Kala Patel of Kiddycare has been chosen as a finalist in the Hera category of this year’s NatWest everywoman Awards. The category is for a woman running a business aged 50 and over. She spoke to Workingmums.co.uk about how she set up and has grown her business. The winners of the awards will be announced at a ceremony on Wednesday 3rd December at The Dorchester Hotel in London.
Workingmums.co.uk: What did you do before you set up Kiddycare and what prompted you to not just notice the gap in the market but take the step to set up a business? Did you have any business experience beforehand?
Kala: Before I set up Kiddycare I worked as a manager in a dental surgery. When my maternity leave was due to end after having my first child, I wanted to return to work. When looking for childcare provision I couldn’t find anywhere that was offering full day care. Needing to return to work but having no one to care for my child pushed me forward in opening my first nursery- this was 30 years ago.
WM: What did you find the most challenging thing in the initial stages of running a business?
Kala: When initially setting up the business the most challenging thing was finding a suitable premises. Once that was found the business development flowed. I opened initially as a 15-place nursery. The response from the local community was overwhelming. The nursery was full within days of opening and a huge waiting list was established.
WM: What did you find the most difficult thing when growing the business? Was finding funding a big issue? What about getting the right staff?
Kala: I feel very fortunate in that, even at the very beginning, I was able to employ a wonderful team of dedicated staff and an excellent officer in charge. From the onset a family atmosphere was established and everyone took ownership of the nursery. Dedication and passion were shown from everyone involved.
At the time 30 years ago, there weren’t nursery education grants or support with childcare charges. My nursery was fully funded by private paying parents.
In recognition of good business practise and employment creation, in 1996 I won the prestigious Midas award which was sponsored by major employers. Winning this award helped support the development of my second nursery, which I opened in another area of Leicester. This nursery was also full within weeks of opening and another waiting list was established.
At the time 30 years ago it was social services who registered childcare premises. I myself was on the social services partnership board and was part of the development and introduction of the Children Act.
WM: How did you build the business while you were bringing up your own children? How old are your children?
Kala: My first child was the reason why I set up my business in the first place and as my other two children came along, running day nurseries was a perfect way of being able to keep my children close and being able to work at the same time. I feel I was extremely fortunate to be able to do this. As a mother I gained so much peace from knowing that my children were safe, secure, happy and being educated.
WM: What made you decide to set up a consultancy arm of your business?
Kala: My team decided to set up a consultancy arm after we recognised that the childcare sector was nearing saturation point. Whilst looking for new opportunities, we identified that workplace nurseries were a potential growth area. We also share our expertise and skill sets with people wanting to open a nursery for the very first time and give them all the support they require.
WM: Is employer interest in providing childcare as an employee benefit growing?
Kala: Helping employees with childcare has been a growing concern of employers for more than 20 years. The interest in work-life balance issues began in the 1980s as more women entered the workforce. Helping employees with childcare have high benefits for employers and employees.
Employers appear to be supporting their employees more now with the salary sacrifice scheme. However, as our involvement with the management of the Royal Mail Nursery for the last 16 years has showed us there are more employer/employee benefits through having a workplace nursery. There needs, however, to be more awareness of the benefits and more help from the government to make this provision more of a tax incentive so it encourages more small to large organisations to get more involved.
WM: How are you exporting the Kiddycare brand internationally? Do you have to adapt it to different countries?
Kala: As Kiddycare prepares to celebrate its 30th anniversary next year the company has already highlighted a number of opportunities both for expansion in the UK as well as overseas in Dubai and across all the metro cities in India. Detailed execution plans have already been drawn up and, to help support this level of growth, Kiddycare has just moved into a newly created state-of-the-art head office and training centre so that we can expand the management team and be at the forefront of excellence to give our staff the best training possible. Based on the history of the company, its reputation over the years, its high employee retention rate, the brand value that has been created and our great future plans for growth we have been targeted by London-based private equity groups and venture capitalists who want to use Kiddycare as a platform company to then go through an accelerated period of growth over the next five to seven years.
WM: Why do you think you have such a good staff retention rate?
Kala: I have been asked this question so many times. Firstly, I have been very fortunate in being able to employ individuals who are committed and passionate about providing outstanding childcare. As an employer I have ensured that all my team feel connected and part of Kiddycare’s vision. At every level I try to ensure that the team contribute to the activities of Kiddycare equally, that they all feel personally connected, that they feel valued and that they know their contribution is important in the continuation of Kiddycare. I have taken time in knowing all of my staff team and ensured that the nursery is resourced and opportunities are provided to support the staff team in developing and extending their knowledge and training.
I am proud of how Kiddycare’s team are a family; we all work closely together. All of the management team have now been working for me for over 20 years and 60% of the staff team have been with me for over 10 years.
WM: How important do you feel it is to give back to the community and do you think women entrepreneurs are more likely to want to be involved in such work?
Kala: I have been passionate about working with the local community from the onset of developing Kiddycare and I acknowledge that without community support, Kiddycare wouldn’t be the success it is today.
Kiddycare has provided employment to local people and as the nurseries are in the heart of local communities, they are seen as facilities which people can visit for support, advice and guidance as well as childcare.
Over the years Kiddycare has provided family learning, mentoring councilling and training. Kiddycare also has employed a qualified social worker and we have supported families suffering from domestic violence and safeguarding issues.
Kiddycare holds excellent working relationships with local colleges and over the years we have supported the training of hundreds of students. Most recently Kiddycare was shortlisted by a local college for its “support to local industry”.
Kiddycare nurseries in Leicester are situated in areas of high deprivation and Kiddycare’s team has worked very hard over the years in providing “better outcomes for children”.
The success of our philosophy and outstanding service has also led to high profile coverage. Kiddycare has had delegates from China and Japan visit, as well as the childcare ministers Margaret Hodge and Sarah Teather. Representatives from the Department of Education have also viewed our facilities as well as Members of Parliament and other service providers.
Kiddycare representatives have also attended a meeting at Downing Street with the Prime Minister to be personally thanked for the difference Kiddycare was making to local children and families.
I also feel that working with other providers is vital for supporting the running of outstanding nurseries. Recently I have become the chair of The Big Conversation for the East Midlands where, with the co-chair, we take forward to OFSTED concerns or questions that providers may be experiencing or which need answering.
Through members of the local community I have been nominated for awards, most recently I won the Lloyds Asian Business Woman of the Year Award 2014 and I have been shortlisted for the NatWest everywoman award.
WM: Do you have any other plans for the future?
Kala: Next year will be an exciting year as we will be celebrating Kiddycare’s 30th year. We are planning to hold events throughout the year and raise money for charity.
Personally, I would also like to be more involved at a government level and use my 30 years’ experience in childcare to support, provide guidance and help shape future decisions on improving outcomes for children.
WM: Many nurseries are struggling to keep going in the current climate with subsidised care for three and four year olds not covering the full costs, etc. How do you manage to thrive in such a climate? Is there strength in running a chain of nurseries?
Kala: The climate of childcare has changed dramatically over recent years with many families unable to afford childcare and support through childcare tax credit decreasing. As a group of nurseries we have been impacted by these changes, but careful business planning and allocation of free places has enabled us to remain sustainable.
Like other providers we have found the contribution from the government for these free places has not covered costs. With these free places also comes added pressures of maintaining quality provision, employing highly qualified professionals and increased levels of paperwork and record keeping. Having a chain of nurseries does have its strengths, but to maintain quality of provision each facility needs to be staffed individually with suitable practitioners.