Woman of the people industry

Profile: Barbara-Ann Maxwell: Nursing home operator Tamaris has staged a dramatic recovery under the ministrations of an Irish executive with a hands-on style. William Kay met her.
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The Independent Online
EVEN in these enlightened times, few women have broken through the glass ceiling to become chief executive of a public company - and of those who have, most have been in some way related to the boss. Barbara- Ann Maxwell is one of that handful who have succeeded without such help and, even more unusually, have survived the recession.

"It's a bit of a cliche," she says disarmingly, "but at the end of the day I just enjoy working in people industries."

Although Tamaris, her present company, has for the past five years or more been involved in the technicalities of property deals, leases, bank loans and ring-fenced debt, as a nursing-home operator it is at heart a people business. And, as Maxwell has adroitly realised, the key to success with lending banks lies in establishing and maintaining good personal relationships.

By 1990 the group was all but bust, thanks to disastrously low occupancy rates and falling property values to underpin billowing borrowings. "I worked extremely hard at developing relations with creditors and bankers," said Maxwell, who was born near Dublin and grew up in County Wicklow. "I kept in touch with them, ringing the banks every day at one time. When you come down to it, everything in business is personal, after all."

Such networking has paid off and now the sunny uplands beckon Tamaris. This week it is expected to announce a pounds 14m expansion which will nearly double its care beds to 800, putting it in line by the end of the year to be managing the 1,000 which would make it one of Britain's biggest nursing-home operators. This is being matched by a return to profitability which should have taken pre-tax profits above pounds 250,000 for the year that ended in March, and should reach well over double that in the current year.

Maxwell, 46, a sparky character who speaks rapidly in a lively Irish brogue, is the daughter of a pharmacist and was brought up in the Wicklow countryside. While her father's main interest was cars, Barbara-Ann and her mother were horse-riders - steeplechases, point-to-points and hunting. "My younger brother and sister, Michael and Louise, and I loved the countryside and we were a right bunch of tearaways," Barbara-Ann recalled. She went to a Quaker school and then read modern languages at Trinity College, Dublin, majoring in French.

"After I graduated I decided I wanted to work in London," she said, "so I just went through the paper until I found a suitable job." That turned out to be as a researcher with an American business consultant. But after only two years Maxwell was back in Ireland without any work lined up. Thumbing through the papers, she came across Robert J Goff & Co, one of the big Irish bloodstock auctioneers. "I rang them up and said how about a job," she said, "and the managing director said he would see me." She stayed for 10 years.

At first Goff needed someone to help fill its auction arena on the many days when it was not being used to trade horses. So Maxwell found herself selling the 700-seat auditorium for everything from pop concerts to such shows as Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and even snooker tournaments. "Alex 'Hurricane' Higgins," she sighed, raising her eyes to the ceiling, "he was the bane of our existence, forever driving his car across the lawn."

After a few years Maxwell forsook arena promotion for the mainstream bloodstock business, but the experience was valuable. "It was a great training ground," she said. "I was very closely involved with the chief executive and finance director on new projects - such as rebuilding the stables and barns - so I know how to read budgets and architects' plans. It gave me a variety of disciplines."

Goff grew, expanding to France and America, until Maxwell felt it was reaching a plateau. So she began to look back across the Irish Sea, lured by the lower income tax rates that the Thatcher government had engineered. And two of her aunts had moved to the West Country, so she knew she would have family to fall back on.

However, Maxwell was aware that her lack of professional qualifications and a career largely confined to Irish bloodstock industry did not exactly make her the hottest ticket in the London job market. Instead, she set herself up as a freelance consultant specialising in relocation and premises design.

The Irish connection helped her get her first commission, when the Bank of Ireland was packing five London offices into one, including organising the design and building of a new dealing-room. That led to an assignment for the London International Financial Futures Market, which was thinking of moving from its then home in the Royal Exchange to the space that had recently become free as a result of the business of the London Stock Exchange moving off its trading floor and on to telephones and computer screens. Maxwell's study, which was accepted, recommended that Liffe stay put.

Then, in 1988, two doctors asked Maxwell to do a survey of the nursing- home market in the South of England. It was a business she had already been looking at, for by this time her father (now deceased) was in his eighties and had been in and out of nursing homes. "I knew there had to be something better," she recalled.

The doctors bought a turn-of-the-century manor house outside Bath, and Maxwell spent a year converting it, becoming familiar with the jungle of rules and regulations surrounding the business.

However, the doctors ran out of cash at the time a group of Swedish investors was looking to rescue a then troubled Tamaris. Stephan Gadd, once of Samuel Montagu but then running his own merchant banking boutique, suggested Maxwell as an operations director.

"I was rather interested in their plans for the elderly," she said, "which were based on a Swedish-American idea of blocks of apartments, complete with swimming- pools, restaurants, and music and bridge rooms, where the residents could have access to increasing levels of care as they needed it. But I felt the Tamaris nursing homes were overvalued and that the problems were deeper than they realised. Had I known what I know today, I might have refused."

To cut debt, four of the group's seven homes were sold and Maxwell recruited new management for each home, issuing clear guidelines. The Swedes moved on, chairmen came and went, but the banks kept faith, thanks to the underlying property. By 1992 Maxwell had effectively become chief executive.

"We complement one another," said her present chairman, William Fitch. "I'm a compromiser, but she's fearless. At the same time, like a lot of women, she sizes people up intuitively. I think, as Tamaris grows, she will become more the corporate chief executive and less involved with the day-to-day business of the homes."

Maxwell freely admits that it was a great help that she had no family of her own to contend with while Tamaris was claiming all her time. Only two years ago did she enter a long-term relationship, with Andrew Tweedie, an executive on First, a quarterly business magazine.

"I didn't make a conscious decision to go for a career rather than a family," Maxwell explained, "it just happened like that. I simply didn't want to marry the men who proposed to me, and the ones I wanted didn't want me!"

They live in Wandsworth, where they garden and play tennis. But there is no shortage of places to go for country weekends, for Maxwell's mother, brother and sister have all moved to the West Country. Michael farms for Major Tom Wills of the Wills tobacco family, while Louise works for Williams Kitchens, which does outdoor catering for Badminton and the nearby members of the Royal Family.

And Maxwell has not entirely forgotten her bloodstock days. She and Andrew like to go to Ascot, Sandown Park - and, naturally, Cheltenham, where the Irish racing fraternity gather every March.

"I'd like to have more time to study form," Maxwell said wistfully. It looks as if the only form she will be seriously studying for the foreseeable future will be the balance sheet variety.