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It’s no surprise that here at NappyValleyNet we’re big fans of families – after all, we’re a parenting site! But as a small business we’re also big fans of start-ups, as in the business kind.
So during our last editorial meeting (OK, OK, over a glass or three of Brinkley’s finest Prosecco), we wondered if we could combine the two and look at family teams who also run local businesses. And once we started digging we soon realised there are a LOT of them around. From interior design to soft play, from luxury travel to hospitality, welcome to the Nappy Valley firms who work, rest and play together…
Maria and Darren Johnson opened their first Eddie Catz play centre in Putney in 2005, launching a venue that soon earnt a reputation as the leading play centre and party venue in SW London.
“At that time there wasn’t a lot around,” says Maria. “We analysed the area, found the venue, secured funding and opened in April 2005. At that point our children were six and three, so it was full on. We didn’t take salaries for the first two years and relied heavily on our parents to help out day to day with the kids.”
Family is at the heart of the Eddie Catz business model. “All hands are on deck – even the kids pitch in now they’re older! Our daughter Emma, 18, works on reception and our son Alex, 15, is very artistic and helps with advertising and illustrations. About half our employees are foreigners – Italians, Bulgarians, Polish – and they’ve needed a job to get their feet on the ground. They soon become part of the family – we’ve been to hospitals, their homes when they’ve been robbed, we’ve entertained their parents when they’ve visited!”
With all the family working together, what’s the impact? “The kids have seen how hard we work and how stressful is can be, especially when we’re working at weekends doing parties. But I think we’ve been good role models for them,” explains Maria. But what about married life, I wonder. “We both enjoy working together and we complement each other with our different strengths. Darren is the dreamer, the strategist – Eddie Catz was his idea. I know how to run a company from the financial and administrative side; he knows the operations aspect and deals with the front of house and the team. We both have separate areas we control and generally we don’t disagree. You can’t let business decisions become personal!”
Clara Bee was born in May 2012, though founder Claire Burrage has long been involved in interior design and home renovation. “I’ve always been passionate about interiors, and Clara Bee is a natural extension of that,” she explains. “Over a nine year period from around 2003, mainly through word of mouth, I became a go-to person to help design and deliver renovation projects locally. At first, it was a great way to ease myself back into work after having my daughters, but it quickly grew into something much more like a full-time job – albeit one I love every minute of.”
The decision to formally launch Clara Bee as a business came after Claire and husband Trevor bought and renovated a house in 2010. “The place needed a lot of work, a huge renovation project and a big team of builders. As a result, we made some very useful contacts, real expert tradespeople. This was an opportunity that was too good to miss, and those same specialists now make up the core delivery team at Clara Bee.”
Since then, the team has expanded with every refurbishment project, and as new specialists have come on board, so doors have opened to an ever wider portfolio of projects. That expansion brought a significantly increased workload; growth that eventually saw Trevor join the business in February 2015. “Project management has been a discipline at the heart of roles I’ve held in large corporations, for example, management consultancy and programme management,” explains Trevor. “All that training, plus my own personal experience of building works, meant I was able to add significantly to the project management side very quickly.”
With Trevor on board, Claire was able to focus on the interior design side and leave him to build up a portfolio of larger project management jobs. Leaving a job in the City was a big step, but one that Trevor looks back on as a good move. “I now have a better balance between work and family life. Obviously it can be a challenge to balance the need to drive the business forward with giving the children the time and attention they need, but so far we’ve been pretty good at separating home and family life from work.”
And what about working with your partner? Claire says, “We’ve spent many years working on our own developments and projects and we have learnt that there are so many components to getting it right. We are aware of each other’s strengths and weaknesses and we definitely work well together as a team. In the end, it’s more than a business. It is our livelihood and something we’re both passionate about – rather than a potential source of conflict, it is something we have very much in common. In fact, sometimes our children (Georgie, 15, and Alice, 12) say, ‘Please can we have one Sunday lunch where we don’t talk property?’ But they are already showing an interest and creative flair, so maybe they will be working with us in the future at Clara Bee.”
2002 was a busy year for Sue and Jamie Bell. They got married, moved from their house on Bellamy Street in Balham, and started a business all in one year. “We wanted to put the romance back into travel. To create innovative experiences which would allow clients to really get under the skin of a destination. From outback stations in Australia to beach houses in New Zealand, our programme grew quickly and organically as we searched for authentic places where the locals would go, not just locations and resorts that were luxury for luxury’s sake”.
“Our first honeymoon destinations included South Africa, Asia and the Indian Ocean, and stopovers on the way to Australia such as the islands of Tahiti. Tahiti has been hugely successful for us and we are now very proud to be the largest outbound operator in the UK. Fourteen years on, we have couples who honeymooned with us now ready to travel long haul with their families. Beach-based destinations such as Mauritius and the Maldives are increasingly in demand, but there has definitely been a growth in active holidays and more adventurous itineraries over the last few years. Many of our families like to see at least two places during their holiday and combinations such as safari and beach seem to be a growing trend for families. Sue often uses the term ‘earn your luxury’ to describe these itineraries. Start your holiday with a few nights on an exhilarating safari, with early mornings and exciting game drives, junior ranger programmes and full days of activities and fun. Then, dust down tired safari legs with a week on a sun swathed beach…relax and unwind and enjoy quality time together”.
With a ‘beach house inspired’ shop on the Northcote Road and a converted barn in leafy Buckinghamshire, the Turquoise team of 45 is growing fast. Jamie recently moved from Sales and Marketing Director to Managing Director and Sue is the Product Director, both working full time. Sue is responsible for collating the portfolio of partners, hotels and islands that Turquoise feature. Her team will then arrange contracts, negotiate exclusive offers, visit trade shows, train the team of specialists and ensure that each itinerary is supported with the personal touches that make Turquoise truly unique. “I trust her judgment entirely,” says Jamie.
With two children, Angus, 6, and Sophie, 12, Jamie and Sue rotate as a team and take turns to do the school run. “It’s not always an easy balancing act but it works well and we are a good team, especially when it comes to making breakfast, getting to school… and work on time! We can be flexible with logistics as we live and work in Beaconsfield and have a great team behind us. We often work in the evenings to liaise with partners around the world and also look after the emergency phone in case clients need to get in touch. It’s a full-on job but we are hugely passionate about the business and the brand that we have built – it is so exciting to think how much it has grown, changed and developed over the last 14 years”.
For Charlie and Fran Oppenheim, it certainly helps when you are your target market. Having lived in Nappy Valley since 2010, with Max, now five, and Anya, aged four, Charlie was keen for a career change after the private investment company he worked for was acquired by a global business. Spending the summer of 2013 at home with a blank sheet of paper steadily filling up with ideas of what to do next, Charlie found himself wondering about Common Ground, the café on Wandsworth Common. “Park cafés are in lovely locations but often the service can be improved and the food can be better. I approached the owner to talk about taking over the site – before I knew it, he closed one day and we opened the next!” recalls Charlie.
Learning the hospitality industry was a baptism of fire for the couple. “We spent months researching, planning and watching – you realise there are so many things that go into making one simple cup of coffee!” Skylark officially opened in April 2014 and it was an amazingly hot summer that year. “We couldn’t deal with the demand – I lost two stone in the first three months and usually worked till 1am. I was constantly firefighting and it was very intense.” Now the team have been awarded the lease for The Rookery cafe on Streatham Common by Lambeth Council and by autumn they hope to have both sites looking their best, reflecting each individual location while offering consistently good food and service.
While Charlie drives the day-to-day running of the business, Fran’s strengths are with customers and marketing the cafés, thanks to her consumer research background for Mediacom. “Fran does all social media and printed material. We talk about the business all the time, bouncing ideas off each other but crucially she has experience of managing people and explains to me how to talk to and motivate them, which is hugely important. This is the most stressful thing I’ve ever done and when I talk to Fran I feel it helps the business move forward. The biggest benefit has been having a change of perspective. Moving from salaried jobs to a start-up means we’ve had to make different choices, but we appreciate our life more and it has been enriching. I like to think we help the community and that the community helps us too,” reflects Charlie.
When Anna and Jeremy Harwood were on holiday with friends in Australia in 2002, they hit upon the idea to set up a UK arm of their friends’ bifolding door company. “Jeremy was ready to stop his building company and start a new project,” recalls Anna. After the global recession of 2009, the couple saw an opportunity to establish themselves as an independent UK company and Cedar Bifold was born. “The product is brilliant and we make it in our own workshop,” explains Anna. “We started an apprenticeship scheme in 2010 and we’re now on our fifth apprentice. Whilst we still make the original design doors from Red Western Cedar, we have since branched out into new styles and different materials.”
Cedar Bifold is truly a family concern – oldest son Daniel, 27, works in the company alongside his parents (they also have two daughters, Ella, 24, and Olivia, 20). Anna, previously a lettings agent, oversees the invoicing, the back office and all administration, and Jeremy looks after the manufacturing, running the workshop and all technical aspects, including liaising with clients and builders. “At times working together can be difficult,” admits Anna, “but most of the time it works. We share the same ideas for the company and whilst I am more cautious, Jeremy is the risk-taking entrepreneur. We work well because of that balance. As a rule we never talk about business at home, we switch off, but on holiday Jeremy is more likely to be on e-mail than me. We love our business and we’re doing it for our family. Our aim is to work hard and pass the business on to our children.”