The MD of Walfinch Mid & South Bucks explains how leading from the front and investing in a solid management structure are key to success in the care sector
My career didn’t begin in the care sector. Before I became MD of Walfinch Mid & South Buckinghamshire in June 2020, I worked as a business consultant, and prior to that, founded a marketing, advertising and design agency in London, which I ran successfully for 24 years. This was a very good run for an agency in the field and a proud achievement, but after I moved out of London into Oxfordshire it was hard work maintaining close relationships with my London clients.
So much business in this sector is done through networking and socialising with clients – it’s very much a young person’s game. Not surprisingly, I became worn out with it all in my 50s and it felt like I was chasing invoices to pay staff. In 2014, things wound down to a natural conclusion as my existing clients retired or moved into other fields and I didn’t have the appetite to replace them. But I was too young to retire. I had loads of energy left to invest myself in something else.
For a few months I enjoyed being free from the shackles of responsibility, but before long I found myself getting fidgety. I felt too old to return to agency marketing; and working for someone else after running my own business would be tricky. I started to look around for another occupation where age and maturity would be seen as a positive, not a barrier.
What led to you to taking on this franchise?
People don’t often think about the care industry until it becomes relevant to their lives. For me, this happened when my mother returned from Australia with early dementia. She eventually needed to go into a care home and this was my first real contact with the sector.
As a marketer, I was struck with how care homes and businesses don’t do their own marketing very well. This got me thinking seriously about the care sector as a business prospect. Not only is it a big-ticket service (a live-in carer costs somewhere in the region of £60-70K a year) but I realised I could bring my decades of marketing experience to the table and make a real difference.
Care clients don’t want to be dealing with a young yuppie; instead, they value gravitas and experience. This revelation led me to take on the role as a business development consultant for a large, corporate, live-in care company. Simply by applying traditional marketing techniques across the vertical channels, the figures increased significantly.
After this success, I started working for other care organisations on a consultancy basis. I really enjoyed seeing the figures coming in. It was during this time that I met Amrit Dhaliwal, CEO of Walfinch, whom I door-stepped when networking for consultancy work. He got back in touch with me a few years later when he was launching Walfinch as a franchise and invited me to join his network. I was one of the first partners he approached, and it was a serious proposition for me to consider. I already knew what the figures were like in care. I’d run a successful business before. And the territory on offer was west of London, in the stockbroker belt. It was too good an opportunity to turn down.
Launching a business in domiciliary care was undoubtedly challenging in June 2020, right in the throes of the first lockdown, but I didn’t know any different and I felt very motivated. There were multiple challenges – PPE, reporting and paperwork, staff absences. For the first six months, I concentrated on getting set up and in January 2021 gained my first client.
What do you find fulfilling about your role?
I’m now three years in business and achieved healthy growth in a short space of time. I feel a tremendous sense of fulfilment as it’s mainly down to the strength of the team I’ve built and the strong management structure beneath me.
As MD, I don’t deliver care to my clients. It’s imperative to have a strong, reliable team to manage this. I made sure I was involved with everyone in the business right from the start, as the structure only works if everyone on the team respects you as the owner. The relationship I have with Gina, my registered manager, is key. I use the analogy of a restaurant to describe how it works: Gina is my head chef. She is front of house and success depends on her expertise and experience. A head chef should be considered a vital investment in any good restaurant, so I pay Gina according to the responsibility I bestow on her, which is above the going rate in the sector. She deserves this investment, and if it means she sticks around and oversees the client-facing operational side of the business, I consider it worth every penny.
What are the challenges?
When issues crop up unexpectedly, seven days a week, 365 days a year. This means you’re always switched on. In this line of work where you’re dealing with people’s lives, urgent problems can arise, and as care workers are typically on zero-hours contracts, you must expect a certain amount of unreliability with carers not turning up or leaving without notice. This is where my management team comes into its own – because I’ve invested in the best quality people, I can rely on them to firefight and deal with day-to-day issues before they reach me.
I can’t be on call seven days a week, so empowering my team to operate effectively means I’m number four on the call list when organisational problems arise. That said, I’ve never taken my foot of the gas when it comes to steering the ship. The support I’ve received from the franchise has been supercritical, and I pat myself on the back for implementing a management structure that’s enabled the business to grow while allowing for a little Greg-time!
How do you fit into the wider Walfinch network?
Walfinch is a thriving franchise network and I like its ethos. Unlike some US-owned businesses, it’s less target-driven and more focused on providing high quality care. Of course, there’s pressure to bring in the numbers, but the culture is great – I’m always having WhatsApp conversations with other MDs and, more formally, I’m chairman of the Franchise Advisory Council, where I take any issues to the network’s national support office. Navigating this highly regulated industry calls for a high level of franchisor support. There are reams of policies and procedures necessary to achieve CQC registration (the public facing regulator for care homes and businesses) and contracts and handbooks are complicated. Walfinch takes this seriously, with regular internal audits, so the responsibility on owners to be compliant and on top of admin is significant.
What’s your go-to piece of advice for successful leadership?
It’s vital as a MD that you earn the respect of your team. This only happens if you’re a good team player yourself. I come from a sporty background and consider my role as a business leader to be no different than that of a decent manager in sport – encourage your team and support your best players. No one can hide in a team, so I always lead from the front. If all the vital components are in place, staffing and management-wise, and the organisation is solid, it will thrive.
Do you have any unfulfilled ambitions left?
I think I’m at my final bus stop career-wise, but I’m not done yet. I want to keep growing the business over the next five years. There are new geographical areas to move into and I would like to explore the live-in care model. While I want to see more of the big wide world before I’m too old to travel, I consider myself fortunate – good health, happy marriage and successful grown-up children. I also have time to indulge in hobbies, like playing golf and walking in the Alps and the Lake District. I go to the gym daily, time afforded thanks to the flexibility of franchising. Keeping fit helps me stay level-headed in business, and enjoy wine and good food, two other passions in my life!