How to run a successful independent school business arm
Variety is the key to the success of Bolton School's commercial subsidiary, which funds bursaries for secondary pupils
Lots of businesses take their corporate social responsibility seriously but few can boast that it is their raison d’etre. Bolton School Services Limited (BSSL), which last year celebrated its 25th birthday, is one such company. Each year, all profits generated are used to finance bursaries which support pupils aged 11 years and over at Bolton School with their education. Services bursar Martin McDermott, who oversees the various enterprises that make up BSSL, says: “I take great pride in that the more profits we make, the better futures we can help build for young people at Bolton School. This philanthropic aim, first espoused by Lord Leverhulme in 1915, fills our employees with a sense of purpose and drives them on to maximise revenues.”
BSSL’s annual turnover is in the region of £2.5 million and the company currently employs over 160 staff, making it one of the largest employers in the town. All profits, totalling more than £3.5 million over the past 10 years, are gift-aided back to the school. It is a large amount of money and few schools in the country can compete in terms of bursary funds generated through in-house enterprises.
Martin McDermott explains. “There are limitations to what we can do, as the school is in operation for 173 days each year, during which time the facilities are utilised by pupils and teachers. However, we have learnt how to best utilise our services when we do have access to them and we have provided expertise and guidance to other schools as they seek to do the same. Each year we also provide – and benefit from - a range of practical projects for business students from Lancaster Business School and MMU.”
In their most recent Independent Schools’ Benchmarking report, Horwath Clark Whitehill, the school’s auditors, placed BSSL firmly in the top tier of commercial trading subsidiaries operated by schools. There are only a small number of schools that report trading income and profit generated at anywhere near comparable levels.
"Bolton School’s Scout troop first purchased a coach in the 1950s."
Formed in 1993, a number of enterprises operate under the BSSL umbrella: BSS Coaches, BSS Weddings and Events, BSS Leisure, Patterdale Hall commercial services, Patterdale Hall Holiday Lettings, Kidzone and BSS commercial function catering.
BSS Coaches is a perfect example of the forward thinking characteristic of the school. Bolton School’s Scout troop first purchased a coach in the mid 1950s to take its older scouts to camp. In 1960 the troop purchased an additional coach; both were privately run. After requests from the school to utilise the vehicles for pupil trips as well as the scouts, a decision was made in the mid 1960s to operate as a formal coach service, the first four drivers all being members of the scout group.
During the mid seventies, the coaches were used primarily to transport school sports teams and in the running of school trips. Demand for the use of coaches by the school steadily grew until, in 1987, the school purchased the vehicles from the scouts and took over the running of the coach fleet, which, at the time of the takeover, numbered six vehicles.
The School continued to run the fleet until 1992, when the assets were transferred to the newly formed Bolton School Services Limited, and the name BSS Coaches was born. The fleet took a tremendous leap forward in 1995 when BSSL bought out a local coach company, Sharrocks, adding to its fleet with three up-to-date vehicles. Over the following years the fleet was gradually modernised and now totals an impressive twelve vehicles. Besides transporting Bolton School pupils to and from school and on trips both in the UK and abroad, BSS Coaches works for other schools, professional and amateur sports clubs, commercial companies, local authorities and a variety of groups, clubs and associations. The school premises are in high demand for hosting weddings and BSS Weddings and Events oversees this, along with the hiring out of facilities for banqueting, dinners, fashion shows, business network meetings, location filming, conferencing and exhibitions.
"The company has recruited professional specialised staff."
BSS Leisure hires out sports amenities and runs courses in aquatics, health and well-being, education and training and a variety of children’s activities, including summer camps. Patterdale Hall, the school’s residential Outdoor Learning Centre, situated in the Lake District, is hired out to other schools, to companies and to individuals for outdoor pursuits, recreational courses, residentials, conferencing, weddings and special celebrations.
Properties are also available for hire in the grounds of the Hall and bookings are managed by Patterdale Hall Holiday Lettings. Kidzone, based in the school grounds, is a pre- and after-school childcare setting and also offers holiday clubs for 4 to 13 year olds which are open to the local community. BSS commercial function catering offers fine dining and banqueting for a variety of events.
Over the past decade, BSSL has recruited professional specialised staff and this, coupled with sound internal operating processes, has resulted in the company delivering enhanced service and quality whilst controlling costs. As a result, the company has built firm foundations and is well placed to maintain, develop and expand its commercial activities into the future.
With donations to the Bolton School bursary fund increasing each year, BSSL is not looking to rest on its laurels. Martin McDermott looks to the future. “We are always on the lookout for ways of increasing revenues: in recent months BSS Leisure has been expanding its portfolio of clubs and activities - we now have over 700 children signed up to our aquatics clubs, we have bought new coaches to grow our fleet, Patterdale Hall has been refurbished and is taking more bookings all year round and the School is increasingly being hired out for weddings, various banquets and to film companies. Right now, the future for BSSL and for bursary provision at Bolton School looks strong.”
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