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 Accidental entrepreneur finds huge market, and her life's mission

 

 Entrepreneurs are often depicted as people with a strong vision, knowing exactly what they want, and even how to get there. Hilda de Vroom is living proof that there is actually only one certainty about entrepreneurs – that they are very difficult to pin down into a single category.

Although she says that she does “not have a commercial bone” in her body, it is clear that De Vroom is highly entrepreneurial. With no experience of running a business, in fact with no prior formal work experience, she bought a crèche with 72 children and over nine years has developed it into a primary school and a high school with altogether 450 children, a staff complement of 72 and an international curriculum. She is currently building a technical school as well as a specialised facility for remedial teaching.

The steady expansion and success of the Loerie Land Independent School in Centurion seems like the result of a careful plan, but De Vroom describes it as the result of spontaneous decision making driven solely by the needs of the children who attend her school. The latest addition to Loerie Land, for example, is a boarding house on a farm outside Centurion for children whose parents have work stints overseas.

Even the way that she started the business happened spontaneously. De Vroom married just after school to a successful pharmacist and raised three children. She did not pursue employment or any tertiary education until her thirties, when she did a degree in remedial teaching through Unisa.

In her characteristically self-deprecating way, she jokes that the only reason she decided to study was to validate the strong opinions that she always held. “The problem was that nobody took me seriously, so it was out of sheer malicious pride that I decided to take a degree,” she says.

After the death of her husband, while she was still in her forties, she had no clear idea of what she would do with her degree nor the money that her husband left her. On a whim, she decided to buy the small crèche which was for sale in Centurion.

She put every last cent that she had into Loerie Land, which immediately became her whole life. The market that she found she was serving was a struggling middle class, with lots of single-parent households and families in which both parents worked. The need was overwhelmingly for a school that could not only provide quality teaching, but also an afternoons-with-granny type aftercare experience while the parents worked.

So committed was De Vroom to this mission that she simply could not abandon the children in her care to the educational tragedy unfolding in state schools when they graduated from her crèche. The local private schools were good, but as much as four times more expensive than Loerie Land, and out of reach for most of the parents.

For the past nine years, De Vroom’s efforts have all been aimed at providing for the educational needs of the children who started in her crèche. When they were ready for Grade R, she created one. When they needed to graduate to primary school, Loerie Land added a Grade 1. It was only a matter of time before she started a high school. Today, her pioneer class is in Grade 10, and the Loerie Land high school will be adding grades up to matric as they progress over the next two years.

De Vroom says her biggest struggle over the years has been finding the right staff for her school. She admits that she is difficult to work for as she does not tolerate anything less than total commitment to the children. “At the moment we have the most amazing staff, but it’s taken nine years of fighting and CCMA and learning as far as personnel management is concerned,” she says.

She acquired her business skills in a similar on-the-job fashion. When she needed finance for the additional buildings she required for the expansion of her school, she approached Business Partners Limited. She regards the financier’s approval and support after their intense scrutiny of the school’s business model as an acknowledgment that, business wise, she had been doing the right thing.

The success of the educational side of Loerie Land is affirmed by the huge demand from the market for the school to expand. De Vroom says she sees the damage caused by the meltdown of the public education system in the levels of mathematics and language skills of children who join Loerie Land from other schools.

Usually a few months of remedial teaching fixes the problem, but some are so disadvantaged that she has had to start a specialised division with a focus on remedial education and technical training.

De Vroom says the educational need in South Africa and the willingness of parents to pay for proper education means that there is a huge market to anyone who puts their mind to it, especially for full day care with remedial facilities. But De Vroom is reluctant to grow too big. “As soon as you grow too large, you lose that dedication and interaction with the child, and that is a problem.

“I’ve been asked to open branches in Pretoria, Midrand and even Port Elizabeth. The need is huge, but I have to consciously stop myself from expanding. I don’t want to be accountable to a bunch of shareholders one day. I want to be accountable to the child standing in front of me,” she says. However, De Vroom says she would consider sharing the model to a prospective entrepreneur if needed, in the interest of the children.

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