Despite barely escaping drowning in a hurricane, Paul Thompson launched and grew Water Babies into the world leader for classes in baby and toddler swimming
People always ask Paul Thompson what he thought about when the waves pulled him under. Moments earlier he’d been fighting his way home to his wife and daughter through the hurricane descending upon Dominica, unleashing lashing winds and whipping waters around the Caribbean island into a frenzy. Then the waves had suddenly washed him off the road and into the dark. “The truth is that there was no epiphany about my life,” he remembers. “I was actually incredibly calm. I literally went, ‘so this is how it feels to die.’” But the current gave him a shot at making it. “I came up for air and realised there was a chance I could live and I just fought and fought,” Thompson says. Eventually, he managed to make his way up on land and back to his young family.
He’d arrived earlier in the year to swap his property developer career for a short-lived one as a scuba diving instructor and to spend more time with his child. But despite the tropical postcard-like surroundings, his then-wife was slightly bored and, with him almost drowning, she’d had enough. “She said it was time to go home,” he says. Thompson agreed but not because of his experience. “I wasn’t particularly traumatised or anything in the way that it fundamentally changed my life,” he says. “I’ve always lived my life on the basis that I should just go for it and this was just another reason.” Ironically, considering his ordeal, two years later he’d launched Water Babies, the baby and toddler swimming teaching franchise that’s just about to break into its eighth international market.
Few people from his childhood would be surprised to hear Thompson has become the co-founder, executive chairman and owner of a global enterprise. After all, his parents gave him the drive to excel from an early age. “My mother in particular wanted to ensure I was well-educated and she actually worked three jobs to put me through school,” he remembers. “And my father was a civil accountant and the first independent black accountant to set up in London. So my parents taught me [the value of] hard work, self-reliance and entrepreneurialism.” His ambition was evident by how he dove head first into sports – particularly rugby, which he’d later end up being a semi-professional player in – and he even became the head of the local cadet force. “That was just there from a very young age,” he remembers.
Thompson eventually acquired a bachelor degree in surveying at Bristol Polytechnic and a master’s degree in construction project management at Heriot Watt University. “That made me a property developer,” he says. Through the 1990s Thompson rapidly rose through the ranks and ended up as a director at a housing association. Just months before the new millennium knocked on the door he lived in a flat overlooking Brighton’s seafront with his newborn daughter and his wife Jess Thompson, who would soon become his Water Babies co-founder. “Life was pretty good if I’m being honest,” he says.
However, he’d soon abandon what he calls his “pretty good yuppie lifestyle.” “I was at a board meeting late one night talking about some sexy project we wanted to do in Brighton to a bunch of old committee members who really didn’t understand what I was talking about,” Thompson remembers. Not only did they fail to see his vision but the meeting derailed into an hour-long discussion about good grammar when one of them noticed a split infinitive in his report. “I just sat there thinking I can’t do this anymore,” he says. While walking back home, Thompson decided to hand in his notice.
Although, he didn’t anticipate his wife would quit her job too. “We went from yuppie lifestyle with two incomes to having a baby and no income overnight,” he laughs. “So it was a fairly dramatic life change.” Slightly shell-shocked, the couple talked about what to do next. “And I said I’d quite fancy being a scuba diving instructor in the Caribbean while we put our lives together,” Thompson says. That’s how he ended up spending a year in the sun on Dominica before the hurricane hit.
Following his brush with death, the couple moved back to Blighty. However, at the time their house was being renovated. “So in my mid-30s I moved back in with my mum,” Thompson remembers. But as he’d gone on the whole Caribbean adventure to spend more time with his kid, he decided to be a stay-at-home-dad. “After about a week of looking after my daughter I thought, ‘oh my god, what have I done?’” he laughs. “And then I thought, well, let’s get on with this. We’re in London so let’s do baby activities.”
For the next few months Thompson took his daughter to everything from dancing to horse riding lessons. “That’s how I came across baby swimming,” he says. The experience blew him away and he soon began training to become a baby swimming teacher himself. “I use the word ‘train’ very much in inverted commas when I look back at it as there was barely any training at all,” he says. “We were just shadowing a couple of lessons.”
By the time Thompson finished his first day of teaching he knew it would change his life forever. “I was so shocked after those four lessons that I sat in the car for two hours afterwards thinking, ‘what on earth was that all about?’” he remembers. “I had a real sense that this was what I was supposed to do with my life. It was really quite amazing.” He wasn’t the only one impressed. A few years later he attended a baby swimming conference where a woman kept staring at him. It turned out she was in one of his first ever classes and had been so inspired that she’d become a swimming instructor for another organisation. “I clearly had a natural bent for it and that’s where it started,” he laughs.
While Thompson was supposed to go into a partnership with the company, he eventually decided against it. “Let’s just say they had a very different business ethic to me,” he remarks. For one, he wasn’t impressed by the business’ structure and how customers struggled to find classes. Essentially, he thought it could be done better. “It was a bit like somebody inventing the hamburger and McDonald’s coming along to make it accessible,” he says. “It was that sort of feeling I had.”
But that organisation wasn’t alone in floundering to maintain high standards – Thompson argues the entire unregulated baby swimming sector lacked a sense of professionalism. “Somebody’s grandma could come along and set up a baby swimming business and start dunking babies and it was really scary,” he says. “There was no health and safety, there was no standard of training, which was just scary.” That was what he wanted to change by launching Water Babies in 2002. “I’m a real believer in doing things properly,” he shrugs.
To attract their first clients, Thompson and his wife invested £5,000 of their savings into the company’s branding. “Our thinking was that we may not know what we’re doing but we’ll look like we do,” he says. The money was used to create the iconic Water Babies logo, print leaflets and to set up a website. Armed with the branding the couple gave themselves six weeks to find their first clients. Although, he admits being slightly too eager when handing out leaflets. “On day three I went up to a lady in the Tesco car park and she said, ‘that’s the third time you’ve given me this leaflet,’” Thompson laughs.
Yet, his persistence certainly paid off. “We had a builder over at our house at the time and when I came back home one day he came running down the stairs like a giddy schoolboy with a piece of paper with 16 names on it,” Thompson remembers. It turned out he’d been on the phone all day hearing from people who’d love to try Water Babies’ classes. “The phone never stopped ringing after that,” Thompson says. “It went absolutely mad. We ended up in a very short order in June 2002 with close to 100 clients.”
However, not all phone calls were about parents wishing to test the waters. In fact, his sister-in-law and an old study buddy soon reached out wanting to become Water Babies franchisees. “We didn’t have any plans to grow so we just laughed,” he remembers. “We said, ‘come and talk to us,’ thinking that we’d have a chat and they’d then move on with their lives.” Instead, the budding franchisees’ persistence convinced the couple to give them a shot at opening branches in Bristol and Edinburgh. “And that’s when the franchising began,” he says.
Staying true to form, Thompson decided that if they were going to be responsible for franchisees then they’d better do it right. “We said ‘we’ve got to know what we’re doing,’” he recalls. To that end they reached out to Bill Pegram, director at The Franchising Centre, the franchising consultancy firm, to help them put together their operations manual and franchise agreement. Doing so helped the first two franchisees make an instantaneous splash in their respective markets and enabled two more to join the network. “In less than 18 months we had four franchisees and then we went from four to 14 in one year,” he says. “It just went bang and it kept on going.”
But no matter how much the company has grown since, the founder has always ensured each prospective franchisee is up for the job. “We’re after a certain type of person,” Thompson explains. While he’d happily consider candidates from all walks of life, Water Babies won’t accept anyone who lacks what Thompson calls “the thing” – that natural empathy and passion needed to teach babies to swim. Moreover, they must have the backbone to work hard to establish their business. “It really is as simple as that,” he says.
Additionally, candidates must ace the franchisor’s extensive initial training before becoming franchisees. “It goes on for four to five months,” he says. During this time they’re taught the business systems and, most importantly, how to be a swimming teacher. The programme, which Water Babies has developed together with the Swimming Teachers’ Association, shows each budding franchisee the theory behind the lessons and then they do 20 supervised lessons. Given Thompson’s dedication to professionalism, the franchisor unsurprisingly has no qualms about failing anyone unable to live up to his standards. “We take that very, very seriously and people are often surprised when we send them home,” he says. “They kind of think we’re joking.” Not only does this mean the 50,000 children being taught in over 560 pools around the world each week are as safe as they can be but it also means the company has yet to have a single failed franchisee.
But Thompson felt he needed to ensure the longevity of the business as the company grew, even if that meant stepping down as CEO in 2009. “The company has to be its own company, not a family-run business,” he says. “It’s not Paul’s company.” He found the perfect candidate in the industry veteran Steven Franks who previously worked as the operations director at the Swimming Teachers’ Association. “He’s Mr Organisation and I’m the mad entrepreneur and we met in the middle and we’ve been very successful together,” Thompson says. “Without him the speed of our growth wouldn’t have been maintained.”
2009 was also the year Water Babies went international. “We started in Ireland literally when the world economy imploded,” he says. Watching the news about how the country essentially went bankrupt overnight, Thompson feared the franchise’s global dreams would be short-lived. “I couldn’t see how the business was going to survive,” he says. “But they actually went from teaching zero to 1,000 babies a week in one year.” In the end the company was even celebrated by the Irish president as an example of how Ireland was still open for business.
Encouraged by the success, the franchisor decided to try and grow even more. “We were getting enquiries from all over the world all the time,” Thompson says. Having talked with their consultants, the franchisor decided to aim to set up at least one franchise in either Germany, the Netherlands, Canada or New Zealand within two years. “And we got into all four of those markets in less than four years,” he adds.
However, there was one market he never considered getting into: China. “Too big,” he says. “Too scary. Wasn’t going to happen.” So the company turned down every aspiring Chinese franchisee despite it easily being the country Water Babies had the most enquiries from. But in 2015 he was approached by a couple just itching to give the market a try. Despite Thompson politely turning them down they persisted. So he invited them to Devon for a 30-minute meeting. “But our meeting went on for half a day because they literally were the ideal candidate for us to go to China,” he remembers. At the end of it Thompson was convinced that maybe entering the Far East was worth it.
Not only did the company have to manage a franchise on the other side of the globe but also had to transform its model to fit the country. “You have to build a centre if you want to go to China,” he explains. “You can’t hire a pool because that’s illegal.” Eager to make a success of the Asian expansion, he pressed on. The result was that Water Babies’ first aquatic centre opened in China a year to the day after that first meeting with the couple. Afterwards, it didn’t take long before the new concept was proven a success. Following that, Water Babies found a master franchisee and began expanding the network in China. “Our aim is to roll out a network of 80 Water Babies centres in China in the next ten years,” Thompson reveals.
And the expansion didn’t just affect the Asian market but changed the company’s future plans too. “We’re now building our own aquatic centres everywhere that we operate,” he says. The first UK one is set to open in September 2019 and there are two more under construction in Germany. Moreover, the company’s first Australian franchisee is set to open for business in the next few months and the network is expected to keep growing. Today Water Babies has over 80 franchisees, 56 of which are UK-based and there’s no doubt in Thompson’s mind that number will grow considerably in the next five years. “We have probably as many people as we have clients sitting on waiting lists around the UK,” he says.
Given Water Babies’ international success and Thompson’s own endeavours to improve the standards of the industry, it’s hardly surprising the company has picked up prestigious accolades like the EWIF Woman Franchisee of the Year. Although the biggest recognition to date came in 2016 when the business won the coveted Franchisor of the Year at the bfa HSBC Franchise Awards. “It was amazing,” Thompson says. “Not just for me personally but for the whole of the Water Babies family.” The one thing he remembers most was that he gave the evening’s biggest hug to Pegram, the consultant who helped Water Babies into franchising. “So that was a special moment,” he concludes. Although, with Thompson’s drive we’re certain it won’t be the last one.