It’s child’s play

Lawrence Cusdin and Brett Aldons, the two entrepreneurial friends behind Croc’s Playcentre, have taken a big bite out of the Australian child play centre market. Operating as a franchise model, they plan to have 15 centres operating nationally by the end of 2015.

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When Lawrence Cusdin and Brett Aldons put together a business plan, their vision was to be the “Hilton Hotel” of the indoor child play centre industry.

Six years later the success of that business, Croc’s Playcentre, has exceeded even their expectations with the concept now becoming a franchise and centres opening nationally and international launches on the horizon.

The idea was sparked by Aldons’ own experience with indoor play centres. As a father with young children, he was spending a bit of time in them, and wasn’t impressed.

“Some were dirty, the coffee and food weren’t great and bathrooms and toilets were unkempt,” says Cusdin. “But amazingly they were all busy.”

Then colleagues at one of Australia’s largest packaging companies, Cusdin, an operations manager, and Aldons, a sales manager, started talking about launching a business and were searching for an idea.

“We were travelling a lot so we started looking at play centres wherever we went and found they were all pretty much the same,” says Cusdin. “We realised there was a gap in the market for a top end play centre offering.

“Parents and families these days want higher standards, with food and coffee, cleanliness and safety

Over several round table discussions, the Croc’s Playcentre brand was born, with a graphic designer friend helping create the logo featuring the friendly crocodile that’s become a crowd favourite making live appearances at the centres.

Testing the market

Serendipitously, a site in a Melbourne shopping centre became available, vacated by a play centre that had folded. The pair grabbed it, cleaned it up, and made it a living test market for their concept. “We bought it for a song, spent some money on the bathrooms and worked there for a year at weekends when the business was at its peak listening to mums, getting a better understanding of the market,” says Cusdin.

Confident in the concept, the pair built the first of their large footprint centres, a 1300 square metre site in Pakenham that at the time was the largest play centre in Australia, with state-of-the art facilities.

“We took the plunge, spent a lot of money on the fitout, got a really good brand of coffee, and focused on service,” says Cusdin. “It was a raging success.”

It was after opening their third Melbourne centre 18 months later that the pair started looking seriously at making the business a franchise to accelerate growth. “We’d always planned to franchise because it’s a good cookie cutter model but wanted to ensure we had developed the systems to ensure the model was a simple one to roll out. We also wanted to build a team around us that understood the brand and product we were offering to the market. The brand was looking really good and vibrant and its profile had taken off – in the south-east of Melbourne there wouldn’t be many families who haven’t heard of it.

“The power of word-of-mouth is amazing. With young mums, who are our biggest customers, there’s so much social media use that word gets around quickly.”

Expansion plans

The first franchised centre opened less than two years ago. That’s grown to five franchises in Melbourne with another three sold and soon to open while the first interstate franchise will open in Perth in July with Adelaide and Brisbane to follow later this year. Cusdin and Aldons opened their first company-owned interstate store – a joint venture with a property developer in Hobart in May.

They expect to have 15 play centres nationally by the end of 2015 and when the business hits 30 they plan to expand offshore. The centres have average turnover of $1.1 million each annually.

Cusdin says their recent appointment of an operations manager overcame the biggest challenge they’d faced with franchising. “Giving franchisees the support they needed while trying to run multiple businesses of your own was probably the hardest thing,” he says. “Appointing our operations manager to manage the franchises has been good for us.”

A key step is a partnership with the Foodco Group will see Muffin Break cafés operating within Croc’s play centres. A trial at the Reservoir play centre has proven successful. “The Muffin Break brand is really strong and respected and it’s a great fit for us,” says Cusdin. We see the amalgamation of two market leading brands being a great initiative in the industry. It’s the final piece of the puzzle.”

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