Meet the CEO: Gareth Degenhart

In this leadership series, NMT speaks to Gareth Degenhart, founder and managing director, The Lime Trees

What has been your journey across the early years sector and how did you came to your current role?

I started this journey having worked for a decade as a sports coach and with a charity in a breakfast and after-school club. In 2007 my daughter was born and when the time came, she went into the nursery and then into the breakfast and after-school club. Professionally and as a father, I noticed some common themes.

First, a complete lack of flexibility for parents. Second, the price point being too expensive for working families plain and simple. And third, a lack of overall quality. A lack of investment in resources and training and a lack of transparency.

In 2012 I began to consider whether I could set up something myself – something built around core principles of price, flexibility and quality, to address directly what I’d experienced first-hand. I knew full-well it would be a challenge because typically, quality comes at a price.

What’s the most challenging aspect of being a chief executive/founder and how have you adapted your leadership style to get the best results?

As a rapidly growing business, one of our greatest challenges centres around communication. It’s vital our communication is fast and effective with genuine synergy – between departments, systems, individuals and the technologies we use = while still upholding those core principles I mentioned earlier.

In the current economic climate, a huge challenge is to be able to offer quality and flexible childcare that remains affordable. A five-star service relies on the best systems, the best people and a head office infrastructure that offers 24/7 support. Our vision, mission, values and structure are the bedrock to this – it’s why even now we can say we’re offering M&S quality at Lidl prices.
For me personally, it’s ensuring I can motivate and inspire the whole team while giving them crystal-clear clarity on the vision of the company.

Employee wellbeing initiatives continue to evolve to meet the diverse needs of staff. What wellbeing policies are you most proud of?

Our approach is what I’d call holistic. I think it’s worth saying, probably a little controversially, that you do have to accept childcare is a hard gig.

Typically, long hours, average pay and a huge responsibility. Our wellbeing programme is based on treating everyone as an individual and seeing the person, not just the employee. We have a wellbeing officer who creates personalised wellbeing action plans, we carry out one-to-one supervisions and pay for a 24-hour mental health support line for staff.

We encourage community through awards nights and company-wide events and we make sure that work-life balance is always high on the agenda. It requires open, honest communication, lots of touch points and genuine care for people.

How do you support and encourage ongoing professional development for employees?

CPD underpins everything we do. New staff undertake a comprehensive amount of training – designated safeguarding training, SEND training and behavioural management training – before they start with us. This goes way beyond what Ofsted expects.

Over 200 staff (soon to be the entire company) have paediatric first aid training, and all staff have a personal online training account which they can access at any time and be paid for. We work hard to identify common industry themes or recurring topics that arise during supervisions and create bespoke monthly training to address those. Staff are paid and rewarded for increasing their knowledge and skills base and are encouraged to progress in both qualification and responsibility within the organisation.

How are you approaching the government’s expansion plan of ‘free’ childcare that is due to begin in April?

Meticulous planning. Knowing that the business model is going to change from being fee-income from parents, as it is primarily now, to income from the DfE free entitlement scheme. So, it’s knowing that, and anticipating a huge shift from a cash flow perspective because when we receive our income, it is going to change our financial model, and therefore our entire business model has to be ready.

As a business owner, what would ease the operational and financial challenges?

I believe the biggest thing to impact the sector’s financial challenges would be for central government to acknowledge the strain that the industry is under. We’ve been under strain for years, but most recently we’ve seen the living wage go up several times and the cost of living increase by 10 to 11%.

And yet, the free entitlement payments we receive from local councils don’t reflect that by any stretch of the imagination. Nottinghamshire saw the increase for two-year-olds go up by 1.4% and three and four-year-olds by 6%, so there is no correlation between these two things and the impact is an almost unbearable financial disparity.

Operationally, we’re in something of a chicken-and-egg scenario. The government’s driver for the free childcare plan is to try to kick-start the economy – millions being invested – to reignite the thirst for students to get into childcare, to consider the sector as a career, and to study for a Level 3 qualification.

Which is all well and good, it’s just a shame that investment wasn’t there years ago because that would have undoubtedly mitigated some of the current challenges. Now, we need this to remain high on the agenda so that national strategies can be put in place that will support and encourage secondary schools, sixth forms and colleges to entice students into the sector.

What are your priorities for 2024?

There are three strands to our priorities this year: delivery, culture and sustainability. We’re always looking for ways to improve and I’m focused on having consistency of experience across the network.

Whether that’s for a child, a parent or a member of staff and regardless of the touch point – a consistent, quality experience.

Culture can be lost as you grow so we protect ours vehemently. This year we’re more focused than ever on nurturing our team and integrating new members into the family in a way that’s meaningful and long-lasting.

Our sustainability focus is about balancing the constant commitment to reinvestment with long-term growth plans and realistic returns.

Join our mailing list

Stay up to date with all our events, awards and publications.

Information you provide us with will be kept private at all times, and will be used for communication and research purpose only.