INsite asks incoming and outgoing Summerset chief executives their thoughts…


INsite: You joined Summerset in 1999 and have been chief executive since 2001 – what prompted your decision to leave the company at this point?

Barlow: The time is right. For any CEO thinking about the right time to leave, there are two things to consider: the state of the company and the people who can take it forward. I’ve seen Summerset grow from a small embryo to this great company of today. We have grown fast, with 16 villages in 16 years, and have a great land bank available to us to continue that. This company today is in great shape.

As for people, in Julian, Summerset has the right leader – and will continue to have the right team – to continue this growth. So, for me, the decision was easy, the company is going exceptionally well, and there are great people to carry this forward. What better time to move on, and look at different opportunities which may arise.

And I have to admit, having four grandchildren also played its part. Spending more time with them will certainly be a bonus!

INsite: Do you feel your background in accounting and business leadership equipped you with the necessary skills for leading a business like Summerset? What additional skills and attributes have you acquired on your journey as Summerset’s CEO?

Barlow: Yes, I do, probably mostly at the beginning, but clearly being able to read a balance sheet, and understand what it is saying easily, is an advantage.

I have learned more about people, how they are driven, what will motivate a group; I have learned about the process of ageing, and how we in New Zealand treat our elderly citizens. In a business sense, I have learned about the requirements of a public entity, and the very real differences that exist between those that are not publicly accountable, and those that are. I have also learned that this sector is full of great people, who day in, day out, do a very good job for those who are most vulnerable. I can honestly say that I have only met a very small number of people who are involved in the aged care and retirement village sector who I would not be pleased to have look after me when I need it.

Finally, I am still learning to keep quiet when I don’t know; as they say, better to keep quiet and be thought a fool, than to speak out and confirm it!

INsite: What was the steepest learning curve when you joined the retirement village industry?

Barlow: I think it was the nuances of the sector. It is very easy to think you know everything, when in fact you are only just at the start of your journey. This was in all areas, the delivery of aged care, the way we develop the villages, and the way these are operated.

INsite: What do you consider to be your greatest achievements during your tenure at Summerset?

Barlow: Summerset’s founder John O’Sullivan had the belief that aged care should be good enough for his grandmother, and should be affordable to all. I am very proud that I don’t think we ever lost that ethos and we can truly say, that if it’s not good enough for our mothers and grandmothers, then it’s not good enough for Summerset. You can grow a business and do well for your shareholders, but to do that and not lose sight of where you came from, and what your moral compass is, is what matters and what makes us special.

Leading Summerset through the IPO in 2011 was obviously a massive achievement, and it has allowed us to continue our growth, and then to accelerate this. To do this in the timing we did was indeed an achievement.

INsite: And, what aspects of your role have presented the most challenges?

Barlow: Pay rates for carers and funding from DHBs. I would like to see carers paid more – they deserve it; the work they do is fantastic. But we need to work out how to do it. At Summerset we have always passed on what we’ve received from the government but it’s not enough. We really need to make some very hard decisions in New Zealand. We need to say who should pay for our elderly to be looked after, and if we continue with the decision that it is government paid, then the payment needs to be sufficient to see that the workers are being properly rewarded.

All too often we hear recently that retirement village companies should pay for that care from their profits. But that is simply avoiding the issue we have. We can clearly see the increasing numbers of older people coming through, we can all see the impact that this will have, but we cannot try to move the funding problem to a small sector of aged care providers.

INsite: With the benefit of hindsight, is there anything you would have done differently?

Barlow: I probably would have listened a bit more to those around me.

INsite: You have been well known as one of the few women chief executives of listed companies. How do you think you have managed to break the so-called “glass ceiling” that many other females have not attempted to do or not been able to?

Barlow: I don’t think there was really a glass ceiling for me to break. John and I were a really good fit from the beginning, and I think we both respected what each of us brought to the partnership. If anything, for me, my being female has had advantages in that there simply were not many women around in the area that I was mainly involved in, which was the development side of Summerset. I always joke about this, but it was easy for people to remember my name as I was often the only female in the boardroom.

INsite: Do you feel you’ve had to make many sacrifices or compromises to get where you are?

Barlow: Yes, definitely. I worked very long hours, for a very long time. I had kids early, and at the time, I had not qualified, so I had to study and work for a number of years. Then Summerset was based in Paraparaumu at the beginning and I lived in the Hutt valley, so there was a lot of travel, as well as work hours. I received regular calls from my husband to leave work NOW. So I missed a lot, really. However, I was also lucky in that I had full support of my children, and if the results are anything to go by, they didn’t suffer. I am really proud that I’ve had the support of wonderful family and friends both when I was studying, when I had my own accountancy practice, and throughout my time at Summerset.

INsite: Do you have any plans to stay involved with the retirement village industry, and if so, in what capacity?

Barlow: I’m staying on the board at Summerset, so yes, I’ll still be involved. I am really looking forward to contributing in a very different way to the future of this company. But there are also other opportunities I’d like to take advantage of, and I will be looking at these, both in New Zealand and overseas, to see what develops.

INsite: What would your vision be for Summerset in ten years’ time? And for the New Zealand retirement village sector as a whole?

Barlow: I would like to see Summerset continue to supply first-class care and services to such a great sector of society. At that time, one of these may very well be me, and if it is, I want to always be pleased that the Summerset philosophy has survived. I would expect to see Summerset bigger, and spread throughout New Zealand.

For New Zealand, I see a very strong future for the sector as a whole, but I do expect there will be changes in the way we use technology to deliver care. I also hope that we can work through the present issues of funding, and provide the care and respect through good quality facilities for the elderly, and working conditions for the staff that these people deserve.


INsite: What is first on the ‘to-do’ list when you take over the role of chief executive in April?

Cook: Getting to know our residents and staff in the villages is number one. Norah and I will be visiting all of our villages. Our residents are first and foremost in our minds and they know Norah well, so it’s important for me to pick up that relationship. Norah has always spent a lot of time in the villages listening to our residents and our staff and I plan on continuing this also. It’s important to know that residents are happy in their communities and also for them to have the chance to discuss anything they like with me.

INsite: Is it a steep learning curve or a natural progression from your current role as chief financial officer?

Cook: For myself I think it’s been a natural progression. I started here very focused on the CFO role but as I came to know the business and its people better I have become very passionate about what we do here, especially from a resident and staff perspective. It will be a steep learning curve, and it is sometimes a bit daunting, but I’m dedicated to doing what I can to help make Summerset the best operator it can be and I know that I will have Norah’s ongoing support and knowledge to rely on. I’m also very lucky that she has built a strong executive team to help me take the business forward.

INsite: Everyone has their own style of leadership; how would you describe your leadership style and in what ways do you expect it will differ from Norah’s?

Cook: In many ways we are quite different but what we do share is a common passion for what this business does and the sector we are in. What we are really here to do is to create villages that enhance residents’ lives, and we both feel deeply about making sure older New Zealanders have an enjoyable retirement in communities built with their care and needs in mind. So you will find that we are very aligned on where we should be taking Summerset and that will be reflected in our strategy going forward.

INsite: In preparing to take on the role of chief executive, which aspects of the role do you feel most comfortable with, and which do you have reservations about?

Cook: There are a lot of new areas of the business to be across as CEO compared to CFO. I’m in the fortunate position that I’ve had three years now in Summerset and a good grounding to the sector prior to that. I’m also very fortunate that Norah has been a great mentor over the last three years and I’ve had a good exposure to all pieces of the business. In addition to visiting all of our villages and spending time with our residents, one of the things I will be doing once I take on the CEO role will be talking to staff throughout the business to better understand how our business works and how we can better deliver to our residents.

INsite: What advice would you give to your successor (incoming chief financial officer) about taking on your role?

Cook: The CFO role in this business is a very broad one and requires a detailed understanding of many areas of the business. My advice would be simple – get out into the business, understand how it works and how you can add value to it.

INsite: With Summerset now listed on the Australian stock market, and competitor Ryman expanding across the Tasman, it would not be wholly surprising to see Summerset follow suit. Do you think we are likely to see a Summerset village on Australian soil within the next decade?

Cook: We have no plans at this stage as our model works really well all over New Zealand and there’s plenty of room for growth here. But never say never!

INsite: What is your vision for Summerset?

Cook: We want Summerset to be the number one choice in retirement living and aged care in New Zealand and I think we are well on the way to achieving that. We’ve been named Best Retirement Village Operator in Australasia for four years running based on our focus on our customers. Norah has built for us a strong platform that will underpin our growth for many years to come. Summerset’s early goal of building 20 villages in 20 years seems just within our grasp, and I believe being number one choice is too.

INsite: In what ways has serving on the RVA executive committee added to your knowledge and understanding of the retirement village industry? Do you believe it is valuable to have a forum in which experiences and challenges can be shared, discussed, and learned from?

Cook: Every sector has its issues and challenges and a well-run industry body can be a great advocate for the sector, its residents and those employed in it. The RVA has done an excellent job over the years, particularly on the regulatory front, making sure we are able to operate in a consistent and clear framework. Being part of the RVA Executive Committee has not only been invaluable to me gaining a deeper understanding of the issues we face, but also been an opportunity for me to provide my assistance to the sector where possible.

INsite: What do you perceive as the greatest challenges facing New Zealand’s retirement village industry at present?

Cook: Our sector only exists because we are able to provide communities and care that appeals to older New Zealanders. Having said that, there is a significant social good which our sector delivers to New Zealand. Primarily this is by assisting older New Zealanders to live life to the fullest, which has a number of associated benefits such as lower depression rates, lower hospital admissions and better quality of life. Also our sector is a major contributor to new housing which frees up homes for younger families and improves housing affordability. However, with this comes a range of challenges, which to my mind are threefold: meeting the growth in numbers of older New Zealanders, addressing the funding shortfall in care, and ensuring our care workers are paid appropriately.

INsite: When you’re not at work, you can be found doing what?

Cook: Getting outdoors fishing, diving, camping and spending time with my children. I’ve got five children including my step-son so I know a lot about Minecraft, Lego and tea-parties!


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