THE BIG INTERVIEW: Andrew Long and Chris Babington, Oakdale Care Group

Oakdale founders Andrew Long (left) and Chris Babington

Co-founders of luxury, purpose-built care home specialist Oakdale Care Group Andrew Long (AL) and Chris Babington (CB) discussed their all-inclusive living model and plans for their latest home in Buntingford, Hertfordshire with CHP’s Emma Calder.

Care Home Professional: What makes Oakdale different from different providers?

AL: The main difference is our approach. Chris and I are both personally involved with the business, we have been around businesses and care homes for a number of years now and we’re both people- orientated. So, whilst the facilities and the fabric and the nature of a purpose-built asset is clearly important to try to set the standards of the environment, it’s also combining that with the right people and if you have that right environment you are often able to generate and attract the right people.

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I think one of the other differences with us or with our approach is that we’re not necessarily going into all of those hot spots that a lot of the other operators have gone into. We’re slightly outside those more expensive areas in the south east in and around the M25. We have brought a product further south, embellished the facilities and are packaging it up and offering it in a different way.

CB: I think there’s always a market for the top end as Andrew says. A lot of people are trying to do that, how many cinema rooms can you put in? And how many things can you do? We’re not trying to be the Dorchester we’re trying to be a very good boutique style chain. Our homes are really nice, our care really is ‘caring’ and our service is really good. We offer a much more personal service with an all-inclusive pricing model. We’re probably going to be aspirational to some and value for money for others. We think we offer an attractive and robust business model that will be able to weather any swings in the economic cycle.

AL: With the all-inclusive approach, we’re taking a slightly different view from how care home operators have traditionally charged for their services. Under the traditional model, operators have added on all the things that would customarily be bill-able extras so that customers were faced with two bills at the end of the month, one being a large bill for their core fee, and another, which sometimes looks a little bit incidental and slightly mean spirited perhaps in some respects.

We thought why not take the approach of a package that says we’ll put everything into it but not only will we include all those things usually charged extra for, let’s actually reinforce that package  more positively and go out of our way to change the staff culture around offering more and doing more for the clients as part of that all-inclusive approach.

CB: I think where people start to look at our all-inclusive model, they think, “that’s good value for money”. But it’s not just about the value for money, it’s making the resident inclusive in the home so that ‘Dorothy’ doesn’t actually think she can’t get her hair cut, we want her to get her hair cut and to make herself feel good.

CHP: How have you catered the all-inclusive model to suit individual needs?

AL: We make it very clear and transparent how much our residents are going to be charged and what they’re going to get for that and that’s irrespective of their dependency level in the home, or their care needs or a particular resident. Here in Layston, our fee is going to be £1,100 per week and that’s completely inclusive of everything.

We embarked on the all-inclusive philosophy long before the CMA started their review into the price of care and how that was being put across by care home operators, particularly in the private sector. One of the things we were really keen to do was to not get snared by this accusation that our private clients are subsidising our local authority funded clients. So, everybody pays the same fee, granted that’s not an insignificant amount of money. If you’re local authority funded you may have to pay up to a third of the full amount.

CB: I think it avoids conversations between residents and relatives about what the fees are but it also helps improve the overall transparency and prevents the resident from feeling as though they can’t do something because they have got to pay for it. It removes a lot of fear in the home and conversations around money and it makes the focus really on the product, which we are actually trying to offer.

AL: It’s important for us that staff, residents and relatives can feel as though they can ask us a question, engage with us in a conversation about what their needs are and we’ll have that conversation with them because that’s part of us doing our job and being interested in what we do.

CHP: For that model to work you have to pick the right area, so why Buntingford?

CB: I think in terms of when we set up the company we were looking at locations that would suit a private model and where there was a lack of a high quality home. Buntingford is a growing town and had a lack of a quality offering which we felt we could offer. The site is in a great setting and there are a number of surrounding villages which we hope we can attract families to Layston Grove. With the increasing number of people moving into Buntingford, we can also offer employment opportunities.

CHP: Who are your competitors here?  

AL: St Margret’s House in Royston is a very good example of a very well run home that would be a valid competitor to Layston Grove, and then you have got homes in Stevenage, Baldock, Letchworth and Hertford and Ware.

Quantum Care operates a home here but they have very openly declared that they’re not going to pursue the path of private fee paying clients in luxury homes so that does leave a choice for people in this part of the world and I guess that choice is around price and services.

CHP: You mentioned recruitment. What has the recruitment process been like for you?

CB: We started recruiting really towards the end of last year and in terms of expectations we thought this is going to be slightly different. There’s probably an element of people who moved out here looking for a job and probably haven’t thought about care, as well as a number of people who will have to travel a bit further. It’s been about forming a nucleus of a new home and has been quite interesting. We managed to fill the first nucleus of staff members with no more effort than we have made in other places. The number has probably been less in terms of absolute numbers applying but not in terms of the quality of the applications. A large number of those were people I would like to employ. There’s probably slightly more preference for people who want to do administration here because of the people who have moved out of the city into this area.

AL: Despite the location we had a strong cohort of manager applications. We have appointed Sam Campbell who was previously the manager of Quantum Care’s home in Buntingford. Sam was on an upward career trajectory so it was a logical step for her having been a manager to take the next step of commissioning a new home and having the opportunity to do that. But we had some good manager applications and we had quite a lot of interest from people further afield recognising the aspiration of the location.

We have a different approach to training. We have a two week training process in-house and then we generally have a lot of other training. The feedback we get from our staff is that our training is so much better than our competitors. That attracts people who have been in the profession because they see it as a positive.

CHP: Are you using an agency for recruitment?

CB: We use a mixture. We use direct advertising through the typical care websites or where care jobs are advertised and then we also have an agency we use, which is a more specialist healthcare recruiter so we used a mix of those and our own network.

CHP: Do you use any agency staff?

CB:  No. We haven’t used any agency staff since we started operating and it doesn’t really fit our model to be honest in terms of actually helping our residents.

AL: Our overall position is having a higher than average level of staff per resident. In my previous experience the ratio of carers to residents might have been somewhere between 1-5 and 1-7. We’re thinking 1-4 is really the optimum level to be at for care staff. That’s outside of hospitality and support staff. That’s something that underpins our approach around not getting into an agency situation and having sufficient numbers of staff on hand with bank staff that you can then call upon as required. We then have the capacity to look at care planning, key worker approaches and care co-ordination in a little bit more of an unhurried and considered way.

CB: It goes back to our approach as well in our salary model. We try and pay people more so we try and create loyalty in our approach and so therefore we would like to reinvest the money into our staff rather than actually into agencies. So if you run it through, it reduces your risk in the business and makes the job more rewarding for everyone rather than rushing from pillar to post and hopefully at the end of the day it’s an economic model as well.

CHP: What technologies will you be using here?

AL: We will be using Person Centred Software’s digital care planning system. Care staff will be equipped with an iPad that allows them to access an electronic care plan and care interactions very quickly. They won’t be having to sit back and write out reports or be stuck in the corner of a lounge with lever arch files trying to remember what they did three hours ago. They are able to do their interactions spontaneously and hopefully that frees up more time to actually provide care.

The system drives out reports that enable us to look at trends and assess simple things like weight loss, weight gain, hydration, food intake and satisfaction of clients, as well as the day to day care interactions our staff are performing. It also allows us to see what’s going on in the care home even if we’re not there and the next stage to that is then opening up what’s called the relatives gateway which allows relatives access into the care plan. We’re just on the brink of doing that in our first care home at present.

CB: I think the staff should see it as a bit of a safety mechanism as well. So if ‘Dorothy’ hasn’t had her required fluid it will flash up red on her photo on the front screen of the iPad so we should be able to minimise the risk of inadvertent risks happening.

AL: We are also using Boots’ iCare electronic medication dispensing system. It’s a scanning system that calibrates the stock as it’s being used and gives you an instant reading as to whether that medication is being dispensed properly so that it can reduce to a high degree any kind of medication issue.

CHP: Looking ahead to the future, do you have any plans for future developments? Do you have an optimum size in mind for the business?

CB: We’re always on the lookout for good quality sites. We didn’t put the company together thinking we’re going to be the biggest or anything else. We want to be pretty much the best at what we do but we don’t want to lose the ethos of Andrew and I being seen around the sites, so that limits how big the group is going to get. We always thought 10 to 12 homes over a period of three to five years would be a good size.

CHP: Do you have any other homes on the horizon?

We have got a couple of sites which we are looking at the moment but you have always got to be careful of how they fit within your management group so we know we’re not stretching ourselves. There’s no point having a care home up in Scotland which might have the best economic case because we’re not going to be able to service it in the way we want to service it. We have got a couple of potential sites which will fit into our existing geography.

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