Category Archives: Jeremys Blog

Standards and Making a Difference

Enjoying a bite to eat at The Orangery

I spent yesterday at the ARCO (Associated Retirement Community Operators, the representative group for retirement villages in the UK) AGM, Board Meeting and Forum in central London.  A room full of inspiring, smart and dedicated people.

All the major figures in the sector – private and charity, were there.  Most are substantial organisations – Middleton Hall has the distinction of not just being the most northerly but probably the smallest member as a privately owned single site operator.

ARCO provides a great networking forum for the exchange of ideas and everyone is eager to help each other in what is a small but rapidly growing sector.  The sector is small enough that we do not compete with each other and ultimately we are all trying to deliver a quality service so there is a recognition that we can all continue to improve and grow by working together.

I attend and informally chair the Operations Management Forum where the ARCO Operations Directors have discussed catering models, IT, training and many other issues during the last year.  The aim is to share and spread best practice around the sector.

ARCO is also very aware of the dangers of worst practice though.  Everyone knows of the various failures in the care home sector and we are determined to make sure that standards are set for retirement communities to prevent any such problem in our sector as it grows.

So the biggest achievement this year has been the launch of the ARCO Consumer Code.  This is a commitment to ensure that ARCO members provide a trusted and high quality service to those living in, and considering moving to, a retirement community.  Middleton Hall was one of the first retirement villages to be assessed under the Consumer Code and all ARCO members are in the process of being approved by an independent assessor against the code.  The code can be downloaded from our website.

To set the standards and ensure compliance, ARCO has set up a five person Standards Committee with an independent chair to review standards and deal with any compliance issues or complaints.  Although Middleton Hall is a small player in ARCO, I was pleased and flattered to be elected yesterday to the Standards Committee.  It is a reflection on the understanding that quality and standards are at the heart of Middleton Hall that I was asked to stand – we are not expected to present any difficulties in adhering to the code ourselves and our commitment to continuous improvement is well known.

I was asked by someone after the meeting why I had upped sticks from London and decided to take on Middleton Hall almost 20 years ago.  It was simple, I said.  I saw an opportunity to make a difference.  And that is what successful, high quality retirement villages should do – create facilities and a community that people want to move to – and make a positive difference to their lives.


Water aerobMolly & Sonia 2








ARCO logo

Diary Dilemmas

Current affairs discussion groupThis week, I have managed to have a fuller than desirable diary. Fuller in the sense that I failed to get enough of my weekly “to do” done. Fuller in spending my time going from meeting to meeting without a pause for breath. Fuller by virtue of my own poor planning, so I have only myself to blame.

These sort of self-inflicted rushing around weeks generally mean that the part of the job that I neglect is people (and emails building up in a depressing load in my inbox). However, in rushing around between meetings, I fail to actually spend time with our residents and employees apart from brief “hellos” in corridors and waves in the Orangery. And the result is that I can feel stressed and unfulfilled.

This week, there was however one saving grace. My diary on Wednesday afternoon at 4pm says “Reading Group”. Earlier this year, I put my name down as a volunteer reader in our scheme for partially sighted residents. I ended up reading newspaper articles with a small group of Middleton Grove residents. One is partially sighted but the remainder have perfectly good eyesight so the group has evolved into a current affairs discussion group.

newspaper 1So the pattern now is that we choose two articles from the magazine section of my favourite newspaper. The BBC news website. I read each article and we all discuss it. The normally all female group never lacks intelligence, knowledge or opinions. The hour I spend with this charming group is always rewarding and we all invariably learn something – about history or sometimes about each other.

This week we learnt about a city facing a homeless epidemic of shanties. Not in Syria or Mumbai. Los Angeles. A city that is spending one billion dollars on one new building and yet has 45,000 homeless people sleeping on the streets. Then we talked about “Suffrajitsu”. How the suffragettes learnt jiu-jitsu to defend themselves in their struggle 100 years ago. From the impact that those brave women have had on all our lives since to whether we should have a quota system for women in government (yes was the answer).

So thank you to the current affairs discussion group for reminding me what is important. Now, back to catching up on my emails…

Under Promising and Over Delivering

Waterside - Photovoltaic panelsThe Waterside is understood to be the first zero carbon retirement development in the UK. This is something at Middleton Hall, we are very proud to be leaders in. A number of residents have occupied their new properties for over a year now and the results are quite interesting.

I am always a great believer in under-promising and over-delivering. The other way round can only end in disappointed customers.

When we planned The Waterside project, we believed that our version of zero carbon must be simple and low maintenance in the longer term. The Carbon Trust provided some advice including five recommended renewable energy solutions. They were not simple, so we did some of our own research and asked them to analyse our own proposal. Electric panel heaters and an immersion heater were the core of our low tech approach with electricity being generated through photo voltaic (PV) panels.

“That will never work for zero carbon”, our advisor said while shaking his head in disbelief at our naivety. A couple of weeks later he returned with his detailed analysis. Our low tech solution actually proved to be the most cost effective over 20 years.

During our research that involved visiting several sites and talking to a range of people, I discovered that low carbon buildings have a poor reputation for actually delivering the theoretical energy costs in practice. And that is before taking account the long term maintenance costs.

Over promising and under delivering in fact.

At Home in The WatersideWhen the technical calculations were carried out for the Waterside by our energy consultant, the projection showed that people could, over a year, end up with a negative energy bill.  In other words, using less energy than the PV panels produced (taking account of the Feed in Tariff). This was however based on a standard lifestyle model of working people who are out during the day. Our residents normally are in rather more than that so could be expected to use more energy. We did not promote these calculations with our customers but merely suggested they should, over a year, have a relatively low energy bill compared to a normal house.

Under promising.

Interestingly, we now have had the first property on the Waterside achieving an energy bill of minus £125 and another of zero.

Over delivering.

Of course, we are delighted with the results. Not just simple but very effective. Of course, our glow of pride is nothing compared to the warm glow that a zero or negative energy bill causes our new Waterside residents.

The Much Vaunted “Care Cap”

NurseOn Friday, the Department of Health announced that the planned introduction of the widely hyped Dilnot Care Cap would be delayed from 2016 to 2020.

This was in response to concerns from the Local Government Association about the funding crisis in the care sector and the impact of further government cut backs in local authority funding.

Will older people facing care costs be disappointed?  Many will be.  However, the reality is that the Care Cap would benefit relatively few.  It had been oversold as being the panacea for those paying their own care costs and was in danger of being a grave disappointment.  Many people would not qualify, only a limited amount of care cost would count towards the cap and they would have to pay their accommodation costs anyway.

Where the government is correct is in acknowledging that there is a crisis in social care funding and introducing the care cap without providing the cash to pay for it would have made the local authority funding problems worse.

Perhaps the previous week’s budget was the final straw for the Department of Health.  The new national minimum wage (no George Osborne, it is not a National Living Wage) is a somewhat cynical cover for the changes in tax credits for lower paid families.  This new minimum wage will affect the social care sector in particular where many employers pay only minimum wage.

Middleton Hall has always paid above minimum wage and we announced to our staff in April that we would be a Living Wage employer by the end of the year.  A real Living Wage employer, George.

It is a major financial commitment.  But all our dedicated and hard working staff should be paid the real Living Wage – they are genuinely our most important asset and our residents tell us all the time that it is the people that make the difference.  That is how we offer a quality driven service.

Care Homes paid at local authority rates cannot afford to pay a real Living Wage and, at current rates, cannot afford George Osborn’s new minimum wage either.  Despite some very good social care providers, the sector is tarnished with a reputation for poor quality after recent scandals.

A cost squeezed market does not make for good quality.

Time for a properly funded, quality driven market.  With or without the Care Cap.q7

“Cars and Care – Culture at Work”


I was invited to a Care England conference this week to discuss “culture”. Not the stuff in healthy yoghurt but the stuff that management consultants are prone to talk about.

Culture in management terms is apparently the glue that makes organisations thrive or, in some cases, dive. The thesis of the conference was that culture is far more important in companies than strategy. As one speaker put it, “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. She was not talking about yoghurt either.

Early in my career I worked for a large automotive company.I doubt I understood what culture meant as a 21 year old starting out in the big wide world, but the company certainly had a strong culture. The culture of no change, no innovation, no progress. The culture of “because that’s the way we do it”. It was certainly an interesting environment to learn in. And I learnt a lot. Mostly how not to run a company.

Bursting with youthful vigour in 1985, I discovered that the parts warehouse had a large stock of commercial vehicle fuel pumps for an obsolete lorry. In fact, I calculated, about 150 years’ stock based on sales at that time. I also found out that the obsolete vehicles were extensively used in Africa and found an exporter who was prepared to buy the entire stock. However, based on such a large order, they wanted a discount from our usual wholesale price. Not unreasonable, I thought and proposed to my manager that we should offer a 20% discount. “We can’t do that” he told me. “Why not?” I enquired. “Because we don’t offer discounts from wholesale prices”. I pointed out that we would in fact be better off if we gave them away in order to free up space for something we might actually sell. “We are not allowed to give a discount” was the response. So I went to see his boss. He did at least manage to see the sense in it but he was not allowed to make such a momentous decision either. So I went to see his boss who was also unable to decide. Being very junior in a desperately hierarchical organisation, there were a lot of bosses above me. I went to them all. Eventually, I made such a nuisance of myself that the decision was referred to the main board of directors. Miraculously, they agreed. Even more miraculously, the exporter was still interested many weeks later when such a simple decision was made.

Nobody thanked me for making the company a profit and saving a huge amount of warehousing cost. In fact, most people decided that I was clearly a bit troublesome. Of course, most people were not naïve enough to bother. A few “no’s” was enough. They either joined the “because that’s the way we do it” culture or, like me, left.

So what is Middleton Hall’s culture? I guess you would have to ask the staff, but when we ask how they feel about Middleton Hall in our Employee Satisfaction survey, they use comments like:

“Everyone’s passion for MH”

“Pride in the work that I do for MH’s vision”

“Knowing I’ve made a change/supported people the best I can for them to be happy and live well”

“Being appreciated for the effort put in as an employee”

“Classy staff”

“Team work”

“Great people work here”

“It’s a lovely environment to work in”

“Being part of a company that has inspirational leadership, a clear vision, strong ethical values and strives to be the best in everything they do”

MAFTAS 1hr reduced

The company I worked for in the 1980s never actually asked anyone what they thought, but if they had they might not have found too many comments like that. So whatever our “culture” might be, I am reassured that it has a positive effect on our customers.

And, for me, that is what is important about culture.

“Why two clicks is not enough for a job”

Post BoxWe have recently advertised for the most important role at Middleton Hall since I started 19 years ago.  A General Manager/Director Designate.  Someone to take some of the role from my fellow Director Lesley and some of mine in the longer term.  A successor perhaps.

Having advertised it in three places, we had approaching 100 applicants from all around the country.  In fact, several from overseas.  Terrific, I hear you think, to have so much interest in being part of the future of Middleton Hall.

Actually no.  I now realise that applying for a job over the internet is just too easy.

We asked prospective candidates to do just three things initially – look at the website (link to the relevant page helpfully provided) with the overview of the job and what we are looking for, send a CV and write a covering letter setting out why they would be ideal for the role.

Less than half the candidates managed to do all three.  Many failed to even include a covering letter.  Some failed to do any of the three.  Really.

Applying for a job over the internet, broadly involves two clicks – one to attach a CV and one to send.  I won’t get started on spelling and grammar but do some people really think that an organisation aiming to be the best in the UK serving discerning clients would employ a boss that can’t write coherently or even check their work?

Frankly, it was better when technology forced us all to print out our carefully prepared and proof read CV, write a bespoke covering letter, buy an envelope and a stamp and then walk to the post box.  It took some time and effort so we all read the advertisement carefully before deciding if it was worth applying for.

I fear that other employers also suffer from a deluge of inappropriate applicants.  When I emailed one of the applicants to explain he had been unsuccessful, he replied thanking me and saying that normally he does not hear back at all.  Well, of course not, if you apply for something for which you have no relevant experience and have not included a covering letter as requested (or even if not requested).  Although we always aim to acknowledge applications, I can understand why many employers do not.  I did politely point out that perhaps he should read the advertisement next time.

Fortunately, we had the necessary patience to carefully sift through the email barrage and found there were some very good applications from very well qualified people who had taken the time to research Middleton Hall and genuinely wanted the job.  They, of course, also managed to clear the first hurdle and follow the basic instructions.

Next time we recruit a Senior Manager, perhaps it may require the investment of a postage stamp.

“Networking Through the Ages”

NetworkingI was at a Business Breakfast last week discussing social media with a well known local lawyer who explained that there was no chance that he would be “tweeting” any time soon.  And in truth, I am not an early adopter of technology myself.  Indeed, it is quite surprising to find myself writing a blog.

Although I am on LinkedIn, I have failed so far to be seduced by the apparent attraction of Facebook and I too have yet to make an appearance on Twitter.  This is partly due to attending an internet marketing seminar a few years ago that far from encouraging me to embrace social media convinced me that it is a scary world out there that needs treating with caution.

Anyway, back to “networking” by real people.  I have observed over the years that my generation have much to learn from the older generation.  For sheer skill at networking, it is hard to beat a room full of our residents.  We hold regular lunches for prospective independent living residents where they can meet existing residents and find out what living in a retirement village is really all about. In fact, we are holding one this week.

We have found that it helps people considering moving to Middleton Hall to make their decision in an informed manner and makes it easier when they subsequently move in, as they already know people.

And our residents are particularly skilled at getting to know people.  Seating people together at such events almost invariably results in people finding connections with each other – their daughters went to the same school or they worked for the same company or they both have been trekking in Nepal and eaten in the same restaurant in Kathmandu.

It always turns out to be a small world when you get talking.  People in the older generation are very good at making it a smaller world through their ability to really get to know someone.

It makes me wonder how skilled my generation and those of our children will be at getting to know people face to face in the future when so much of our conversation is conducted by text, email or Facebook.

An area where we could perhaps learn from those older… and wiser.

Maybe my lawyer friend has a point.

“2015 – A Happy New Year?”

Happy New YearSo will 2015 be a “happy new year” as we all greet each other in the first days of January?

In amongst various Christmas cards people kindly sent me, there were two cards that stood out.

They were not Christmas cards but thank you cards.

Now I like to think that I do a reasonable amount of thanking members of the team at Middleton Hall – we have so many people doing extraordinary jobs and putting in huge efforts to make Middleton Hall the place that it is. Indeed, a couple who are buying a Waterside property from us (having run their own service business) were telling me today just how friendly and helpful everyone they have had contact with has been. I get plenty of charming thank you letters and cards from our residents and families of residents which I am always hugely grateful to receive and pass on to the team.

But the cards that stood out this time were from employees thanking me. Not just for their Christmas present but…

“I just wanted to say a huge thank you for making Middleton Hall such a welcoming, friendly place to work” and….

“I love Middleton Hall and everything it stands for. You are so right when you always say it is about the people.”

I often remind our team and say to new employees, that it does not matter how much money we spend on the buildings – it is the people that make the difference. Without the right people, we would be wasting our money in developing new facilities and refurbishing the existing.

My simple belief is that happy staff means happy customers.

So we will be doing our best in 2015 to make it a happy year for everyone at Middleton Hall.

“Businesses that care…about people (and vegetables)!”

TomotoesBusinesses are sometimes labelled as uncaring money making machines, only interested in short term bottom line profits.  In some cases (not just banks and energy companies), that may indeed be true.

I have always considered there is a great more to business than making money at Middleton Hall – not one of the seven values that guide our decision making mention money or profit.  Yes, we do have to make a profit in order to reinvest, make repayments to the bank and reassure our staff and customers but there is a lot more to it.

Andrew Thornton who runs the Budgens franchise in Belsize Park was speaking at a conference I was at last weekend and we compared notes afterwards.  Andrew runs his Budgens rather differently from other normal retailers Our intention at Thornton’s Budgens is to put people and the planet first trusting that profit will follow”.  Where else would you find educational programmes for local school children growing organic fruit and vegetables on the roof of a supermarket in London to be sold on a not for profit basis in the store below?

At home we receive a Riverford Organic Meat and Veg box each week from their local farm.  Along with recipes for the contents (even ways to try and make black kale tasty!) there is normally some commentary from Guy Watson, the founder.  Alongside occasional rants (the National Farmers Union earning his scorn and derision last week), a recent one struck a chord for me when he wrote about challenging the management to make Riverford a truly exceptional place to work.  Clearly Guy recognises that his business is all about people (and vegetables) and you can hear his passion.  The vegetables and meat (and other organic, ethical goodies they provide) are terrific too.  Even better since curly kale has replaced its scary black sibling.

Although Middleton Hall is rather different from supermarkets and farms, our vision has far more in common with Thornton’s Budgens and Riverford Organics than many organisations in our own industry.  We will also be growing more of our own fruit and vegetables next year (more on that soon).

Let’s be thankful for businesses run with real passion and motivated by genuine commitment to people and the planet.  And hopeful that banks and energy companies might take note.

“Late Developer”

Photography ExhibitionI have always harboured a secret desire to be a decent photographer.  I realised I have some way to go when I attended the exhibition put on by Middleton Hall’s photography group on Wednesday evening.

It was a terrific evening.  Some fabulous photography and a real buzz around the visitors to the exhibition in the Orangery.

It is not long ago that I walked past one of our ponds to be surprised by a resident emerging from the undergrowth.  “I have got a new camera” she explained waving her camera at me, when I looked slightly startled by what appeared to be a member of the paparazzi, “My family got me a digital camera for my birthday and I have joined the photography group”.

And her work (she was hiding in the bushes to capture the moorhens rather than celebrities) was on display with other members of the group on Wednesday evening. There were plenty of photographs that would not have looked out of place at a professional exhibition.

There is research suggesting that as we get older, learning new skills is one of the ways to keep our brains functioning well and potentially help to prevent the onset of dementia.

During the exhibition I was asked to join the photography group by the bar and received a surprise presentation of a stunning panoramic picture of Middleton Hall taken by one of our residents.  It was produced from a series of photographs cleverly “stitched” together.

We have asked several professional photographers to take a striking image of the retirement village over the years.  Their efforts pale into insignificance compared with the image taken by a member of the photography group.

A retirement village hosting such a display of art and talent must demonstrate that new skills can be learnt at any age.  Perhaps even by me eventually.

Thank you to all our talented photographers for an outstanding evening and for the beautiful picture.

Middleton Hall 2015 Calendars are on sale in reception featuring the photography group’s work of images around the retirement village.  All proceeds go to the Alzheimer’s Society.