Over 20 years, sKids has become synonymous with out-of-school programmes for Kiwi kids. Director Dawn Engelbrecht describes what it’s like to build such a unique community-focused business franchise.
By Glenn Baker
Whichever way you look at the sKids franchise you can’t help but see outstanding benefits – for the children, parents, franchisees, staff and schools. It’s a business opportunity, but it’s also a vital service for parents that bridges school and home.
At each of the 160 locations around New Zealand, and counting, it generates positive outcomes for everyone concerned.
Dawn Engelbrecht saw the potential almost 11 years ago when she took over the business.
UK-born and raised, before moving on to South Africa, Dawn had arrived in New Zealand in June 2000.
But with no family here to call on, she enrolled her three children in the local sKids after-school programme, where they made up half the class numbers.
“Being a bit of a smarty pants, one day I offered to buy the business from the owner. After all, I was providing half her profits,” she says.
The owner agreed to sell, and so began Dawn’s personal journey with the sKids franchise.
“With all due respect to the founder, it was a great concept, but it was being badly run,” she recalls. Communication was a problem; input from franchisees seriously lacking.
In 2006, with backing from the franchisees, Dawn and fellow franchisee Bev Parsons spearheaded a buy-out. They took over sKids in July.
“It needed to happen,” says Dawn. “Everyone’s investment was being devalued and growth was being stifled.”
Over the next 12 months growth was kept on hold while the sKids system was fully reviewed and strengthened. But from 2007 onwards business growth has been steady.
Today the sKids community comprises 58 franchisees and around 160 locations throughout New Zealand. Chris Bartels came on board in 2007 to help with marketing and business development, and five years later became the company’s third director/shareholder.
Since becoming involved in the out-of-school care industry the three directors have seen many changes. Franchisees get involved through their love and passion for child-care, but also appreciate the fact it’s a serious business opportunity, says Dawn.
The industry as a whole has grown too.
“When we first started, you could expect around eight percent of a school roll to be attending sKids daily. Today, in some of our programmes, we’re getting up to 22 percent. Which clearly demonstrates there’s a growing need.
“More and more parents are having to work to make ends meet.”
Primary schools are the main focus for sKids before- and after-school play-based learning programmes, but Dawn says intermediate schools are also getting involved – primarily driven by safety concerns.
Business growth has not been without its challenges.
There were the Christchurch earthquakes, which caused major upheaval for families and behavioural issues for children. sKids staff quickly became key supporters.
Dawn remembers a major growth spurt that coincided with the arrival of the GFC and its resulting shutdown on franchise funding by the banks.
She can laugh at it now. “I used to refer to it as my annus horribilis. We still grew, it was an awful year, but we got through it thanks to a bit of self-financing.
“Thankfully it’s all normal now, because franchising is such a huge part of New Zealand’s economy.”
The strength of the franchise model and its systems has been especially reflected over the past 12 months, as the Ministry of Social Development moves out-of-school care to Level 3 Social Sector Accreditation Standards. All necessary policies and procedures are handled by the sKids franchisors – franchisees just have to apply them, explains Dawn.
“We’ll even support the franchisees through any required on-site approvals.
“If paperwork is not your forte, then this is not a great industry to be in as an independent operator,” she adds.
Not surprisingly, sKids franchisees stick around, and typically purchase more than one franchise.
Last year sKids celebrated its 20th birthday. Looking ahead, Dawn thinks the domestic market will top out at around 250 locations. They’re currently encouraging enquiries from the South Island and lower North Island.
“Franchisees require no prerequisite skills whatsoever. We can literally teach them everything they need to know,” she says. “But of course, they do have to like children!”
Growth for the franchise will continue to come not just from securing locations and supporting new franchisees – but by diversifying through the creation of additional income streams, such as programmes delivered during school time, designed to fill gaps in teaching resources. Recently introduced programmes include sKids Active (sports), Jellybeans Music and Food Storm (cooking nutritional food).
Since 2010 Dawn has also been busy replicating the sKids franchise concept in offshore markets, flying solo with her own Sherpa Kids brand and successfully setting up in Australia, the UK, South Africa, Ireland and Canada.
In the UK the University of Cambridge chose Sherpa Kids as the out-of-school care provider for its new Primary School.
Also on the radar are China, India and the Middle East – consultants have already been appointed for the latter two.
The Sherpa Kids initiative provided fresh impetus for Dawn, as does her Kiwi Kids Education Foundation, set up three years ago. If any child, family or staff member attached to one of the sKids communities faces hardship they can apply for a grant.
“It’s just lovely to give back to our communities in such a practical way,” she says.
Today Dawn’s heart is still very much with sKids; she loves the difference franchisees make to young lives especially. The anecdotes flow easily – the little boy who hated reading but loved motorbikes, for example. “The franchisee sourced some motorcycle magazines, sat down with him and encouraged him to read. Within six months he was top of his class for reading. I love that story.”
Wonderful bonds are formed between staff members and the children, says Dawn. “And we’re a bridge between home and school, so a lot of what’s happening in the child’s world gets fed back to parents and to the school.”
The company also runs an in-house NZQA accredited training programme. For staff a job with sKids makes an ideal stepping stone to a career as a teacher aide, early childhood teacher or school teacher.
Dawn’s advice for others in business mirrors her own mantra of never giving up on something, and trusting your instincts.
She puts the success of her partnership with Bev and Chris down to good communication and mutual trust, acknowledging each other’s strengths, and absolutely loving what they do.