Pre school venture finds niche market

By John Maslin

It started out as a home-based business because Raewyn Overton-Stuart knew there were better ways of delivering early childhood services to areas of need.

Nine years later and Paua, the business she and husband Tony run, has a staff of 43 and it's growing.

Mrs Overton-Stuart is managing director and her husband is financial director and from their Wanganui headquarters on Heads Rd, they are another example of an enterprise that doesn't have to be based in a major city to succeed.

Qualified as an early childhood teacher, Mrs Overton-Stuart had been working in another home-based service but decided it was time for a change.

"I wanted something that would reflect both Tony's and my values and they are strongly Christian-based values," she said.

"We wanted something that reflected who we were and the acronym stands for 'pre-schoolers at-home uniquely achieving'. We're a Christian couple and we feel that's a God-given name. Children are unique and we believe they need to achieve in life."

Initially, it was just Mrs Overton-Stuart. Then she was joined by another part-time staffer and a year later they took on a part-time teacher in Taupo. But 2007 was the year when Paua really took flight. At the beginning of that year they had four staff; now they number 43.

In time they have opened a network in Christchurch with three visiting teachers working for them and in March this year they purchased a similar business in Auckland and with it two visiting teachers.

"The market in places like Auckland and Christchurch is enormous but remember there are a lot of similar services operating in those centres as well," Mrs Overton-Stuart said.

The company's core business is focussed across the central North Island and particularly rural areas but she said there was a reason for that.

The key to Paua's success has to be its flexibility.

"It's way more flexible for parents. A lot of people in the rural areas work different hours, like dairy farm workers for instance.

"They start really early in the morning but our team can work around that."

Mrs Overton-Stuart was raised on a farm so knows how hard it is for people living in isolated areas who don't get the services and back-up urban families enjoy.

The business is also tapping into "whanau educators" as well - grandparents who look after children for parents who can't necessarily afford the fees of permanent centres.

And an increasing number of them have undergone training through Open Polytech.

She said that network means Paua has got close to 300 educators who are caring for around 700 children along with its 31 visiting teachers and 12 administration staff.

But how does the business succeed, operating from a smaller centre like Wanganui?

Mr Stuart said it was simply because "the numbers stack up".

"The cost of housing is cheaper, it's central and we've got good internet connection.

"We've bought a business in Auckland rather than a big city enterprise coming here to buy a business so we're definitely going against the trend," he said.

The visiting teachers are not employed directly by Paua. They are self-employed contractors "enrolled" with the company.

"It provides a pathway for people, particularly for young mothers, to transition off a benefit. We've got several who have gone down that pathway and now have been able to buy their own home from the income they've generated. Stuck on a benefit they would never have been able to do that," he said.

Mrs Overton-Stuart said Paua has potential to grow even more.

There's an outlet shop that is a prime part of the business as well, driven by her ambition to get good quality resources into homes. And it means the teachers have mobile toy libraries they take on home visits.

"There was nothing in Wanganui to fill that gap, especially since Toyworld closed. We try to get really good quality educational toys in the shop not the plastic fantastic stuff."

Mr Stuart said business through the store had not been easy and this year has been pretty tough.

"But we've got at least 1000 people on our customer data base who are ordering and buying on-line. Eventually we want to sell to other early childhood centre and home-based services as well," he said.

The next step is looking at importing speciality toy lines and creating a niche in the market.

As the early childhood side of the business is wholly funded by the Ministry of Education, they cannot use public money to support charities and ministries so they set up the shop.

Now a certain percentage of proceeds from the shop go to causes they are passionate about. When the local council had an appeal for Pike River and Christchurch earthquakes, 10 per cent of the shop's revenue was set aside for those appeals.

Mrs Overton-Stuart likes to call Paua a private service with a community heart.

- Wanganui Chronicle

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