Norah Barlow kisses the receptionist on the cheek when she walks into Wellington’s Summerset retirement village at Porirua, one of 21 sites the company she has been running for 12 years owns across the country.
When the village manager spies Barlow from her office, she ends a phone call to greet the chief executive of NZX-listed Summerset Group Holdings. Barlow gives her a hug.
It is the day after she announced her retirement. The decision to leave at age 55, although she’ll stay on the board as a director, comes almost two years after leading the company in an IPO (initial public offering) that made her the only female chief executive of a listed company on the NZX50.
Summerset’s current chief financial officer, Julian Cook, will become CEO when Barlow exits in April. Just this week the company announced half year profits for the six months to June were up 174 per cent on the same time last year. Why would she want to leave now?
“What better time to turn around and say there are no issues in the company, it is all running smoothly, profits have been fantastic, development numbers have all been achieved and there is the ability for the CFO to step into the CEO role. Why not?”
Barlow has been involved with Summerset since its inception when professional contacts of hers, John O’Sullivan and his wife Rose, started the business in 1994. She had an accounting consultancy at the time, Barlow McCormack, and worked on Summerset’s accounts from the beginning before joining the company full-time in 1999.
“I’ve lived and breathed Summerset. John and Rose had that entrepreneurial spirit and I was the accountant who said ‘you can do this, you can’t do that’ or ‘we have to raise this much money’. My job was to make John’s vision a reality, to make sure we could afford it. Eventually a bigger vision became possible.”
Retirement villages have come a long way since the mid-1990s when, Barlow says, the majority were public provisions run more like the geriatric ward she worked at part time as a high school student in Porirua. There, elderly were undressed and bathed in a “production line”.
The trend has moved towards homelier retirement villages with, in Summerset’s case, a mix of apartments for independent living right through to care rooms for “advanced needs”.
Residents buy licenses to occupy units owned by Summerset. They can keep their pets when they move in and grandchildren can come to stay. The villages have active communal social calendars with activities like tai chi and line dancing, and shared areas where retirees can gather to watch movies or share a cup of tea. About 80 per cent of residents participate in activities while others prefer to keep to themselves.
As chief executive of a retirement village company, making sure staff “look after people in the right way” kept Barlow up at night. That’s not surprising after a resident at a rival provider was found by her daughter smeared with her own faeces on several occasions.
“I don’t think you can totally prevent it because people with dementia do wipe faeces on the wall and that is a really hard fact of life. That is not an unusual occurrence. It is so hard to think that some lovely person who would never have done this ever in their lives will get to a certain stage, with a certain condition, and think to do that. It’s true though. The problem is they didn’t react quickly enough.”
For some residents who prefer to be left alone, Summerset has staff subtly check the person has been sighted each day. “You can’t just knock on the door and say ‘are you alive’ when they’ve made it clear they want independence.”
Barlow’s path to leading a multi- million dollar, dual-listed company has been what she calls “unusual”. She was always a high achiever at school growing up in Titahi Bay and never saw being female as something to hold her back. “Top girl meant nothing to me if you weren’t top of the class,” she says.
Educated at Wellington’s Viard College in the school’s second year of operation, Barlow puts her confidence down in part to being one of the students who created the school with no older kids around to be intimidated by.
Her marks were high.
“I was in the history club, got Sportswoman of the Year, was second in the school or something ridiculous in German”. She went straight to university from sixth form. At 18 years old she was due to transfer to Oxford University when she fell pregnant to her then- fianc, Robert, with their daughter Trish. Two years later they had a son, Michael.
“That put me back, university took a back seat. I had a very clear plan, was going to go overseas. I don’t know if I even would have had children if that hadn’t happened but it was the best thing that ever did. I’m eternally grateful.”
Throughout her late teens and twenties as a young mum she studied part time at Victoria University while working jobs at KFC, sewing and making toys at home and packing bacon for her husband, a butcher.
She didn’t qualify as an accountant until she was 32.
Looking back, she sees having children young as an advantage. Childcare was easier when she entered the workforce and she now enjoys being a younger grandmother.
Barlow thinks it is “quite sad” there will be no female chief executives at any of the bigger companies listed on the New Zealand stock exchange once she finishes.
“Women need to have good role models, to see the possibilities … I think women need to have much more self belief. Never stop learning. Never think ‘I know enough’ or ‘I’ve reached enough potential’ or ‘I’ve had children young so therefore I can’t do this’.
“That’s a load of rubbish. You can do whatever you want to do, whenever you want to do it. You just have to decide to do it.”
Grant Williamson, director of sharebroking firm Hamilton Hindin Greene, says Barlow is a very well respected leader.
“What she’s managed to do with Summerset at her time there has been nothing short of spectacular. I think she has done a marvellous job and I’m sure shareholders will be sorry to see her move over to just being a director. They obviously have quite strong leadership there.”
Forsyth Barr senior equity analyst Jeremy Simpson agreed.
“They’ve done a very good job of doing everything they’ve said they would do in their IPO documentation. Getting a business to the point to undertake an IPO is a big exercise that would have been a lot of effort … they’ve come out the other side well.”
After Sunday Star Times took a photo of Barlow sitting near residents with a coffee at the Porirua village’s in-house cafe, she asked that we wait ten minutes before finishing the shoot outside. She wanted to sit down with the residents to finish her drink, and knew them by name.
“I’ve written you a letter,” one elderly man said to her.
“I haven’t received it yet,” she replied.
“Oh. Well, I just wrote to tell you that you’ve changed the face of retirement villages in New Zealand.”
Barlow plans to look at taking up more governance roles that interest her when she leaves Summerset next year, at companies that involve a focus on people.
“I think there is a lack of skills around the board table in terms of understanding people drivers. They’re important, people. I think the boards miss a bit of that.”
She plans to give her son a hand opening his second Sprig & Fern pub in Wellington and spend more time with her two grandchildren and two more coming soon.
“I love change. I’ve just loved what I’m doing so much. To be honest, I don’t think of myself as anything other than the girl at KFC.”
Partner: Barlow McCormack accounting consultancy partner 1992 – 1999
Chief executive: Summerset 1999 – April 2014. Immediate past president of the Retirement Villages Association of New Zealand. Summerset has more than 2000 residents and is listed on the NZX and ASX exchanges.
Originally published in the Sunday Star Times