A family affair: How Ben and Ollie Black built their childcare empire

 
Harriet Green
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Being an ex-City lawyer and P&G exec doesn't necessarily equip you for running the country's largest childcare network (Source: Getty)

Two minutes with the Black brothers and Laurel and Hardy come up. “You know, ‘another fine mess you’ve got me into’,” says Oliver Black, describing how he initially conceived of working with his brother.

“I spent Christmas trying to convince Ollie that I knew about buying a company,” says Ben Black. The pair bought failing childcare firm Tinies in 2000. Now, their group, My Family Care Services, is run by them and business partner Amanda Coxen, and has several large childcare arms within it, many started from scratch.

You’re using Tinies, now a recruitment company with over 30 agencies within it, if you deposit your sprogs in an Ikea creche, for instance. And Emergency Care, which offers on-tap childcare for over 350,000 corporate workers, has a client list that includes IBM, Merrill Lynch, Citi, KPMG, Deloitte, Centrica and Shell.

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But going from City lawyer (Ben) and P&G exec (Ollie) to businessmen wasn’t plain sailing. “It was fascinating, scary, good, horrible. Of course, it’s really fashionable now to say ‘oh, I’m an entrepreneur’... I remember years ago we were sent on a finance course at P&G entitled Cash is King. That’s what you really learn if you found a business,” says Ollie.

Changing lanes

The pair started off by pivoting the business from the “tough” world of nanny agencies to setting up nurseries. They began recruiting, then feeling out the kinds of settings the business should operate in – supermarkets, public services. After that, they “started getting calls from people whose childcare had broken down, so we’d turn to spare capacity in our nurseries,” says Ollie.

Maximising this market mechanism enabled the pair to set up Emergency Childcare. The fraternal pair’s first corporate client was the Metropolitan Police. “It turnes out that lots of policemen and women are married to each other, so childcare can be difficult. It was a case of matching supply with demand – we were just a bit early in terms of the web, etc,” says Ben.

Be that as it may, in what was a female-dominated industry, the pair became quite trendy. Early on, they were “approached to feature on TV programme Tough at the Top. Amanda said, ‘over my dead body’, but we thought, ‘let’s go for it’.”

So they did and, despite the programme being designed to show failing businesses in action, they came across “quite well. It was free PR for us, and things grew from there,” says Ben. Besides, he adds: “everyone else in the industry hated us. It was such a backward little sector – no-one had a website or even a database.”

These days, My Family Care includes in its arsenal everything from consultancy to relocation solutions. One of its most successful businesses is Eldercare. The clue is in the name: it provides individuals and corporate employees with everything from longer-term carers to on-demand care for elderly relatives.

“There are more people over 60 than under 18 in the UK. Three million adults are working carers now, and within two decades it’ll be six. That’s a ticking timebomb,” says Ollie. “It means businesses have to think holistically. If you talk about childcare demand and looking after parents, most employees will get it,” chips in Ben.

I ask how tricky working together is – how many people could run a business with their sibling? The pair have, sensibly, divided things up, with Ben heading up My Family Care and Ollie running Tinies. “Our father worked with his brother, and it wasn’t a terrible precedent. And we’ve got two other brothers who each run their own businesses, so it was probably bound to happen,” says the latter.

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It’s rare that you’ll find both Blacks in the same meeting, and any spat (they’re at odds on how to vote on 23 June) is quickly outweighed by the benefits. “We have a brilliant upside which is trust. The downside is that you’ll push each other’s buttons and get the same reaction as when you were eight. But whenever you hear about partners having a fallout, you remember the dividends,” says Ben.

Next generation

The brothers’ latest venture is rolling out tuition for primary school-age children – in Asda and Ikea. In partnership with Pearson, it’ll offer £12 an hour, 1:6 ratio english and maths classes. “Tutoring is growing massively and this partnership makes it very affordable. Our target audience is the aspirational middle classes. And all retailers have got far too much space. Offering parents something like this for their kids to do while they shop makes sense,” explains Ollie.

The Blacks launched The Learning Factor in January of this year, piloting in London and Manchester. “We’re talking to other stores as well – there is no lack of demand. People are increasingly time-poor and service hungry, so the sky is the limit, really,” he adds.

Both are quick to say they’ve had a “fair amount of luck” in getting to this point. As Ben puts it: “I’d love to say that there was some kind of mission statement we’ve followed. Actually, it’s always been one decision at a time."

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