Summerset CEO down to earth

Summerset chief executive Norah Barlow (centre) with Summerset at Bishopscourt residents (from...
Summerset chief executive Norah Barlow (centre) with Summerset at Bishopscourt residents (from left) Carole Stringer, David Paulin and Margaret and Bob Marshall. Photo by Craig Baxter.

As construction at the Summerset at Bishopscourt retirement village in Dunedin continues, business reporter Sally Rae meets the woman at the helm of Summerset, a company which has grown to be the third largest operator and second largest developer of retirement villages in New Zealand.

She has been dubbed ''Auntie Norah'' by one Summerset resident.

Spend a few minutes with Summerset chief executive Norah Barlow and it is easy to be captivated by her engaging, candid and down-to-earth manner.

But behind the highly personable exterior is also the rather remarkable story of a determined woman, with a sharp business acumen, who has gone from being a young wife and mother juggling parenting with part-time study and work to being at the helm of a multimillion-dollar company.

During a visit to Dunedin's Summerset at Bishopscourt in Shetland St - a $40 million investment by the Wellington-based retirement village and aged-care operator - Mrs Barlow warmly greets residents.

She admires a keen gardener's efforts in growing vegetables in containers at the front of one unit and kicks off her shoes to view his fuchsias indoors.

Her satisfaction in seeing older people being able to retain their independence, while enjoying a sense of community, is genuine.

Mrs Barlow, who is in her mid-50s, has been with Summerset since 1999, initially as the company's accountant before becoming chief executive in 2001.

Summerset's business was founded by John O'Sullivan in 1994 in the Kapiti and Horowhenua regions of the lower North Island. In 1997, the first 14 retirement units and an aged-care hospital were built in Wanganui.

Mrs Barlow has led the company from being a small family-run operator to a listed company with 16 villages, more than 2200 residents and about 500 staff.

The Summerset Group operates villages in Aotea, Dunedin, Hamilton, Hastings, Havelock North, Katikati, Levin, Manukau, Napier, Nelson, Palmerston North, Paraparaumu, Taupo, Trentham, Wanganui and Warkworth, and has four further land sites in the North Island.

Being the boss of such a large company was a demanding position - ''there's no question'' - and it was an all-consuming job.

She admitted she probably had not given enough time to her family but, if her family ever needed her, she would always be there, including for the impending arrival of her third grandchild.

Her daughter might have scheduled her Caesarean birth around her mother's work commitments but she would ''drop everything, absolutely everything to see that baby''.

''Nothing else will come in the way,'' she said.

She was immensely proud of her two children and her two grandchildren, with two more in the offing, and when she won two awards at the inaugural Women in Governance awards in Auckland earlier this month, a highlight was having her family with her.

She was born in Liverpool in 1957 but her parents decided they wanted a new life away from the English city. Manchester, Canada and New Zealand were on the selection list.

New Zealand was eventually chosen and the family moved in 1960 and settled in Wellington. It was a big decision to make, leaving family and friends behind.

''I don't know how they did it,'' Mrs Barlow said.

She recalled her mother telling how she did not know that her father (Mrs Barlow's grandfather) had died until a week later when the telegram arrived, and it took a week's wages to make the telephone call back home.

Describing herself as ''one of those high achievers at school'', she was accepted to go to Oxford University ''but found out I had to sit UE to do it and decided it was far too difficult''.

After the first year of studying towards a BCA (commerce degree) at Victoria University, she discovered she was pregnant.

A mother at 19 - with a second child born several years later - she combined part-time study with part-time work.

Ask how she managed to juggle parenting, study and work and she is matter-of fact.

''Honestly, with great difficulty. I look back and think: `I couldn't do it now'.''

She would regularly enrol for three university papers - and regularly finished one - but felt she would have let herself down by not completing her degree, she said. She returned to university for one full-time year to gain the qualification and was about 32 when she completed it.

She later started her own accounting practice, which grew to about 500 clients, and one of her early clients was Summerset founder John O'Sullivan.

When he eventually asked her to join Summerset permanently, it was a big decision - but also one which was quite an easy to make, she said.

While she loved her practice and her clients - most were still friends - the work involved ''doing the same thing all the time'' but for different people.

What she liked about Summerset was that it was ''just going places'' and there was going to be a chance to make a difference.

At her practice, she was in an advisory capacity and it was the client who ultimately made the decision but, at Summerset, she was able to make decisions.

It had been an interesting journey ''in a good sense of interesting''. Summerset had gone from being a smaller provider of smaller villages, with relatively low numbers, through to being listed on the New Zealand stock exchange, and then, most recently, the Australian stock exchange.

Summerset had always aspired to building 20 villages in 20 years, although in the early years, those visions were ''a bit hard to imagine'', especially having facilities throughout New Zealand.

She believed the success of the company was because of the people involved, who cared about what they were doing.

Summerset was well funded, had the right product - integrated care and independent living - supportive shareholders and a strong board.

In the early years, the issues were smaller ''but we knew we were forging something''. There had been continuous changes with governance, as ownership moved from private shareholders to becoming a corporate entity when bought by AMP and then to listing.

It had also been interesting ''being a woman in all of this''. While women dominated in a care sense in the industry, she was involved with development and development was ''male dominated''.

She was often the only woman in the boardroom ''so at least everyone knows my name''. But she urged more women to see the opportunities being in business could bring, and for businesses to see the opportunities from having women in leadership roles.

She wanted to see more women involved in business but ''not because they are women''. She was humbled about receiving the gender diversity in leadership, and excellence in leadership and governance awards at the Women in Governance Awards.

It was also a good boost for Summerset, where there were so many women in all facets of the company. Three of six members of the Summerset executive team, including Mrs Barlow, are female.

She is also on the National Advisory Council for the Employment of Women, an independent advisory body to the Minister of Women's Affairs, a role she was enjoying.

Her personal belief was that as long as women had an ''unfettered ability'' to do what they chose to do - whether it was a stay-at-home mother or a chief executive - then it had been a success.

Mrs Barlow is also immediate past-president of the Retirement Villages Association of New Zealand. She was involved with the formation of the Retirement Villages Act 2003 and was also instrumental in leading the sector's approach to the formation of the Retirement Villages Code of Practice.

Asked what she believed her strengths were, Mrs Barlow said she was probably conciliatory, she had a ''level of intelligence'' - ''I think that's always important'' - and hopefully she was able to see alternative points of view.

''I don't think I'm really a stress person. I'm pretty much `what you see is what you kind of get'. I don't have big big stress-outs and I don't internalise it. Who I yell at is my husband [Robert] ... he just ignores me, actually.''

She also knew about development so that had been a strength for the company. While not a nurse, she believed that probably gave her greater respect for the work that Summerset staff did.

''I realise it's not easy,'' she said.

Her mantra has always been that if ''I can't tell my mother something, we can't do it at Summerset''.

''You all can relate to 'Can you tell your mother?','' she said.

Mrs Barlow was not out and about among the Summerset sites as much as she used to be but, over the past two weeks, she had been to Manukau, Warkworth, Hamilton, Katikati, Dunedin and Hawkes Bay.

Seeking a quieter pace of life was not on the agenda. There were so many plans ahead for Summerset, to keep growing, keep profitability increasing and making sure the product continued to be ''right''.

It was a competitive industry, with lots of choices, and she expected there would be more choice as time went on.

- sally.rae@odt.co.nz

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