Maggie Bolger, CEO & founder, Maggie & Rose

Profile by Bridget Osborne

July 2018

Images above: Maggie Bolger; Chiswick Maggie & Rose Brasserie; Hong Kong Maggie & Rose Rooftop, with Maggie & Rose characters

Everywhere needs a Maggie & Rose

We have the hashtag ‘Everywhere needs a Maggie & Rose’ says Maggie. It was a chance remark by an enthusiastic parent which she took to heart and has turned into a mission statement. Maggie & Rose, the upmarket family club which currently has branches in Kensington, Chiswick and Hong Kong, will open its first club in mainland China on 24 September, swiftly followed by new clubs in Hong Kong in November and Singapore in December, with more planned for China and London.

When you meet Maggie Bolger, she is every inch the successful international businesswoman. The energy and dynamism comes off her like a pheromone. Her conversation is littered with business-speak, she is passionate about her brand and she has, in the nicest possible way, her eye on the main chance.

The main chance at the moment is China, where the relaxation of the one child policy has suddenly made nursery schools and clubs for children and families very good businesses to be in. The first club will be in Hangzhou, the coastal capital of Zhejiang province with a population of 21 million, and by our standards it will be enormous, at 45,000 square ft. The soft play area alone will be five times the size of the Chiswick club, says Tom Stanley, the operations manager charged with opening it, with three restaurants and the ability to take a thousand families as members.

I would have thought that China, with its emphasis on the state, would have very good childcare and nursery provision, but that would be to miss the point. The Chinese middle class has money and a hunger for designer brands. Maggie & Rose is a very niche kind of childcare. In fact to describe it as childcare at all is a major faux pas in the company of M&R staff. Tom explained that families don’t come to Maggie & Rose because of childcare issues, they come because they want a private club which is inspiring and fun for their children but where they too can relax and enjoy a good meal and take part in creative activities with their children. Yes you can drop your child off at the nursery and go to work, but that is secondary to the ethos of the place, that parents and children belong to a club together and it is a home from home for the whole family.

Images above: Maggie & Rose Chiswick family club, with Maggie & Rose characters

“Everything from the light fittings to the loo roll holders is designed by Maggie”

Maggie has a very strong idea of what she wants. “Everything from the light fittings to the loo roll holders is designed by Maggie” says Dorothy Greenfield, manager of the Chiswick club. The design of the classes, the menu, even the furniture has to have her stamp of approval. In a team of twenty or so at the headquarters in Chiswick, there is a strong design team who create the cartoon images to illustrate their website and their own in house magazine. They have their own brand of children’s furniture and art materials and the décor is designed to fire children’s imaginations and transport them to the fantasy world of play, unleashing their creativity. Children learn from their classes “almost accidentally” says Maggie. In their Make and Make Believe sessions they dress the room with themes such as under water, the dinosaur’s den or the doctor’s office. There’s a sensory box and a fishing game for example, where you swim through a sea of filmy fabrics. Children are encouraged to cook and make a mess, and to express themselves in art which may not look like much when you take it home to mum, but was great fun doing, and parents are encouraged to take part in the classes with them.

Maggie studied art history at Wellington in her native New Zealand, but left after only one year. She didn’t know what she wanted to do, travelled, met her husband and had four children (Azia 17, Oscar 15, India 13 and Ollie aged 7 at time of writing). She went in to business with her husband, now ex (“don’t mix marriage and business” she says ruefully) and Rose. “Everything comes from my kids” she says. She and Rose initially just wanted somewhere to go to do things with their kids which didn’t involve soggy pizza and baked beans and processed sausages in a drafty church hall, so they started running music, dance and creative classes for children and parents in rented space in a Kensington Mews house, which led to the first Maggie & Rose in Kensington in 2006, a second in Chiswick and their third in Hong Kong which was opened in 2015. Rose is now living a more relaxed lifestyle in the Cotswolds, more of a sounding board for Maggie’s ideas than a full on business partner, and Maggie is forging ahead with international expansion.

Images above: Hong Kong Maggie & Rose with Maggie & Rose characters

The word is out at dinner parties across the globe

What led to the bid to become a global brand, I asked her. “Word of mouth” she said. Ex pats from Hong Kong and America, wealthy, successful people told their friends at a dinner party in Kensington or in a playground in Miami about the Maggie & Rose concept. “Hong Kong came to us” she says. “They’d heard about us and wanted one there… It’s quite cool. It’s amazing really. It shocks me that that’s how people have heard of us.”

How does it work exactly? “We’ve issued licenses in Hong Kong and Singapore. It’s being run as a joint venture in China.”

How does the Maggie & Rose concept is translate to Asia I wondered. How much concession do they make to local culture? “We don’t localize it” she says. “Every club you go into you will know straight away that it’s a Maggie & Rose.” But they do customize the clubs. In Hong Kong the soft play area has shipping docks, the restaurant is called a ‘Cha Cheng Tang’, a traditional Greasy Spoon and there’s a Majong table. The children don’t gamble, she hastens to add, but they like to stack the pieces, which are attractive and tactile. In Singapore the outdoor space will be designed to look like a rainforest. They’ll have knucklebones, a traditional family game and traditional family dishes. “The fundamentals and the ethos is from the UK but we take advice from our local partner.”

For all her business acumen and great success Maggie is endearingly down to earth. “We’ve had failures” she says “classes that didn’t work, that kind of thing” and whatever she’s learned about business she’s had to learn on the job. “The first time I met someone who said ‘You must be the CEO’ I didn’t know what it stood for. I had to Google it.” When I interviewed her it was on the phone. Our face to face meeting had been hurriedly cancelled when she was let down by her childcare provider at the beginning of the school holidays. A little reminder that successful though she is, she is not protected from the little roadblocks casually thrown in the way of working mothers, which makes her success even more remarkable and no doubt sweeter.

Images above: The original Maggie & Rose club in Kensington, with Maggie & Rose characters

UPDATE: Maggie subsequently stepped down from Maggie & Rose and is no longer the CEO. February 2024.

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