My Week: BusyBees' John Woodward

The boss of the UK's biggest childcare provider on maintaining focus during a sale process...

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

In some ways it’s been an unusual week – not that there's any such thing as a normal week! As the original management team, we’re currently embroiled in the process to sell BusyBees’ UK nursery business. So last week I spent a whole day in an office in Birmingham with the CFO and our advisers KPMG, giving investor presentations to three separate groups of potential backers – about two-and-a-half hours for each. We’re talking to a mixture of private equity and trade buyers from around the world, but the whole process takes time! Hopefully it should all be done one way or the other by April.

The next day I met up with a number of other stakeholders in the childcare voucher sector. We’re the largest UK provider, but we have some big competitors now (although I’m not running it any more, I’m helping (new owner) Computershare drive through the transition and develop the business). I believe we need a code of practice that clarifies our responsibilities to customers and carers. The idea is to come up with a code that everyone can adhere to, and will give a better service to stakeholders, i.e. companies and child carers. Everyone seems open to the idea, but the key is to come up with a code that means something, and also has teeth.

The following day I met with a series of banks, which are looking to support the company’s next phase and provide a package for potential acquirers. At the moment, I’m not sure whether we’re presenting to them or counselling them! They’re all very depressed, so we spend 90% of the meeting persuading them that there is light at the end of their tunnel. We have a great business that’s growing (3% up on last year), more profitable, more occupied, more parents paying on time... Even if people lose their jobs, they’re very reluctant to take their children out of nursery – and some people are even going back from maternity leave early. Plus we have the experience of trading through the early 1990s recession. We’re predicting two very difficult years – but we’ll come out of it.

We also had a half-day board meeting. When you’re stuck in a sales process, as we’ve been for the last 12 months, it can be very distracting for the normal business. It helps that we’ve done this a few times already, but you’ve got to be sure you don’t take your eye off the day-to-day stuff. Then I spent the afternoon with the management team, working out what everyone wants from the deal. Momentum can be quite seductive, so it’s important to sit there and take a cold hard look at exactly what’s happening. It’s easier for us because we’re a very well-established team, but particularly if you’re bringing someone new in, you need to be really honest and up-front. Everyone needs to set realistic, but challenging expectations.

I also spent a morning at the university, exploring ways to make our business a more graduate-level profession. We already have an extensive personal development system, but it’s about building on what’s already there and also looking at vocational courses that will be useful to the individual and the business.

And I’ve done nothing else! I suppose in an average week, I’d probably spend a bit more time talking to more staff – and I haven’t had any chance to walk my two Labradors with my wife. Hopefully this weekend!

John Woodward is the group MD of BusyBees, the UK’s largest childcare company. He set up the company (along with two other families) in 1984, when he couldn’t find quality childcare for his son; BusyBees now has 130 nurseries in the UK. John was also the driving force behind the group’s Childcare Vouchers business, established in 1998, which now employs more than 250 people and was sold to Computershare in September for £90m. He’s currently involved with the sales process for the UK nursery business, whose Australian owner ABC has gone into receivership.

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