Day-care giant seeks foothold in Alberta; Multinational has 2,238 franchises in 4 countries

Mike Sadava, Edmonton Journal

EDMONTON – A multinational chain that some day-care advocates warn will bring a big-box concept to Alberta child care has started shopping for day-care centres in the province.

It isn’t known exactly how many operators are selling their facilities, but day-care operators say they have heard nine centres in Edmonton and even more in Calgary are being sold to 123 Busy Beavers Learning Centres, which is affiliated with the Australian-based day-care giant ABC Learning Centres.

ABC has expanded in six years from 43 to 2,238 day-care franchises in Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom and New Zealand. It calls itself the world’s largest publicly listed operator of child-care facilities……

In Edmonton, officials with the Garneau/University Child Care Centre received a letter from Adroit Investments LLC of North Carolina informing them that “we might have an interest in purchasing your child-care centre.” ….

“We represent a financial group buying child-care centres in Alberta. We have been contacting and purchasing child-care centres in Alberta since January of this year.

“If we have spoken over the phone over the past six months, please take this time to really think about what you want out of your business.”

Meanwhile, a Calgary jobs website has listed postings for child-care workers on behalf of 123 Busy Beavers. Calls to a toll-free number on the Busy Beavers website were not returned.

Mark Davis, a representative of Adroit in Charlotte, N.C., wouldn’t say who his company represents.

But an e-mail from Adroit to a B.C. child-care centre refers to websites for 123 Busy Beavers and for ABC’s parent company, 123-Global.

The message also contained an Australian fax number.

Vivian Turner, director of the Garneau centre, said the not-for-profit facility is not for sale.

Turner said at least five of 20 day-care directors at a recent meeting of the Child and Family Resource Association received letters similar to the one she got.

Talk at the meeting was that at least nine centres in Edmonton have been purchased, Turner said.

She said operators are concerned about the possibility of growing concentration of ownership in child care and what it could mean in the future for fees and wages.

“As a monopoly, who determines the direction that child care is going to go? Twenty years down the line, will they provide excellence in care?”

She also noted that a mass purchase of day-care centres would not create any more child-care spaces in Alberta, which has a shortage of quality day-care centres and workers.

Bill Moore-Kilgannon of Public Interest Alberta said corporate child care would be a big change for the province.

Although 65 per cent of Alberta day-care centres are privately owned, owners tend to live in the communities where they operate, Moore Kilgannon said.

“These are not people who live in the community — they are in it for the money,” he said. “This represents a real transition.”

ABC’s annual report shows that its profits were up by 76 per cent to $164 million Cdn in 2006-2007.

The corporation’s website promises high-quality child care that enhances lifelong learning.

“We love that our spirit of fun runs as deep as our spirit of competition,” the website says.

But according to Forbes magazine, ABC founder Edmund Groves, one of the wealthiest people in Australia, has been accused in the Australian House of Representatives of getting rich through government subsidies. Groves has also been accused of understaffing ABC centres and providing inadequate food.

Jody Korchinski, spokeswoman for Alberta Children’s Services, said foreign and chain ownership are not concerns of the government.

“We look past who is in the boardroom and look at whether they are meeting our standards,” Korchinski said.

When a new owner takes over a day-care centre, they must provide a service plan and a criminal record check.

If they provide better than the minimum standards, they can apply for accreditation under a provincial program that informs parents it is a high-quality centre, she said. …