Little Rays Nursery this year celebrated its 20th anniversary. Back in 1993 there was just one Little Rays Nursery, at Queensway in Lambeg, Lisburn. Today there are three Little Rays Nurseries. As well as Lisburn, the business now also operates nurseries in Ballymena and Moira.
“I had young children and it was a way for me to work and have them nearby and have control over the quality of their childcare,” founder and manager, Michelle Rea said.
When the Lisburn nursery opened it had a capacity of 30 children, but demand built and, just two years later, the capacity has been extended by 50%. The Ballymena nursery opened in 2004 and the Moira nursery in 2006. Now there are 330 children across the three nurseries.
The next business expansion took place two years ago, when the first play group opened in the grounds of Brownlee Primary School in Lisburn, with places financed by the Government’s pre-school nursery programme.
“We were approached by the principal,” Michelle said. “He was interested in having a pre-school group for the school. It has really taken off.”
Subsequently, other pre-school playgroups have been established at Moira and at the Queensway in Lambeg. At Brownlee there are sessions in both the morning and afternoon, with 32 children attending each day. At the other two playgroups, there are 18 children attending one session a day.
For the moment, this is the extent of the business’s ambitions. “We just want it to continue,” Michelle said. However, improvements are being made to the nurseries, with outdoor play equip- ment being covered over, to provide all year round facilities.
The nursery menus are also being refined.
“Our emphasis is on home cooked foods using ingredients that are in season, and from local suppliers,” Michelle said.
Little Rays is now working with celebrity chef Derek Patterson – chef and owner of The Tannery in Moira – to improve the menus.
The recession was difficult for the childcare sector, but Little Rays weathered the storm in a strong condition.
“About 18 months or two years ago, things did slow down,” concedes Michelle. “People were reducing their hours of work and maybe parents were getting grandparents to look after their children. But thankfully all our nurseries are thriving.”
One of the keys for success has been retaining a loyal and skilled workforce.
“We have a very low staff turnover, which is very unusual in the industry,” Michelle said. “We have several members of staff who have worked for us for 20 years.
“Parents like that.”
The future of the business will, hopefully, stay within the family.
“One of my daughters has almost completed her childcare qualification, and wants to get to know the business from the bottom up,” Michelle said.