Having pursued a successful career in hospitality with Hilton Hotels, Paul proved to be a perfect fit for retirement village operator, Audley Group, when CEO Nick Sanderson came looking for a leader to complement his own care background in 2007.
“Making the transition into retirement villages was interesting at that point because we only had two villages,” Paul told CHP.
“There’s a huge amount of overlap between the hospitality and retirement model. Of course when you are running a care home or a retirement village the people who are your prime customers aren’t going anywhere. If there are elements that they like or they don’t like, they will certainly let you know. It’s about making sure that we have people on board who understand that and will target any issues and get them resolved.”
Fuelled by huge pent-up demand in the UK for a quality retirement lifestyle offering, Audley has seen rapid growth over the last 12 years. It currently operates 19 Audley villages, from Ilkely, North Yorkshire down to Kent in the south and across to the West country.
“We are not restrictive where we go and there are a couple of towns where we have identified an opportunity to build a second village,” Paul noted.
“It is purely down to the demographics. The land team are working incredibly hard looking for opportunities up and down the country. We will look at whether there is demand in the local area and also at the working age demographic to ensure we have enough people to work for us to deliver the great service we offer.”
Much of the group’s leadership has followed Paul in making the transition to retirement living from hospitality.
“Our owners respond really well to people from a hospitality background as they understand customer service,” Paul noted.
All bar one of Audley’s general managers are from a hospitality background but Paul stressed the need for the group to begin growing its own leaders in order to maintain its own business culture.
“If we are able to service and exceed their needs then we know we have a happy community living with us,” he said.
“That’s the mentality of anyone from a customer service background – some of it is innate and some of it is trained in.
“People who come here from a hospitality background can see that we can offer them a good work-life balance which is getting higher and higher on people’s lists when taking on new roles. We don’t have the sorts of peaks and troughs people working in the hospitality sector have because our customers are living here. We can offer a better way of working than a 16-17 hour day which gives them time but also gives us time to train and develop their teams properly as well.”
Thanks to its successful business model, Audley is able to offer a salary and incentive package which is competitive with the hospitality sector.
“We have to keep innovating in how we recruit and how we attract people because the recruitment challenges will never go away,” Paul told us.
Audley has invested heavily in its HR department in recent years and appointed an experienced HR director with the goal of attracting high quality staff.
“We have looked at our employee brand that is out in the marketplace,” Paul said.
“We are working with digital agencies to look at how we attract passive applicants and show us how to tap into people who may not even know about retirement villages or care jobs.
“We need to be seen as the employer of choice as retirement villages grow and we need to lay down the foundations, which I believe we have done, to attract the best people.”
While historically having worked with an external recruitment agency, Audley has now brought this in house with significant benefits to the business.
“The in-house team will screen and first interview every applicant if necessary,” Paul said.
“It’s incredible how the quality of applicants improves when you have that control in house.”
The group set up the Audley Academy to provide learning and development for people who are new to care and to help improve staff retention.
As well as providing front line and statutory training, the academy develops Audley’s leaders of tomorrow.
Paul said Audley’s ‘In Training’ programmes ensures the group invests in its high performers from sales, care and operations to be ready to step into available middle and senior management positions.
Using Apprentice Levy funding, Audley has also partnered with colleges to create and deliver programmes to ensure it grows its own talent.
All of the group’s care team are trained on an annual basis on elements of dementia care and Parkinson’s so they have the knowledge to assist visiting healthcare professionals.
“Our primary objective is to be able to offer a place for somebody to live for the rest of their life,” Paul noted.
“We invest in our training so their family can take comfort that they can stay here and be well cared for if they should develop dementia or Parkinson’s.
“Our ageing population, of which we will all be a part of in the coming years, deserves a choice for their retirement. The only way we will differentiate between providers will be through service. That’s why my emphasis is so heavily weighted in investing in our people, as, providing we invest in them, they will be the people to safely deliver our mission for years to come.”
The group is currently examining how it can modify the role of its care team to take on a more proactive role in maintaining people’s health and wellbeing rather than just taking a reactive role.
“The Audley Care model will evolve into a wellness facility that people can access as soon as they walk through the door where we offer advice on nutrition, food, health, self-image and fitness,” Paul explained.
Hospitality staff also undergo care training so that they can spot signs of unusual behaviour and help prevent issues arising.
In addition, the group also actively encourages cross department development and roles. Examples include a sales manager who transitioned to a village general manager and a care branch manager who has been promoted to village general manager. Audley’s current Care Director, Jo Lander, Head of Care, Fiona Cannon, and Group Operations Director, Ross Mounsey, started out as a Branch Manager, Deputy Care Branch Manager and General Manager, respectively.
“There continues to be a perception concern with attracting care staff,” Paul noted.
“To a number of people it’s a vocation. The benefit for carers who work for us is that they are part of a team. There’s a domiciliary Audley Care agency on each site. People in dom care are generally used to working on their own. Having domiciliary care that is based in a village means they can be part of a wider village team and see the progression that is available to them.”
Paul highlighted how three people who had joined as carers were now care branch managers, demonstrating that there was a real career path available to staff.
After setting up a care team at its newly opened Ilkley village, Audley came up with the solution of also serving the local community in order to keep its team engaged while the apartments filled up. This model has now been adopted as a permanent business model with all Audley’s villages providing care to people within a 20-mile radius.
With providing a fine dining experience central to Audley’s luxury lifestyle offering, chefs are recruited from the best local restaurants.
“The people we sell our properties to are particularly discerning,” Paul observed.
“They are a generation who have been around the world and who know what good food and service looks like. We need to make sure that we recruit chefs from a restaurant with a good reputation.”
Gert Pienaar was recruited as Head Chef of Audley Inglewood from a Michelin starred restaurant and is now Audley’s group head chef, overseeing menus up and down the country.
Inglewood’s restaurant was awarded an AA rosette last year and Audley is in the process of contacting the AA to assess the rest of its restaurants.
While having their own fitted kitchens, apartment owners tend to visit the restaurant at least once or twice a week.
“If they are coming down twice a week then we have to make sure that the level is consistently what they would expect whether that’s an omelette or a celebratory lunch on a Sunday with their family,” Paul stressed.
With each village taking several months to fill, Audley quickly found it made sense to open its restaurant to the local public to attract additional business.
“We had similar thoughts around the food and beverage operation as the care service when we were opening our second generation villages in 2010,” Paul said.
“Naturally before many owners moved in the restaurants were a lot quieter and we wanted to create an atmosphere both for the first owners, and to keep the chef interested. So we looked into whether there was a market for people from the local community to come in and eat.”
Getting people to come in from the local community initially proved a major challenge, however.
“It’s hard enough to get people across the threshold of a hotel restaurant so getting people over the threshold of a retirement village was going to be very interesting, so we were going to have create something quite special,” Paul explained.
Audley did this through a promotional offensive that included making a big noise about the recruitment of its chefs from great local restaurants.
“Through that we had a consistent level of food that got people coming through the doors and that created an atmosphere,” Paul noted.
“That created a different proposition for people to move into as opposed to an empty sleepy village. It’s part of smashing that completely inaccurate perception of walking into a retirement village that is just God’s waiting room, so it was vital to make sure we got that vitality into the villages so that when people came to have a look, they fully understood that it was a community they were coming into and not just a quiet somewhere to sit where you get put in front of the TV.”
Each village’s swimming pool, gym and studio are also open to the local community through the Audley Club.
“The sort of people who join The Audley Club are very like-minded to the people living here,” Paul noted.
“Our club members also help to get the word out into the local community about our vibrant villages by talking about our facilities.”
Each Audley village is also plugged into the local business community with their general managers members of the local Chamber of Commerce. As part of this role, their village will host occasional commerce meetings which helps spread the word to the local business community.
Audley is also active on social media with all its restaurants boasting at least four out of five TripAdvisor ratings and the group engages with local food bloggers to spread the word.
“Our kitchen team and club manager, sales team and management team will turn up wherever there is a fete or a local show to share what we do,” Paul added.
“The wider community still require us to help them understand what a retirement village is so it’s vitally important we get out there and promote it wherever we possibly can.”
While finding his hospitality background made a good fit for the retirement village model, Paul found getting up to speed with the care side of the business a steep learning curve.
“There’s regulation and the legislation of the care business,” Paul noted.
“But at its heart, it’s a people business. We are managing teams and giving them the best environments to work in. As far as they are concerned it is about delivering a level of service. We know that in certain parts of the sector people get delivered either what’s expected or what they are told they are going to get delivered.”
Audley prides itself on going the extra mile in terms of hospitality, training its carers to become ‘hospitable carers’.
“Once they go into someone’s apartment to deliver care or a service they are always trained to ask if there is anything else they can do once they come out,” Paul said.
“If they spot anything, such as the washing up or anything which requires attending to, they are taught to resolve it if required.”
Due to high demand, Audley apartments are only currently available to buy with prices ranging according to geography from £400,000 to over £1m. Paul noted that Audley might potentially explore the rental model in the future, however.
“There will come a tipping point where the generation we are aiming at will be more open to rental,” he said.
“We have undertaken extensive research and there is clearly some demand and we are continuously looking with partners at ways we can integrate and finance that when the time is right. There are no immediate plans, particularly given that current demand to buy our properties is so high.
“Rental models hold a big interest for institutional investors for the long term income streams,” Paul said.
“But it has to be customer led. Until we are satisfied that there is enough demand for it we continue to look at all the options. We currently have a sale only model because of the way we are financed. It’s quite capital heavy to create a retirement village which is the reason we started our joint venture with Octopus and Schroders.”
Apartment owners pay a monthly management fee, which only ever increases with RPI once each year, and is currently set at around £7,500 per year. At the end of the customer’s tenure when the apartments are sold, Audley’s deferred element of the Management Fee is calculated at 1% of the sale price per year of occupation, capped at 15 years.
These management fees are used to pay for staffing, village maintenance, buildings insurance and long term lifecycle investment, etc and, most importantly, to ensure each village’s services are improved year on year to ensure the continued value growth of each owner’s apartment.
Given the huge demand for quality retirement living properties, Paul said it was incumbent on the government to clarify the currently confusing planning regulations to prevent the further stifling of the market.
“The planning environment is something that will need to be sorted out in the next couple of years,” he said.
“It’s confusing for planners because there are so many different models out there. Whenever we go to a new planning area we regularly have to re-educate the planners on what it is we do.
“If you go back a decade or so when the build to rent market was about to explode and councils were not exactly sure what that was going to offer them, the government set up a steering group to analyse what the different models were and to go and speak to the councils and educate them.
“There is an opportunity for the government with the help of ARCO (Associated Retirement Community Operators) to do something similar with retirement villages.
“ARCO has a 2030 strategy covering service levels, legislation, recruitment and planning, amongst other initiatives.
“If the government is serious about serving the ageing demographic by including ARCO and some of the other associations, they can understand how we can tidy up the whole planning process.
“That will make it a lot easier for people to come into the sector but it will also tighten it up.
“The worst thing for us would be for a rogue developer to come in and make a quick buck and then the whole thing collapses. That wouldn’t be good on any of us.
“By involving ARCO we can demonstrate standardisation through the implementation and adherence to the ARCO Consumer Code, aimed at providing protection for all retirees.”
The managing director added that gaining access to land remained challenging with competition with house builders intense.
“On the evidence of the potential Mayfield sites we have seen so far, we will be working with larger developers who are looking to develop in edge of town sites,” Paul added.
“We drew up a heat map of where we should be targeting our new Mayfield brand and the whole country lit up.
“There is opportunity for at least one Audley and a Mayfield in many areas. Bristol is one such area we are looking at.”
Summing up, Paul stressed the huge growth potential of the retirement village market which would “only accelerate” in the coming decades.
He added that entry into the market by traditionally cautious investors such as Legal & General and AXA would generate further confidence and spur faster growth.
“In 15 or 16 years’ time a quarter of us are going to be over 65 and we will all want a wide choice of where to live,” Paul concluded.