Barchester Healthcare: Mike Parsons

The Barchester Healthcare founder on hoisting the bar for care for older people, and creating a £408m-turnover business

I started my first business, an ad agency called KHBB Advertising, in the early 1980s. I sold it to Saatchi & Saatchi in 1985, becoming a major shareholder in the company and working as chief operating officer for four years.

Care homes might not seem like a natural next step for an ad-man, but I was looking for a new business idea and spotted an opportunity, as well as the chance to improve the lives of many people.

In 1990, my mother had two aunts who both needed residential care. The homes we visited were depressing institutions, with shared rooms, little to engage the residents and the unmistakable stench of urine.

I spent the next two years living in America, but I kept that experience in the back of my mind. There was a different standard of care at the Assisted Living homes in the US. These were social environments, set in beautiful surroundings. I realised there was a need for somewhere like this in the UK, where the residents could socialise and lead an enriching life.

Convincing a bank that I wasn’t a complete nutcase was still a challenge. I met with 13 and the first 12 said no – including all the ones I deal with today. Fortunately, the Bank of Ireland liked the idea. I put virtually all the money I’d made in advertising into the company and got a big bank loan to build the first home.

I wanted somewhere that would feel more like a country house than an institution, and found the ideal spot in Moreton Hill Farm. It was a derelict, abandoned 17th century farmhouse with stunning views over the Cotswolds. Although it was a listed building, the planners were very helpful. They wanted to see it preserved and were worried about squatters moving in.

In return for restoring the farmhouse, we were granted planning permission for a new development. We put the day rooms, restaurant and bar in the restored farmhouse and fitted the new building with bedrooms, each with its own en-suite. The restoration project was featured on Countryfile (it was the best ad you could ever not pay for), and in 1994, we received the Care Home Design Award. The business took off from there.

Depression is a serious problem among older people. People think staying in your own property is a good thing; often it’s not.  You can become institutionalised in your own home, waiting for visits by care workers.

We tried to create a very social environment, it’s more like a community, with activities, animals, music and art.

I’m still moved by the feedback we receive. I had two letters yesterday from relatives saying thank you for providing such a wonderful place. One of them related to our first care home, Moreton Hill, so it’s nice to know it’s still as good today as it ever was.

Barchester Healthcare now has 220 facilities in the UK, housing 11,000 residents and employing 15,000 staff. The company has completed more than 30 acquisitions, including the purchase of Westminster Healthcare, its biggest competitor, from private equity firm 3i for £525m in 2004. Barchester was named one of the Sunday Times 25 Best Big Companies to Work for earlier this year.

Mike Parsons was speaking to Carys Matthews.

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