Stories of Growth

Clare Roberts, Kids Planet: “A family, not a chain”

As part of our Stories of Growth series, we hear from the founder of one the largest nursery groups in the UK.

5 September 2023

BGF first invested in nursery group Kids Planet in 2016, providing £10m to support an organic and acquisitive growth strategy. After a series of follow-on rounds, we exited our initial investment in 2021, delivering a 3x money multiple, when the business was acquired by Fremman Capital.

By then, Kids Planet was ranked number one in the UK for quality, based on Ofsted rankings by Nursery World. With more than 80 sites, it’s responsible for the education of over 7,500 children, making it one of the largest nursery groups in the country. Having re-invested at time of exit, we continue to back Kids Planet’s growth.

Clare Roberts founded Kids Planet after struggling to find appropriate childcare following the birth of her first daughter. She quit her job in the pharmaceutical industry and launched the business, alongside her sister and father, who had previously run and sold a successful nursery chain. Watch Clare’s video interview or read her story below.

When I was pregnant with my oldest, who is now 15, I started looking at childcare options. At the time, I had a job where I travelled a lot. All my local nurseries opened at 8am and closed at 6pm. On top of that, they were uninspiring.

At that point, my dad, John, was exiting the childcare sector after 12 years. He had a previous nursery group business and I had been a practitioner, so I had a good understanding of the business. I convinced him to start again by buying two separate nurseries. I became the manager of one. We started in September 2008 – that was when my daughter first went to nursery. In the end, she went with me.

I live in Lymm, Cheshire, five miles from the nursery I managed. Within six weeks of those acquisitions, a health clinic came up for sale in my village. We bought that and it solved my travel and childcare issues – we opened the following September. We went on to open or acquire two nurseries a year in the early days. Back then, our growth was slower because I was having children at the same time as building the business – I have three kids. Nowadays, we have 167 nurseries and are responsible for the care of over 20,000 children.

“You get to a certain size and that either finishes you off or it gives you the encouragement to keep going”

My ambition has grown as things have happened. You get to a certain size and that either finishes you off or it gives you the encouragement to keep going. I’ve been lucky to be surrounded by great people. At the beginning, I was key to everything, but I’m no longer the most important person in the business. It’s a shared vision.

There wasn’t some big plan where we thought we’ll get to 150 nurseries; it’s just happened over a period of time. Growth is easier as you get bigger because people put more opportunities in front of you. People know us as a company, and when we complete an acquisition, they are glad the exiting owner has picked us. I never refer to us as a chain, we’re a group. Sounds like semantics but it’s more of a family feel. To me, “chain” sounds corporate and unloved.

We recognise that while we have a brand, each nursery is individual, and the team is fundamental to its success. To a parent with a child in a Blackburn nursery, what matters is the team in Blackburn. We look at local demand and try to meet their needs. Our nurseries open from 7am to 7pm to offer flexibility.

Our growth journey with BGF

It was our bank that suggested BGF as a good partner for us. We had toyed with private equity but were put off by the idea of someone coming in and trying to run our company. BGF seemed more “hands off” while being keen to invest in individuals and support growth.

BGF invested in August 2016 and provided several rounds of follow-on funding. When they first invested, we had 16 nurseries, and by the time they exited, we had 84.

“When BGF first invested, we had 16 nurseries. By the time they exited, we had 84.”

When we first met BGF, we told them how we were as people, and they were keen to be part of our journey. My dad and I are straightforward and to the point. One of our abilities as a company is our agility – we act fast and do not take ages over decisions. That’s what we got with BGF; they haven’t slowed us down. Some of the nurseries we acquired came to us via introductions from BGF’s network – a group of 10 nurseries in July 2021 were acquired that way.

The plan is to get to 250 nurseries in five years. We want to keep growing through acquisitions while also developing new sites. Of course, it’s important to make sure we’re geared up for future growth so that we can absorb new sites and people aren’t too stretched.

Founder Clare Roberts and BGF investor Ben Barker, on-site at a Kids Planet nursery

No nonsense

There were many highlights over the years. In 2019, we were ranked first in the UK for care quality by Ofsted. Not long after that, we bought another nursery group, Kids Allowed, at end of January 2020, which accelerated our growth. We were on a real high until the pandemic kicked in, but I’m proud of how many people have stayed with us despite the challenges of COVID.

My sister, Lucy, works as our operations director, and I love working with her and my dad. We share values with our other directors. We do all we can to make it right and we’re good at fixing things.

Before dad had a childcare business, he had his own accountancy firm. My two grandfathers each had their own businesses – a building company and a printing business. I have seen in people the ability to start things from scratch, some of this is inherent.

I always liked working and earning money – I had a job from age 12. I loved my previous career too; however, the timewasting did my head in. I used to laugh and say that if I ever had my own company, I wouldn’t have that nonsense.

I’m different now to who I was when we started. Things bothered me more and I would take it personally but that’s just learning and growing. One of the things I’ve learned from my dad is that, if you have a problem, find a solution quickly. Don’t look at who is to blame. Adapt and move on.

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