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The last 12 months have been full of major milestones for Donna and Ron MacIntyre. Not only did their youngest child, Anna, turn 18, the other “baby” of the family – their flourishing childcare business – also celebrated a significant birthday of its own.

Tillys Play and Development Centre clocked up 21 years of continuous operation in 2015, more than two decades after being “born” inside the renovated shell of a former church in Largs.

The milestone moment was celebrated by Tillys “extended family”, including 110 staff members – many of whom are, coincidentally, members of the MacIntyres’ extended family as well.

(Above: Donna and Ron MacIntyre - Founders of Tilly's Childcare)

This includes three of Donna and Ron’s four children – Jessica, Anna and James – as well as everyone from a daughter-in-law, a mother-in-law and a sister-in-law, to nieces, nephews and even Donna’s own mother, who used to work part-time as a cleaner at the Largs centre.

Ron, who is a carpenter and builder by trade, initially took care of the renovations himself but now oversees the design and construction of all of Tillys centres.

Donna believes these family ties are among the secrets to Tillys amazing success, which has seen it grow from a single service with two full-time staff and 29 preschool-aged children to now include hundreds of children and 150 staff in six centres stretching from the Upper Hunter right through to Newcastle, with another only a few months away from opening its doors in Bolwarra.

“I didn’t really foresee that (family involvement), it just evolved,” she said.

“I didn’t put that expectation on my children (to become involved), it was something that they’ve chosen themselves, but I’m very proud (of it).

“I also have my nieces and nephews working for me, my sister-in-law works for me, my son’s mother-in-law works for me and it keeps going – there are a lot of family members who work in the business.

“I think they’re all working for the common goal and the common goal is for the children and for the Tillys centres.

“I think that’s where we probably get a lot of our quality and our high standards perhaps, from that joint venture.”

Tillys Play and Development Centre began as a single service – Largs Pre-School - for children aged 3-5 years but soon grew to cater for babies and toddlers as well as additional locations including Abermain Pre-School, which was also developed from a former church site.

But it wasn’t until Donna and Ron took over another service in Mannering Park that they decided to unify the separate centres under one name, chosen by the staff.

“We started as Largs Pre-School, then Abermain Pre-School then the third one we got was at Mannering Park and we said I think we should be called the same name so that name continues,” Donna said.

“Originally they were just separate identities because I never envisaged I would have six centres or even three, so there wasn’t a need to choose a name to start with.”

Since then they have sold some of their centres and taken on others, now operating long day care, OOSH and vacation care services in Muswellbrook, Singleton Heights, Greta, Abermain and two in Waratah, with the Bolwarra location soon to join the fold. Another site has also been secured in Lochinvar – the former Anglican rectory – ready for future development down the track.

Since 2010, they have also operated a registered training organisation – Tillys College of Childcare – offering Certificate and Diploma courses to help fill what Donna saw was a shortage of trained staff in the childcare sector.

Donna said she never dreamed the business would grow the way it has, but despite its size and her move into management, she remains as hands-on and involved in every one of the centres as she was when they were first starting out 21 years ago.

“I think (21 years of operation) is quite remarkable really, I’m pretty proud and very passionate about what we do in childcare,” she said.

“I used to work on the floor with the children, I absolutely loved working with the children, seeing them develop and grow and come in with their happy faces.

“I love the relationships I used to have with the children, but I also love the relationships I have with the leaders (centre directors) now.

(Left: Belinda Passlow receiving her award for Educational Leader of 2015 (presented by Donna MacIntyre))

“We have six leaders in our services and they are really passionate themselves and we have a really wonderful relationship with them, we’re all working together.

“I walk through all my services almost every day, greet the staff, look at what they’re doing in their rooms and have that knowledge of what’s going on in my centres and have the feel. When I walk into a building you can feel, you can sense what the children are doing, whether they’re playing or not playing, what they’re up to.

“My eldest daughter Jessica is exactly the same, she’s off the floor now as well, but it’s important for us to know all the details.”

This includes knowing the names of virtually all of Tillys 150 staff – a feat made easier by the fact many of them have been there long term.

“Our staff stay with us for a long time too,” Donna said.

“Two of them have been here for 20 years out of 21 years and they got awards for that (at the ball). Others have been here 15 years, 10 years, 8 years, 5 years, a long time and they just tend to stay, which means they’re happy.

“And if you’ve got the same staff with the children all the time, if you’ve got that continuity of staff it’s just amazing because they learn the values of the centre. I think that’s a really positive aspect of us, that staff stay with us and you don’t have that continuous turnover.”

The importance of these long-lasting relationships is highlighted by the annual Christmas party, organised and paid for by the MacIntyres as a means of thanking the staff for their hard work each year.

In 2015, one of the workers proposed turning the event into a ball to celebrate the 21-year milestone. As part of the ball, Tillys’ management team handed out perpetual awards, which will be used each year from now on to acknowledge deserving staff.

Donna said it was truly a night to remember – as well as the perfect way to take in just how far Tillys has come in the past two decades and what it has meant to her family.

“We had 110 staff at our ball, we had it done beautifully and it was incredible,” she said.

“But I stood there and looked at them all and thought ‘Wow, do all these people get paid by me? Wow’. There was an absolute sense of pride.

“Tillys has just evolved. There hasn’t been a plan, it’s just happened and centres just keep coming our way, I don’t know why, opportunities just keep coming our way.

“My daughter cried, she presented us with flowers, as well as presenting the staff awards and she cried the whole way through it; she’s very emotional about it (the business milestone).

“I really love (working with my children), I’m really proud of them being part of it and they will be the people that will keep it going. I can see it being passed on to my children – it’s not an expectation (that my kids will take it over), but if that’s what happens down the track it would be lovely.”

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