Toney Kearney talks to Scott and Victoria Hillary, whose idea for a safe play area for children has grown into a multi-million pound industry.

WHEN playground bullies broke Scott Hillary's nose for the third time, it was the final straw.

The teenager took to playing truant to escape his tormentors and left school without a qualification to his name.

Fifteen eventful years later, at the tender age of 31, he runs a thriving business estimated to be worth about £1.5m and is on the verge of expanding across the country.

"I think in some ways it is about proving to the world that they were wrong - that is part of the drive," he said.

Three years ago, Scott and his wife Victoria opened Mister Twisters, an indoor adventure playground for children on the Number One Industrial Estate in their home town of Consett, in County Durham.

Seized upon as a Godsend by stressed-out parents, the ball pools and the climbing frames, the colourful bouncy castles and the maze of poly-tunnels were soon echoing with the laughter of countless children.

Even Scott and Victoria were caught by surprise by the extent of their success - but, quick to realise they had hit upon a winning formula, a second Mister Twisters was opened in Gateshead last August.

A third outlet will open in Brenda Road, Hartlepool, this month, and planning permission has just been granted for a fourth - at 20,000sq ft the largest yet - at Thornaby, on Teesside.

As they sip coffee in the heart of their growing empire, their words almost drowned out by the excited cries of children thankful for somewhere to go in Consett on a foggy day, Scott and Victoria make success in business look like child's play. But it was not always the case.

"My school life was absolute hell," said Scott, who underwent corrective surgery on his broken nose. "I moved to a new comprehensive in my mid-teens and because I was the new boy and overweight, I was targeted almost from the word go. I hated going to school with a passion and truanting was the easier option."

At the age of 15 he met his future wife Victoria - almost the girl next door. They both came from the small village of Shotley Bridge, in County Durham, and together they enrolled at New College, Durham, to take diplomas in hotel and catering management. Eventually, they went on to study business together at Leeds Metropolitan University - spending summers in the US working at a luxury marina complex in North Carolina and emerging from college with £16,000 in student debts and no obvious way to pay them off.

They went into pub management, first in Southampton and then in leafy Surrey, where they took over a country pub with roses climbing around the door - eventually buying the place when the opportunity arose.

Four years ago, the couple's daughter Emilia was born and the family's priorities changed.

"The pub and restaurant were doing very well," said Scott, "but when our daughter was born we decided we wanted to come home because the pub environment didn't seem a very healthy place to bring up our child, so we began looking around to start up a business in the north."

A friend suggested they take a look at an indoor adventure playground in Guildford and, despite her initial scepticism, Victoria agreed. She remembers: "It was small, but I went and had a look round and immediately thought: 'This would be great up north'.

"We went over to the States and spent a month travelling round and having a look at the market there, then came back to the UK and spent another month travelling round similar things in the south, then we took the best bits from them all."

Work began in earnest in April 2000. The couple sold the pub business they had built up and used the money to invest in the new venture, Mister Twisters.

Two proposed sites fell through at the 11th hour before they finally settled on the 10,000sq ft industrial unit on the Number One Industrial Estate in Consett. The rest, as they say, is history.

"When you look at it now," laughs Victoria, "the original business plan is hilarious. We were going to work here as hands-on owners for five years, I was going to run the kitchens myself, one person was going to do the reception, help in the kitchens and serve the food - now it seems laughable.

"When it came to demographics we said our catchment area would be Consett, Blackhill and Delves Lane - all within a mile or so of here, whereas almost immediately we were getting people travelling from Peterlee, Newton Aycliffe, Teesside, even Doncaster."

Parents and children flooded in. In an area with little in the way of high quality leisure facilities, particularly in wet weather, Mister Twisters struck a nerve. Children were able to run wild in complete safety while hard-pressed parents could grab a coffee and something to eat at the open-plan caf. As word spread, the centre was hailed as a tourist attraction - in fact, it was a finalist in the large tourist attraction category at this year's Pride of Northumbria Awards. That identity was helped by strong branding which the couple believe they picked up across the Atlantic.

"People tend to think this is part of some sort of American chain - it has that look," said Victoria, 30. "We worked in the hospitality industry in the States for three years and I think there is something we have picked up there which comes across in Mister Twisters."

In August last year, Mister Twisters opened its second branch at Follingsby Park, Gateshead, a 12,000sq ft development which follows the same winning format.

By the time the Hartlepool branch opens next month, the company will employ 145 staff, including a four-strong team at the company headquarters at the Derwentside Business Centre, in Consett.

But the success brings with it dangers.

Very early on in its life, the company began to receive requests to open franchise outlets elsewhere in the country. Then, late last year, London chain Jumbo plc came in with a tempting offer to buy the company.

"We went through all the negotiations and were offered a very good deal," said Scott. "They wanted to put us on a large salary to continue working for the company.

"But firstly, we were uncomfortable with losing control of our company, and secondly, the interest was making us realise the potential of what we had.

"So we poached one of their directors, Neil Scott, and developed a plan to take the business forward ourselves."

In January, the partners set up Scott Leisure Developments to design and purpose-build play areas rather than move into existing industrial units, and also equip them so that, in Scott's words, they would be "the pub and the brewery at the same time".

They have also agreed a deal with Teesside haulage tycoon David Scott to finance future developments on a lease-back arrangement, so they can expand while keeping control over the direction of the company.

As well as the sites at Thornaby and Hartlepool, they hope to open another branch in Newcastle or North Tyneside - and are offering a £1,000 reward to anyone who can find them suitable premises - and are also in negotiations over a further outlet to cover South Durham.

Having established a strong regional brand, the plan is to expand into neighbouring counties - York, Hull and Carlisle are being touted as possible targets - and once they have ten branches up and running, will consider franchise arrangements to move Mister Twisters to the south of the country.

Scott, whose father owns the region's biggest fireworks display company, appreciates that the success stems from that first gamble in opening in Consett.

"This place was like lighting a touchpaper, which is ironic given the family business," he said.

If anything, the happy screams of the children have grown louder during the past hour. Victoria looks around at the soft play area reserved for smaller toddlers.

"My goal is to see the kids who are here today bring their kids back in years to come," she said.

"It's a few years off but they will be able to say: 'This is where I spent my childhood'."

It is a long way away from the schoolyard bullies of Scott's youth.