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‘We bought a business to help out our family’

In a heart-warming story, the lives of three generations of Paul Blair’s family have been changed after they bought a childcare centre.

15 September 2022

Paul Blair and his wife were both high-flying corporate businesspeople at the peak of their careers when they made some life choices some people would see as rather different.

“Our middle son, Jamie, was diagnosed as autistic,” explains Blair, a former head of institutional banking for a big Australian-owned bank.

“Jamie is 18 and six foot three but marooned at about age four or five in his interests, for example, he still loves playing the Wiggles.

“Well, we’re not going to get younger, so we thought we should figure out a business where Jamie will have some part of it and where his interests will be supported and accepted.”

So, Blair left his job and his wife Jo, who used to be head of marketing for Fisher & Paykel, retrained as an early childhood education teacher so they could set up a childcare centre.

First the pair tried to develop their own centre by renovating a heritage building, but the consent process defeated them.

Eventually they realised it would probably be easier to buy an existing business, so they approached Barkers Business Brokerage and bought a large centre in the North Shore suburb of Northcross that had been operating for close on 20 years.

“We bought it from the founders, who were in their 70s. He was a builder who built it, and she was an early childhood teacher who ran it.”

At first, they just bought the business and leased the property, with a first right of refusal to buy the property if the owners decided to sell.

Says Blair: “When the owners decided to sell, we exercised our first right of refusal and bought it just before Christmas last year.”

They did the purchase as a family deal with Jo’s parents, who were of retirement age but still farming.

“It was a not-so-subtle push by his daughter: ‘Dad, you love the farm but maybe you should have a bit more of a passive investment’,” he says.

“This is a move towards him getting off from the farm and into a family-owned business. It’s still gives him an interest, but it’s just physically a bit easier.”

It turned out to be a difficult time to take over a business, right at the start of the Covid pandemic, but they loved it.

“We’re enjoying the fact that we are our own boss, and the children are great fun.”

He says one of the advantages of childcare for an investor is that about half of the income for the centre comes from government funding.

“It’s quite stable, but it’s a highly regulated industry and economies of scale really matter. That’s why we wanted a large centre, with an experienced manager.

“It’s got a really good team of teachers and that’s important, because it’s a people business through and through.”

When the manager left to have her own life change in the Far North, Blair stepped in as manager for a time, but he’s just appointed a new manager.

“The concept was always to have it under management and go from there, but it’s been such a period of change for everyone, that it needed more hands-on work.”

Jamie’s part of the team, too, on three days’ work experience a week. He helps assemble furniture, cleans the water fountain, and does odd jobs around the centre.

Says Blair: “He came into the centre yesterday when there was a little four-year-old dressed in an Emma Wiggle costume. Jamie just thought that was fantastic. The staff were delighted to see this big kid and this little kid dancing and singing ‘Fruit Salad, Yummy, Yummy!’.”

Now the couple’s oldest son has left to study at Canterbury University, their youngest is 16 and Jamie’s 18.

“It’s the best time for the next stage of life for us. It’s very rewarding.

“Everyone has challenges, and this is just us thinking outside the box, how we can shape our family into this little life that we want to lead.”

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