He could have retired a wealthy man in his 40s but instead started a second care home business from scratch. A born-and-bred Whickham lad, Ian Watson, founder of Hadrian Healthcare Group, tells Coreena Ford how hard work will always be in his blood.
Stepping into one of Hadrian Healthcare Group’s care homes it’s easy to assume you’re checking into a luxury hotel.
With sumptuous lounges, restaurants and cafes with plush seating and soft furnishings, and spacious bedrooms with views looking down from Bank Top over Tyneside, it’s clear that this home in Whickham and the 10 others in the portfolio have clearly been a labour of love for company founder and chairman Ian Watson.
And the Manor House in Whickham where we meet is especially poignant for him.
It’s the home where his mother Hazel died four years ago, just three months after she helped at the officially opening as prominent member of the community and former chair lady of Gateshead Ladies Rotary Club, among many other community involvements.
“And typical of my mother, who was a stalwart of the community, she invited about 250 local friends after I told her to bring along a few people,” Ian said.
All the homes have all been designed and constructed to the same top-end specifications around the North East and further afield, delivering high-quality care that in turn has driven sales to around £20m and taken staffing levels to 700.
The fact that Ian is so personally bound to the business, and the fact he is known to pretty much all of his residents – and their families – is testament to the amount of time and money he and his team spend ensuring their needs are met.
And the best bit is that he didn’t even need to create this business – the second care home firm he has developed from scratch. He actually retired at 44, albeit very briefly.
When you first hear that Ian had an eight-figure sum in the bank at 44 you might think he was crackers to return to work. Why not instead develop your own Necker Island? Or jet around?
But when you spend a little time with him you can understand why this Whickham born-and-bred businessman found it imperative to get back to work.
His whole life has been built upon sheer hard work and determination – an in-built competitive edge and need to be the best which was first fanned when he was a teenager.
Fresh out of Whickham Comprehensive Ian got his first job as a clerk at 16, with Lloyds Bank, and was soon encouraged to take professional accountancy exams.
He got stuck in to the studying, on day release and at night school, and at 22 he was one of the youngest qualified bankers ACIBs. That was very unusual and not, he says, because he was particularly clever – he just worked hard.
“I just locked myself every year for seven or eight months and got through the exams and passed them,” he recalled.
He also became secretary and treasurer for the Chartered Institute of Bankers in Newcastle at the age of 23.
“I found myself invigilating examinations for more mature bankers at the poly, which was bizarre,” he said.
In 1984 he moved on to the Co-op Bank which was looking to expand their commercial lending business, and within five years he found himself in charge of commercial lending at Lloyds Bank’s Grey Street branch, specifically increasing the bank’s profile as well as the size of the commercial lending book.
The care home sector was experiencing a surge at the time, so he became heavily involved with all the big local names. Changes in funding regulations opened the door for the private sector to move into care, a very capital-intensive industry that needed strong support from banking and clients.
Ian was doing a lot of lending to care homes, seeing a lot of good businesses and a lot of bad businesses, learning all the while.
“I had always been a little bit entrepreneurial, so while I was working in the bank, I decided that I wanted to work for myself one day,” he said.
“As much as I enjoyed banking, doing the deals and working with professionals and clients I knew that one day I wanted to have the independence of working for myself for my own outcomes.
“So in 1988 I bought my first investment property. I bought a pair of flats for £12,000. I had no capital but my father Ken had retired that year from the NHS and from his pension lump sum he gave me £1,000 and I used that as a deposit.”
He took two weeks off work and, together with his dad, decorated and renovated the flats, working morning and night for the full fortnight.
“I’ll always remember when we finished and I rented out the properties, they gave me the rent and the deposit and I had them revalued and I realised that I’d made a substantial profit. I’d made more money in two weeks than I could have made working five to ten years in the bank,” he said.
“That was my big incentive to say ‘I want to do more of this’.”
Over the following five to six years he built up a residential property portfolio around Gateshead, of around 20 homes, all the while still working in the bank.
His entire existence was consumed by working in the bank and spending every spare moment on the properties.
“It’s probably why I didn’t get married until I was 35!” he joked.
He was clearly very focused but, he admits, far from a dab hand at DIY.
“No. Completely useless, completely useless, I couldn’t wire a plug. That was my biggest challenge. I found the right deals, then I had to find the right people to help me do the job – that’s my biggest lesson to date really, knowing it’s all about people,” he said.
“I’ve got 700 staff now and it’s all about the quality of people and how we value and develop them, train and retain them.”
In 1992 he moved from the Co-op to become Durham-based head of regional banking at the Nationwide Building Society, a firm which was also creating a new commercial division that they were keen to grow during the busy boom time of the 1990s.
And those heady days also delivered the “now or never” moment.
After driving around the North East he settled on land in Washington as the perfect location for a care home and after selling some properties bought the site for £100,000, all the while still working for Nationwide.
Cost for developing the home was £1m, but he approached a friend who took an equal share of business.
“I started with an equal silent partner and good friend, David Nicholson, who also provided me with good mentoring when times were tough,” he said.
“That was the same year I got married.
“I was driving a battered old Citroen BX and renting a house in Swalwell at the time I got married because everything had been put into the business, so at least I know Claire didn’t marry me for the money!”
Quitting the bank in 1996 he spent the next nine years developing the firm before selling off part to Barchester Healthcare, when his silent partner also left the business.
He retained a small part and over 10 years developed 16 homes, and he admits he didn’t plan to sell the business when a venture capital company came knocking in 2006.
“The company was where I wanted it,” he said. “We had fantastic quality homes, we had a great reputation, great people – around 550 staff – and we had created a strong brand. Then I realised in those heady days that by accepting it I could secure my future and generations of my family’s future, financially, so it was a very, very difficult decision.”
After talking to senior members of his team he decided it was too good an opportunity to miss out on – so he signed on the dotted line, at the 11th hour retaining the company name – and planned a sabbatical. The whole process had unfolded at breakneck speed, around 10 weeks.
“I was 44 at the time. And at that time my wife was pregnant with our third child, so there was the chance to spend more time with the family.
“The sale price was eight digits – but I’ve signed a non-disclosure document so can’t say more.
“I found myself in London with my team of professional advisors, and we did the deal at midnight. I was told it was complete and my monies were in the bank.
“After about an hour of euphoria, thinking about how I’d realised my dreams and given myself financial security, I then started thinking about the reality of the business I’d grown and developed that was no longer mine.
“Coming back on the train the next day, I realised those people who were such a part of my life weren’t there. I even lost my PA of 10 years because she’d gone with the business.”
Although he didn’t have a business and was learning the guitar and Spanish, playing more golf and tennis and spending more time with his family, he still craved somewhere to go where he could ponder the world of business. So he bought an office.
He bought the 2,000 sq ft office building The Watermark in Gateshead, which remains the firm’s headquarters today, but eight years ago there were just two people rattling around the expansive building.
“It was all done out beautifully but there was no one else there apart from a part-time secretary on the ground floor, while I occupied the whole of the first floor, it was absolutely bizarre,” he said.
“I was taking my post from home into the office and using it as a place to think about business. I was quite lonely!”
Lots of people and organisations were trying to entice him into their investment plans and companies but Ian said his strength lay in the care sector, so Hadrian Healthcare was relaunched, with a view to doing it better than before, using his experience and wisdom from previous firm.
Conditions of the sale decreed he had to look outside of the North East in the early days, and getting in the right people was paramount.
Once those two things fell into place, having acquired brownfield sites, Hadrian Healthcare began again, and Manor House care homes were launched, introducing premium quality care to the market, using the same construction firm and developers each time to keep the design and specifications consistent.
Jas Gill was also brought in as his managing director, a senior manager in Yorkshire Bank, who he said had “all his skills and more”, allowing Ian to take a step back and have an umbrella view of the business as chairman.
In the six years ended 2013, £50m has been spent on developing a portfolio of new homes, all of which seek to provide a luxury living experience for its residents, who have an average age of 86, boasting bistro cafes, cinemas, ballrooms, bars, in-house chefs, private en-suite rooms and gardens.
There are currently 10 sites but future developments will see group headcount rise to around 800 in 2015, a rise of 26%.
That growth comes as the company posts turnover of £8.66m for the year ended March 31, 2013, a rise of 10% on the £7.86m filed for the previous 12 months.
Operating profit is also on the up, topping out at £1.8m, up from the £1.43m noted in 2012 and a rise of 25% year-on-year, despite the significant investments made into the business.
Growing turnover and profit aside, Ian views his biggest achievement to date as drawing in and developing a talented and committed care team from senior operational level to the most junior level. Last year alone £500,000 was invested in staff training and development and staff retention levels are in tandem very high, around 90%. Team members at all levels can boost their qualifications through extra examinations paid for by Hadrian Healthcare, creating career progression opportunities internally.
Ian makes a point of regularly visiting all the homes, and his face is well known to almost all residents and their families and all staff members, many of whom stop to chat to him during my visit.
From now, growing the business will not be centred on necessarily opening more homes but maintaining current standards and seeking to improve all aspects. That said, it will gradually expand. Another Manor House home will soon open in Leeds creating 70 new jobs.
“I think you have to fundamentally care about the wellbeing of people – staff as well as residents – and I’ve always been passionate about what I do. And I want to be the best,” he said.
Turning 50 this year, he says, was downright horrible and a birthday which has forced him to fully confront his own mortality.
“It was awful. Better than not though, at least I was alive. You’re now part of a generation that is passing on,” he said.
Yet that’s something he has clearly dealt with far more than most, and long before that milestone birthday, having lost his own mother Hazel in the very home that we meet. In her memory he had a cafe built in Whickham Community Garden, which is run by volunteers.
Now, Jas runs the business day-to-day but he still takes a very keen interest and he never sees that changing – but his life-work balance has altered over the last few years.
“Now that I’ve reached 50 I’ve found that life is not about being full-on or full-off, it’s about having the right balance. I’m very fortunate in having the team I have, that I can indulge myself with time with my family, holidays and leisure,” he said.
Ian is clearly a fit and healthy family man devoted to his wife and three children, but his time away from work certainly isn’t dominated by self-indulgence.
He sits on the developmental board of Marie Curie Cancer Care, which helped him when his father Ken was diagnosed with and later died from cancer some time ago.
He is also a trustee of Whickham Community Garden and has developed his own community family foundation, which allows his family to choose local projects to support.
For the last 15 years he’s also been an active supporter of World Vision, sponsoring several children in various parts of Africa. Last November, for example, he journeyed to Zimbabwe to help out in several deprived community projects, a trip he plans to repeat with his family this year. One of the youngsters they sponsored died at the age of seven, suffering from anaemia, a fact which “brings home to all of us the crazy parallel worlds that operate between those who have nothing and those of us who have so much. It’s one thing to read about it, it’s another thing to see it.
“If you have been fortunate enough to enjoy the privilege of wealth, then you have a responsibility to others.”
What car do you drive? Range Rover
What’s your favourite restaurant? Jamdani, Whickham, M.C. Café, Marbella
Who or what makes you laugh? John Cleese
What’s your favourite book? To Kill a Mocking Bird
What was the last album you bought? Bob Dylan’s greatest Hits
What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got? Running my own charity
If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you would teach it to say? Correct!
What’s your greatest fear? Family health and wellbeing
What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received? It’s all about getting the right people
And the worst? Do it on the cheap!
What’s your poison? Good wine and my own mix of gin and tonic
What newspapers do you read, other than The Journal? The Sunday Times
How much was your first pay packet and what was it for? £5 per week at Laws Stores in Whickham
How do you keep fit? With the help of two personal trainers!
What’s your most irritating habit? Identifying things that to me appear wrong
What’s your biggest extravagance? Family holidays
Which historical or fictional character do you most identify with or admire? Nelson Mandela – he saw the bigger, long term picture, when at the time most just wanted short term revenge
Which four famous people would you most like to dine with? David Attenborugh, Jesus Christ, Stephen Fry, Richard Dawkins
How would you like to be remembered? A decent bloke, who made a difference