Mothers become baby-care tycoons

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The Independent Online
NINE YEARS ago, Veronica Craig, then 34, with four children, started looking for a nursery for her children near her home in Haslemere, Surrey. After a search of the area, Mrs Craig decided she did not like the look of her local daycare centres.

So she hired a couple of nannies to look after her two under-fives in her home, and the neighbours, also young professionals, sent their toddlers along and contributed to the cost.

Now Mrs Craig, a research psychologist by training, is worth more than pounds 2m. Her creche grew into a small day nursery then a large day nursery, and now she has a chain of day nurseries - Caring Daycare - across two counties. Her 80 staff look after about 200 children, their parents paying pounds 135 a week per child. She has a waiting list of almost 100.

Mrs Craig is one of a new breed of millionaires, mothers who say they just wanted to do the best by their children and who have created an industry so lucrative they are being targeted for buyouts by Whitbread.

When, at the end of 1989, Mrs Craig's front room became full - with seven children and two nannies - she bought an old manor house on the Surrey- Hampshire border and opened it up as a nursery. All 40 places were taken up immediately.

Her nurseries are located around Haslemere, Guildford and Midhurst in Surrey and West Sussex, the relocation choice of the thirtysomething City workers who leave their cramped flats in Chelsea and Battersea for the leafy dales around the A3, start a family, and then need care for their children.

Although she did not know it at first, Mrs Craig was tapping a market as lucrative as that of the wine bars, sports-car dealers and leisurewear manufacturers.

"Once I'd started I became passionate about it," she said. "I continued to research into child development, and developed my own theories about the happiness and care of children." The sole owner of the business, she coped easily with the financial side: "I learnt to be a businesswoman, and I discovered parts of myself I would never have known I had."

Mrs Craig said she had had no intention of turning into a tycoon: "I just wanted the best possible care for my children."

About six years ago, Kate Edolls had a similar idea. A Surrey mother with a commuting husband, she looked around for suitable creches, found none, and started one herself. The three nurseries that grew out of her mini-daycare centre, Jolly Tots, were among the most popular in the Reigate area where she lived, catering for some 150 children.

Inevitably, the success of the nurseries caught the greedy eye of UK plc: big business, already investing in retirement homes, turned its attention to the nurseries.

In 1996 Ms Edolls, like Mrs Craig, started receiving offers from Gatehouse, a subsidiary of Whitbread, which had already bought one privately owned nursery chain and was seeking to expand. Initially, both rebuffed the advances, but last year Ms Edolls sold Jolly Tots to Gatehouse, netting more than pounds 1m.

Lesley Bennett, now 36, has also received, and refused, an offer from Gatehouse for her Cherry Group chain. She started her nursery in Weybridge - another wealthy Surrey commuter zone - in 1990, with, she recalls, "exactly zero children" except for hers. She now runs five nurseries across the county and is looking for a sixth site.

It is easy to spot the maternal influence in the Surrey daycare centres: they are spacious and colourful, the children articulate, happy and relaxed.

The remaining nursery tycoons, Mrs Craig and Ms Bennett, say they are committed to their businesses, despite the sums of money - rumoured to be more than pounds 2m - on offer. "The corporate nurseries are run very much as a cold, calculating business and we are not," Ms Bennett's business partner, Barry Rolfe, said.

In fact, when talking about the sums they are worth, the women speak as if money is something of an irrelevance. Ms Bennett's emphasis is more on giving mothers a chance to work. Mrs Craig's focus is on making the children happy.