The tale of two sisters who went back to school

Setting up a nursery wasn't child's play, but now Sarah and Claire are a class apart
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Sarah Steel, 35, and her sister Claire Boyns, 36, set up The Old Station Nursery in 2001 in Faringdon, Oxfordshire

Sarah Steel, 35, and her sister Claire Boyns, 36, set up The Old Station Nursery in 2001 in Faringdon, Oxfordshire

Leaving the army after the birth of her second child, Capt Sarah Steel decided to take a short career break. Two years later, Sarah found herself looking for child care provision with her sister Claire Boyns, also a mother of two. But finding places for children under three proved difficult. And so a plan was hatched: why not set up their own nursery business? The ex-Royal Logistic Corps officer certainly had the organisational skills needed to run a business. And Claire, a chartered accountant, was an ideal business partner.

They undertook substantial market research and became convinced of the opportunity. A business plan was developed, together with revenue forecasts, and the idea looked very sound. But then they hit a snag. Most new businesses never start out by buying premises, they usually lease. But finding suitable premises to lease that met the planning consent requirements for a nursery of parking, outdoor play area and indoor facilities proved impossible. And so they were left with only one option: to buy. They submitted mortgage applications to a number of banks but all were turned down. As Sarah says, "High Street bank lending parameters are very narrow and so written applications can fall at the first hurdle."

Undeterred, the sisters approached London-based commercial mortgage brokers ASC Finance for Business to ask for help. Armed with a professional assessment of their business plan, ASC arranged for a personal introduction to a sympathetic bank manager. "Everything changed when we got a face-to-face meeting," says Sarah. However, part of the deal was that the sisters had to put their own money into the venture, and despite significant personal investments, the two sisters struggled to find all of the start-up costs and had to turn to other family members for financial support.

But their determination paid off. The nursery had 50 per cent occupancy within weeks of launching and achieved 80 per cent by the end of the first year. Sarah puts the success down to the choice of key staff, such as manager Liz Clements, commitment to training and sheer hard work. And their enterprising attitude now sees the nursery offer breakfast and after-school clubs as well as childcare between 8am and 6pm. Three years on, would they do it again? "Well," says Sarah, "we are just about to buy our second nursery."

The Old Station Nursery: 01367 243800,