Someone has been watching our young children. In fact several people have been observing closely over a period of years. “Three of us have been researching the pre-school market for two years,” says Rogan Carroll, who made several trips from his home in Australia to check out East Coast day care operations along with two business partners, David Lyme and Robert Blackwell.

The trio liked what they saw, and have begun buying up day care centers. Among their first purchases was the Hopewell Country Day School, a day care center in which 90 children are enrolled. The trio, operating under the name Clockwork Learning Center (www.clockworklearning.com) and headquarted in Stamford, Connecticut, also purchased other day care centers associated with the Hopewell Country Day School, including centers in Flemington, Chester, and Glen Gardner. Carroll says that they are actively looking for more acquisitions.

“We did a lot of research,” says Carroll. “We came three times to look around.” The due diligence convinced the partners that the day care industry in the United States is ripe for consolidation.

“The market is underdeveloped,” says Carroll. “It’s quite stagnant. There are a lot of mom and pop operators and they are not putting resources into it.”

The East Coast appealed to the Australians because, Carroll points out, “this is where the people are.” A high concentration of families with the wherewithall to pay for child care has the trio looking for opportunities in New Jersey, Connecticut, New York, and “possibly Massachussetts.” The ideal acquisition candidate is a day care center in an area with a population of at least 25,000 people — 7 percent of them under the age of five, in an area with a median household income above the average for the state. The company wants to buy centers with room for at least 80 children, and, if possible, with room for expansion.

Carroll and his partners are especially eager to buy groups of day care centers. They expect that Clockwork will own 25 centers within the year, and will only grow larger from there.

Clockwork, catering to children from infancy through kindergarten, has not raised prices, says Carroll, but hopes to increase profits through efficieny of scale and through the adoption of “proper child care software” and better business management techniques. Among the steps that the company has already implemented are automated scheduling and billing. “We’re moving away from using pen and pad,” he says.

Clockwork is not seeking to change the routines of the centers it buys, but rather is hoping to retain their directors. “We leave the day-to-day business to the director and staff,” says Carroll. “We give them the tools and resources.” Asked about how to retain good people in an industry notorious for low pay and high turnover, he says, “we did raise salaries a little bit.” The key to retention, he adds, is “having good directors that staff respect.”

Carroll’s background is in the toy store business, where he specialized in selling educational toys. Lyme was in the child care industry, while Blackwell is “the financial guy.” The three knew one another in Australia. Coming to the United States was a big step, but Carroll and his partners are convinced that the opportunities are substantially greater here.

Clockwork Learning Center, 104 Straube Center Boulevard, Straube Center, Suites C,D, Pennington 08534; 609-737-1211; fax, 609-737-3072. Jacque Faryna, director. www.clockworkchildcare.com.

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