How to set yourself apart from competitors - two bosses tell how values of respect and innovation help them succeed
When she was training to become a special needs classroom assistant, Jill Hessin spent time working in a nursery.
She found the experience so upsetting that she vowed she would never do it again.
Fast forward 16 years, however, and 40-year-old Jill is the director of Kiddiwinkles Care and Learning Centre, which has a number of facilities across Mid Ulster.
It is quite the turnaround for Jill, but it is only because her company provides such a unique service for families.
It has been a long and dedicated journey to get where she is today and Jill has travelled around the world to tailor the offering of the centres.
She says: "I actually opened the first one when I was 24 and I was two months pregnant at the time.
"We have spent a lot of time since studying and travelling. We have been to Hawaii and Macau where I spoke to 800 delegates from 60 different countries about the work that we do.
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"We've been to Italy and Hungary and we have brought different elements and adapted them to Northern Ireland to create our own pedagogy which centres around respect, particularly in a post-conflict community.
"So, for example, we ask our babies' permission before we change their nappies, we want them to learn value and respect.
"We don't use sippy cups or plastic cutlery, we use glasses from birth and we set the table up as if we would for Sunday lunch.
"Everything we do revolves around respect for the children and that goes right from babies to after schools."
As the children grow older, Kiddiwinkles Care and Learning Centre encourage them to get involved in how the business is run.
They are even asked to help make decisions about the staff.
Jill continues: "Once they have been with us for 10 or 11 years, when they are in primary six or seven, we get them involved in interviewing the staff.
"They even spend time in the office, they film digital videos, they do the editing and then they email them to me and I post them on Facebook.
"We aren't just looking at the academic success, we are setting them up to be more successful adults as well.
"We want them to learn how to make friends, to know how to persist at something, to give them the tools they need to succeed in life."
So, how did Jill become involved in running a day care centre?
She was working as a special needs classroom assistant and also ran an after schools project when an opportunity came to take over a nursery that was closing with short notice.
She was approached by some of the parents and recognised the difficult position they were in so agreed to open up her own business.
"It was a big step for me because when I worked in a day centre before I used to come home and cry because I hated it so much," she said.
"I couldn't understand why anyone would want to work in a place like that, it was awful.
"It wasn't that anything was particularly bad but there just wasn't any acknowledgment of the children as people.
"It was the fact that people were feeding the babies and talking about Coronation Street with other staff.
"It felt so disrespectful because these were peoples' kids and so, when the opportunity came up, I thought this was my opportunity to do it right.
"Once I started, I just couldn't leave it.
"Parents are going to work and if their childcare isn't available they have got to take time off work."
Seeing that she was able to provide a unique service, Jill made the decision to open further day care centres.
Being a new mum, she was even more determined to make the business a success.
And now as a mum of three, she is well aware of how difficult it is to trust a stranger to care for your child.
Jill says: "I wanted to provide the kind of service that I would expect for my own kids.
"I also didn't want to feel guilty about leaving my children off.
"People are handing us their most precious gift and we have to acknowledge that every single time.
"It may be the 700th time that we have done it, but it is their first time and we have to take time to make sure that it's done properly."
But how does running a business compare to working with children?
"Maybe it was optimism, naivety or stupidity on my part, but I never really worried about the business being a success," she adds.
"The fact that I had no business experience wasn't something that worried me, it never struck me that it was something that would make it harder.
"I always felt that if I put the children first, the money would follow."
And it is an approach that has clearly served her well in that when the first centre opened in Dungannon, Jill employed 12 staff and cared for 34 children.
She now has 92 staff and they look after 540 children, and she is looking at expanding her business into Spain.
"People are approaching us, wanting to work with us and we are really lucky that we are in a situation where we can pick and choose," she said.
At the same time, Jill has received support and assistance from the Ulster Bank.
"We have a turnover of £1.5m and I wasn't even doing the profit and loss," she said.
"Working with Ulster Bank has been a huge help, having a mentor to talk to and advise me has been really important, especially having someone else to talk to about the business.
"I enjoy the business side of things and I've also had to learn over the years to take a step back.
"It can be hard, especially as children are at the absolute centre of what we do.
"The business is a success, but I think it's important to remember that it doesn't have to be deemed a success to be proud.
"Even if you give something a go, I think that's what's important."
‘We’ve had to invest £750k in our pod products to make them work’
Northern Ireland is swiftly securing a place as a premier tourist destination.
With sporting events like the 148th Open at Royal Portrush last year and the Game Of Thrones juggernaut attracting fans of the cult TV series from all over the world, the tourism industry here is thriving.
Now a company based in Carryduff, Co Down, is hoping to take advantage of Northern Ireland’s increasing draw to tourists from all over the world.
Further Space works with its sister company, Intupod, which designs, manufactures and installs aluminium structured pods, to provide holidaymakers with unique accommodation in hand-picked locations.
The company collaborates with landowners in a process that benefits both parties.
However, the pathway to the establishment of Further Space in its current form hasn’t been straightforward.
David Maxwell, chief operating officer and co-founder of the firm, explains: “Historically we used to sell pods to the tourism sector as high end glamping pods, but we always had an ambition to create a recurring revenue stream.
“About two years ago, we decided to start focusing on partnering with landowners in which we supply pods, marketing, and booking platform in a long-term relationship with the landowner where we share the revenue.
“Intupod has been up and running since July 2015 and my business partner, Peter Farquharson, brought me onboard in December 2015 to put some financial systems in place for a project he was trying to get off the ground.
“Peter is an engineer and he started Habitat for Humanity Northern Ireland, while I have a strong financial background, so we both bring different experience to the company.
“The original idea was to create semi-permanent structures for disaster zones around the world, but that takes a substantial amount of capital to get off the ground.”
A decision was subsequently made for Intupod to cease retail and supply to Further Space alone and the company invested almost £750,000 to bring the pods up to the standard they are now.
“Further Space is the future of the business now,” continues 40-year-old David.
“We provide holiday experiences with the comfort of home through easy-to-book, design-led accommodation in hand-picked locations.
“Essentially, we are able to offer holidaymakers who want to enjoy hotel-standard accommodation while glamping.
“We did a lot of research before we entered the market and there were 270 million overnight stays in the UK and Ireland in 2018, generating £17.2bn.
“In England and Scotland, the glamping industry is about five years ahead of us.
“The glamping industry here is still undefined and I feel like we have an opportunity to define it.”
One of the most important aspects of the business is finding locations that best fit the Further Space brands.
The company is determined to find the most unique and picturesque destinations.
The first destination to install Further Space pods was Glenarm Castle, Co Antrim, with five going in just before Dalriada Festival in July last year.
The second location that Further Space decided to work with was Black Knowe in Ballycastle and the pods became available at Halloween last year.
“We felt they were a very good fit for our brand,” says David.
As well as location, however, landowners must also demonstrate serious commitment to the business concept and there is a very stringent process in place before a deal is done.
David adds: “Over the last two years, we have had over 450 applications and that has resulted in about 85 proposals. Selecting the right partners for us is the biggest risk for our business and that’s why we have to get it right.
“We have a due diligence process that we put the landowners through. We don’t ask them to sign their lives away but we want to know we’re working with the right people.
“The whole process takes 18 months from the moment you apply to set up and while we don’t expect to get it right every time, we’re pleased with what we’re doing.
“Glenarm Castle had 42% occupancy rate and Black Knowe has had 22% occupancy rate.”
Looking to the future, David says they are looking to build on the success of the business to date.
“We also have plans to put pods in place in Dumfries in Scotland and we’re aiming to have those live by April,” he explains.
“We also have six pods going to Lough Erne, which should be open by Easter.”
Networking and building up the best team possible has been instrumental in the success of the business to date, according to David.
He says: “Having Peter there has been very important and I think he has found the same in having me there.
“We can talk about problems and come up with solutions together before going to the senior management team.
“I try to keep emotion out of business.
“But it is easier said than done and it has taken me a long time to learn how to do that.
“Peter and I come from very different backgrounds but I think we complement one another and we have a great board and we can talk openly and all that has been so important.”