When Jacqueline Clark went to see the hit thriller "The Hand that Rocks the Cradle," she expected it to rattle more than her nerves.
As founder and president of A Choice Nanny, the Columbia-based child-care screening service, Clark thought the movie about a nanny seeking vengeance against the family that hires her would also scare customers away from her business.
It didn't. In fact, since the movie opened, A Choice Nanny has had two record-breaking months, and Clark believes the film may have helped.
If it did, it's just one more step forward for a company that began in 1983 as a baby-sitting referral service and evolved into amulti-state operation that trains and places nannies in at-home day-care positions.
There are currently 23 A Choice Nanny franchises operating in eight states, and another 10 franchises are expected to open soon. The growth of the company since it began selling franchisesin 1988 has been so rapid -- 18 were sold in the first year -- that the firm now limits franchise sales to six annually.
Besides it's nanny service, the company also sells it's list of professional baby sitters. All have undergone the same background check as the firm's family.
The popular baby-sitting service represents the company's roots.
Clark -- whose husband, Andy Clark, owns Clark's Do-It Center in Ellicott City -- got the idea for her business while simultaneously working and baby-sitting her own son at the store in the early 1980s.
She decided to return to school for a master's degree before starting the business. But a professor counseled her against spendingtoo much time on researching the child-care field, saying the marketwasn't there for a successful enterprise.
She persevered, certainthat the demographics were right.
"He was a fine marketing professor," Clark said. "It's just that he had a stay-at-home wife with nine kids. Of course he couldn't see the market."
In fact, the markethas catapulted the company to success. For example, in 1986 there were 8 million working mothers with children under age 5. By 1990 the number had mushroomed to 13 million.
Said Clark: "The Ozzie and Harriet scenario hardly exists anymore."
One of the services guaranteed by the company's home office in Columbia is an extensive background check of all the nannies referred through the franchises.
Clark believes that those background checks, which are conducted by a detective agency headed by a former FBI agent, are precisely what makes the service attractive to those who saw the movie.
"Parents had a rude awakening when they saw the movie and realized they just couldn't hire a woman off the street and never check her references," Clark said.
"You wouldn't turn your money over to someone without checkingout their references," she said. "Why would you turn your children over to someone without checking out their references?"
There are other guarantees at A Choice Nanny designed to raise the comfort levelof parents.
All nannies must have at least a high school diploma and several references, said Clark. A Choice Nanny also provides training by Red Cross-certified instructors, who conduct approximately eight hours' worth of courses in child development and safety.
Approximately 1,500 nannies are trained a year, and company officials estimate that several thousand nannies are placed with families annually.
The firm also has a replacement policy should a referral not workout. Families are given a credit toward their new nanny, depending on how long the previous nanny worked for them, officials said.
Theservice can be costly. The price of matching the right nanny to the right family can range from $300 to $1,200, depending on the level ofservice expected.
A rule of thumb is that the charge is higher for placing a live-in as opposed to a live-out nanny, officials said. Also, full-time nannies will cost more to hire than part-timers. Most nannies earn $200 to $300 a week, Clark said.
Clients of the service tend to come from dual-income, professional families earning between $35,000 and $150,000 a year.
"The very, very affluent don't getnannies," Clark explained. "They probably don't need it. The mother is usually in a support role for her husband and, while she may use housekeepers and gardeners, she usually handles the child rearing herself."