Personal finance and KiwiSaver columnist at the NZ Herald

Success: Starting kids on the right foot

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Preschool education service provides in-home help for 1000 children

Kevin Christie shares morning tea with 3-year-old Lane Currie at Footsteps in Papakura. Photo / Dean Purcell
Kevin Christie shares morning tea with 3-year-old Lane Currie at Footsteps in Papakura. Photo / Dean Purcell

A love for children combined with a passion for business resulted in Kevin Christie turning his back on high finance to found preschool education service Footsteps.

The 55-year-old chief executive - or "big boss man", according to his business card - says he took his commercial skills, honed in the financial markets of London, and put them to use in an environment that would help children.

"Profit is not our prime motivator but if you do the other things well, good profits will result," he says.

Footsteps provides preschool education to children cared for in the home, by anyone from au pairs and nannies, to grandparents.

About 50 qualified early education teachers regularly visit 500 to 600 caregivers, to create individual learning programmes for about 1000 children.

The free programme is funded by the Ministry of Education, which Christie admits leaves the business exposed to the policy whims of the Government, but he says the organisation is constantly evolving to survive and grow better.

Christie says Footsteps' goal is to provide the highest quality, individualised and appropriate learning for children, many of whom are society's most vulnerable.

Some of the children visited by Footsteps teachers are in the care of CYFS and for some, the record of learning created by the Footsteps staff will be the only documentation of their childhood.

Staff get 20 days each year for personal development and everyone from Christie down is trained in recognising and preventing child abuse.

Christie has been involved in the Tauranga-based business for more than six years, originally as an adviser with a shareholding in its previous incarnation as Linmark Educational Services, before buying the business outright 4 years ago.

He began a process of reinventing the organisation, which meant ripping down the hierarchical structure, pruning the operations manual and trusting staff implicitly.

Christie says he introduced two important philosophies: "We will always look to improve; we will always do what we say we are going to do".

He also began tipping 10 per cent of revenue into a charitable foundation to fund community ventures and the education of vulnerable children who don't meet the Ministry of Education criteria.

The Footsteps Foundation bridges the $6000 gap needed to educate children with backgrounds of abuse, neglect and special needs that make other fully funded early childhood education options unsuitable.

To date around $250,000 has been invested in providing this support, plus other projects such as anti-violence initiatives and community garden projects.

It's not Christie's first brush with charity work and helping disadvantaged children.

During his 12 years working in Britain he travelled with friends to help at a Romanian orphanage: fixing the buildings, providing activities for the children and creating self-help schemes to reduce the dependence on outside help.

"I have an absolute love for children but linked to that is the whole concept of self-help.

"Aid and all these things aren't really good unless they're going to bring in that independence."

The journey from hard-nosed investment banker to feel-good toddler tamer has not been without its challenges.

"Being collaborative, for me, was a very difficult exercise to start with because where I was before, you made a decision, you implemented it. Here your actual decision is a decision to collaborate, not implement."

Children are the message we send into the future, says Christie.

"That holds me accountable every day and you know what? I absolutely love what I do."

- NZ Herald

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Personal finance and KiwiSaver columnist at the NZ Herald

Helen Twose is a freelance business journalist who writes regularly about KiwiSaver and entrepreneurial companies. She has written for the Business Herald since 2006, covering the telecommunications sector, but has more recently focused on personal finance and profiling successful businesses.

Read more by Helen Twose

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