Summerset boss's challenge: to live and let live

HAMISH MCNICOL
Last updated 05:00 08/07/2014

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Julian Cook lives with more than 2900 people. And most of them can be pretty frank about what he is like to live with, as they seek to enjoy the last part of their lives, rather than have him tell them what to do.

But for Cook, the new chief executive of retirement village and aged-care operator Summerset, simply enabling the ever-growing retirement-age demographic to live their lives is what sets his business apart.

At the same time, he realises the company's biggest challenge is its own ability to grow, while maintaining this core philosophy.

"It's easy to turn these places into a factory or an institution, you know, and you want it to be a community, because OK we're a business, we want to make money.

"But the only way we'll make money is if people drive past our places and go, ‘You know what? I'd like to live there'."

Cook has been at Summerset since 2010, and though he was appointed chief executive last August, he only assumed the role in April. He has, however, known the company inside out from well before then.

Cook, who recently turned 40, grew up in Hataitai and went to Rongotai College, before studying Latin and Greek at Victoria University, which he said he "ultimately finished", still holding on to most of his old books.

But after a move to Waikato to do chemistry, which he decided was not for him, he got into finance in 1999.

"I started doing a masters of finance here, and literally three months into starting my masters I got a job at Macquarie Bank and just finished that while I was working. I saw a little piece of paper on the wall at varsity as I was wandering down the corridor, ‘Looking for a business analyst', and pulled that off."

Cook stayed at the Australian investment bank for 11 years, and it was there that he got his first introduction to Summerset and the retirement sector in 2005. Macquarie was close to buying Summerset back then, he said, which led him to tours of villages and to meet former chief executive Norah Barlow.

Then in 2009, when Quadrant Private Equity bought into Summerset, Cook was heavily involved in the deal. A year later, he was called and asked to join Summerset as chief financial officer.

"I've known this place for years, yeah, I knew what I was getting into.

"I'd known Norah and I'd known the team and I'd known the business for so long and I'd been over it, I'd analysed it for so long, I had all the models and everything and I thought, yeah, this all looks pretty good."

Cook said he enjoyed his time at Macquarie, but had reached a point where he needed to move on.

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"You work hard and then you party hard, it's great."

COOK was brought to Summerset to take it through its initial public offer, which happened six months after he arrived. But he had never envisaged one day becoming chief executive, and in fact dismissed it when Barlow first floated the idea.

"To start off with I said, ‘No, why would I do that'. But slowly she kind of worked on me and slowly I sort of saw what you could do with the business."

Barlow announced her retirement last August, having run the company for 12 years, though she has stayed on as a director.

Though Cook officially took the role from her in April, the two had effectively been a "tag team" for the large part of a year, he said.

"You would look at us and go, you wouldn't see two more different people, you know, but the funny thing is, I always say, when we talk about business, we always seem to agree.

"But it is different because now the buck does kind of stop with me and I can't sort of hide behind Norah."

Cook said only a handful of people had the sort of industry experience Barlow had, and he continued to ring her up to bounce ideas.

In the next year Summerset was starting on four new villages, as it built up to its target of 300 new residences a year in 2015.

But these plans were about continued "evolution" rather than a "revolution" of the plans already in place, he said.

"We've got a lot of work to do to get to a fully fledged corporate.

"And that's a lot about systems and processes and people, that's going to be quite a big theme for us for the next few years."

Cook said demand, funding, landing and an ability to grow were all givens for the business.

The baby boomer generation of customers was about to really take off in the next five years, which gave Summerset about three or four years to prepare.

The biggest challenge, however, was growing fast, but in an efficient manner.

"We don't want to waste money on the way through; we want to make money, right?

"We're a business and we need to make profits and so we want to make as much as we can."

But it could ill-afford to turn into a "nasty corporate that hides in your ivory tower", he said.

This meant putting the customers first and supporting and listening to them as much as possible.

"You're living with your customer, it is quite intimate actually. All our little quirks and their little quirks, you've got to be able to manage and deal with that sort of stuff."

More than 2900 residents live at Summerset villages throughout the country.

- Stuff

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