A happy family of nurseries: a business success story

Sarah Steel set up The Old Station Nursery in Faringdon, Oxfordshire in 2002. Now it has 10 sister sites
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The Independent Online

The Old Station Nursery was featured in The Independent on Sunday back in November 2004 when founder Sarah Steel had only been in business for a short time. That article focused on the struggle to secure start-up finance from high street banks for the children's day nursery business. But less than three years on, the progress made by the business has been little short of spectacular. "We now employ around 200 people within what we think of as a group rather than a chain and all of our staff can access qualifications ranging from NVQs through to degree programmes," says the ex-Army officer.

Key to the success of the business has been this commitment to training coupled with the creation of "standard operating procedures" that define day-to-day operations. The approach has allowed the successful formula, developed at the first nursery, to be replicated at other sites in Wiltshire, Oxfordshire, Rutland and Lincolnshire - 11 day nurseries in all, with two additional after-school clubs. "Each manager runs her own nursery as part of the local community but with business support from our group," says Steel. And that support can come directly from "head office" or via the company's new intranet: having all of the operating documentation available online means that new nurseries can virtually " plug in and go" as they join the group.

The business is a good example of how growth can be achieved through replication - from a single micro-business to a group of businesses under the same umbrella. But that business model only really works when operating processes can be standardised and when there's a corresponding commitment to staff training. The excellence of The Old Station Nursery through its commitment to training, standardisation of processes and development of managers has been recognised by the Investors in People (IIP) accreditation at three of its sites. And the founder has also been recognised for her personal achievements including the prestigious "Inspirational Business Mum of the Year" award, sponsored by Yellow Pages.

Staff members tease "Captain Steel" about her military background and there's no doubt that her approach to management draws upon lessons learned in the Army. But this shouldn't be a criticism: just as Great Ormond Street Hospital surgeons work with Ferrari pit stop experts to improve their techniques around the operating table, owner-managers can often improve their business by looking at working methods proven in disciplines outside of the business world.

(01367 243800; www.theoldstationnursery.co.uk).