who are happy for us to do that,” Olivia tells us. “I will never be one of those cagey providers. I think an open-door policy is healthy – you have to be confident in what you offer to do it, but we are confident.”
Olivia Foley, Founder & Director
“We never sought out opportunities, they came to us. I find it very difficult to say no; if I think there’s a way a nursery can work, then I want to go for it. I’ve learnt over time to turn things down – I’m much better now! – but, actually, the opportunities that were offered to us have usually taken us to that next step.”
Ela Konyardi, Manager
“A lot of investment has been put into this nursery, and there’s an emphasis on providing premium care for the children. Our ambition, our drive, is to get an ‘outstanding’ and provide parents and children with the best we can offer. We’re passionate and committed to making the ‘outstanding’ happen, and we’re going to work as a team to get there sooner rather than later.”
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