Sylvain Forestier is the founder and CEO of La Maison Bleue (LMB), an international group of nurseries that operates across four countries (France, Switzerland, Luxembourg and the UK) with over 300 settings. LMB has ambitious plans to expand further, including through acquisitions and in particular in the UK.
Arun and Sylvain had an insightful conversation on understanding how LMB has fared during the pandemic, his plans for organic growth and acquisitions, and the innovations which excite him with in the Early Years sector.
Watch the full interview or catch some of the highlights from the conversation below:
The Differences between Markets for Nursery Operators
LMB operates within four different countries, with expansion into additional jurisdictions on the horizon. This introduces complexity and Sylvain was keen to stress the value added by an operator who understands how to operate in each market and is able to introduce their country-specific operating model to each new acquisition.
“France is much different [to the UK]. In France we are very heavily regulated. To explain to you how things work, in Britain I would need a few sheets of paper. In France, I would need 40 or 50 excel files!”
The Impact of Covid on LMB
The pandemic has had a huge effect on nearly all education and childcare providers. This is especially true for private nurseries who have had to navigate closing their doors during lockdowns and then the operational challenges of implementing required safety measures when opening up again.
Despite this, Sylvain is bullish. He admits that the pandemic has significantly hit revenue, but that the impact on EBITDA has been significantly lower. Moreover, he’s confident that Covid hasn’t caused a permanent shift away from nurseries and that LMB have seen demand return strongly as their sites re-open.
“What we found out is that most parents are very keen to return to nurseries… even during the worst part of the pandemic.”
The Evolution of Early Years’ Demand
Sylvain does think, however, that operators will have to adapt to changing parental expectations. For example, he cites Covid as fast-tracking demand for increased digital communication to parents.
“I think that as for other aspects of day-to-day life, there will be some change [within Early Years] which was already there, but which will be sped up because of the pandemic.”
He also thinks we will see nurseries working harder to support parents’ educational efforts outside of their physical premises. He compares the situation to the future of the workplace; that the move towards ‘work from home’ has blurred the boundary between office and home. Whilst LMB have no plans to offer ‘remote nursery’, Sylvain is expecting there to be a stronger link between the nursery and home life.
Innovation within the Sector
During unprecedent times, innovation often thrives. One area of innovation clearly on Sylvain’s mind is to expand the reach of the services LMB offer beyond nursery provision.
“[I’m also interested in] things what are not directly related to nurseries… I think it’s quite a strong trend that we’ve got to offer services [which support] the personal lives of parents.”
In France and Switzerland, LMB have launched a service called ‘Familizy’ which offers additional services beyond nursery care, including babysitting and tutoring through trusted partners.
The M&A environment
LMB are focused on both organic and acquisitive growth. Sylvain explained that this was separated by market, with conditions in France more suited to the establishment of new greenfield nurseries, whilst the acquisition opportunities in the UK are greater. He expects LMB to reach more than 50 nurseries in the UK (where they trade as ‘The Old Station Nursery Group’) very quickly.
“There are a lot of potential acquisitions in the British market. It is big, mostly private and not very heavily concentrated.”
Sylvain also detailed that he expects LMB to enter a new market within the next year, although remained tight-lipped as to where in the world that would be.