Montessori migrates concept from childcare to disability/aged care

LOS ANGELES: A young couple is revolutionizing the concept of care in the disability and aged care sectors.

When Charles Assaf, an IT entrepreneur with a then fledging start-up, decided to buy a childcare centre in 2000 alongside his wife Colette, he had no inkling the small business in Sydney’s inner west would become a $250 million-odd enterprise.

Having immigrated to Australia from Lebanon when she was seven years old, Colette was in her early 20s when she discovered Maria Montessori’s education method when trying to find a kindergarten for her three young children.

The approach to education, which was developed based on scientific observations of children from birth to adulthood in the early 1900s, is a popular one. It is centred on fostering a child’s natural interests, emphasising hands-on, self-directed learning and collaborative play. Children’s independence is encouraged, and it considers them capable of initiating learning themselves in conducive environments, as opposed to structured learning.

Teachers in Montessori schools act as guides or facilitators, rather than traditional instructors.

Many of the most celebrated modern-day successes attended Montessori schools. They include Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin, singer Taylor Swift, chef Julia Child and novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Billionaire Jeff Bezos even sold 1.1 million Amazon shares in late May to fund a network of Montessori-inspired non-profit preschools.

The method resonated with Colette so much so that the young couple decided to buy the childcare centre in Croydon as a project for the young mum – something she could slowly grow that she was also passionate about – while Charles was busy building his IT managed services company, Nexon Asia Pacific.

“The philosophy was so great. It was a surprise to me, but I thought why not – I wanted to be able to work and have my children with me,” she tells The Australian Financial Review.

“This was the ultimate workplace for a working mother.”

Already a mum of three, Colette’s youngest was only a year old when they bought the business.

In the first few years, the business grew slowly, with the couple only opening one other centre by the mid-2000s in Greenacre, 20 kilometres west of Sydney.

But after seeing the demand for their model, they took the business from two centres to 25 over the next 12 years, before selling 56 per cent of the business in 2018 to Greentown Education Investment Co, a subsidiary of Hong Kong Stock Exchange-listed Greentown Service Group.

The deal valued the company at $120 million on an enterprise value basis.

“We were really excited about continuing the growth strategy. We had a lot of demand, and the only way we thought we could do that was if we partnered with the right partner who would help us with that,” Charles said.

As well as bringing on Greentown, Charles left Nexon Asia Pacific to focus full-time on Montessori Academy, selling his stake as part of a deal with Swedish private equity player EQT. The terms of the investment were not disclosed, but it is understood to have valued the tech company at around $100 million.

Since then, the group has expanded to 54 centres, predominantly in NSW, with seven sites also in Victoria.

Demand for childcare centres as investment assets soared in 2023 on the back of the federal government’s $4.7 billion childcare subsidies, which opened up government funding to tens of thousands of extra families.

The HealthCo Healthcare and Wellness REIT sold the most expensive childcare centre in Victoria for $20.5 million at a 4.6 per cent yield – the sharpest yield for a Victorian childcare centre since 2020.

Montessori Academy, however, has not expanded by buying up existing centres. Each of its facilities are greenfield – built and designed from scratch based on the Montessori philosophies – which the family believe has been a key part of its success.

For each new location, the team assesses 22 check points including the demographics of the suburb and ratio of children to childcare centres. It also hires staff four months in advance and trains them in existing centres to maintain quality levels across all new locations.

“If we get three boxes that have a cross, we don’t go down that path,” Charles says.

“It’s sort of our IP of site selection … we’re very, very strict to make sure that it’s suitable not only for us but for parents and the community.

“We always put on four or five [new centres] a year, so we’ll continue that growth strategy and see where we land in the next few years.”

In line with the expansion, Charles believes the company’s value has more than doubled since its deal with Greentown.

“It was an investment in helping Colette start something up herself … we had no idea we’d end up where we are today,” Charles said.

“IT was very different, but it gave me the foundation of setting down all the things necessary to build a strong business.”

Growing up, their daughter, Mary, would spend school holidays with her siblings at the centres and seeing how passionate her parents were about the Montessori approach made an impression on her.

“They always put the family and the child’s interest first before all things,” she says.

After leaving school, she worked in the HR department at Montessori and studied her certificate III in early childhood education. Working at the company, she saw first hand that some children required additional support and she began thinking about how she could expand the concept into fields such as aged care and disability care.

Now, with partner Chris Omeissah, she has launched Montessori Care and in 12 months has signed up 100 carers and supported 200 people and families with in-home care.

It has developed a carer training program alongside a Montessori trainer. For children with developmental concerns, the program centres on therapeutic recreation using sensory activities.

“We focus a lot of the training on the person-centred approach,” Mary says.

“It aligns really closely with the people with disabilities and the seniors as well – they want to feel independent … they want to feel confident and have that one-on-one care.”

The business is run separately to Montessori Academy, but has been able to leverage its network of 5000 families, and some of the staff have also shifted to the Montessori Care business.

They also offer an intergenerational learning program, where elderly clients of Montessori Care go into the childcare centres and read to the children and do show-and-tell.

The company covers the south coast of Sydney and the central coast of NSW, and it wants to have a national footprint within the next few years.

“We’ve learnt a lot from Charles and Colette about not fearing our mistakes and having courage of our conviction,” Omeissah says.

“Apart from dementia care, there isn’t really a Montessori program or curriculum for seniors care or disability care, so it was a fun project for Mary and I to say how do we get Montessori out of the classroom and implement it in a way that makes a difference.”