Stories of Growth

Graeme Lee, Springfield Healthcare: “I gave my mum my word”

As part of our Stories of Growth series, we hear from a founder that’s developing and managing care facilities across the North of England.

8 July 2022

BGF invested £4.4 million in Springfield Healthcare in 2012. The business was our 10th investment and our very first in Yorkshire. Through a series of follow-on investments, the total amount received by Springfield Healthcare now exceeds £30 million.

Find out more about the business and its growth journey to date, in this in-depth interview with the founder, Graeme Lee.

Graeme Lee, Founder of Springfield Healthcare

My mum and dad had a small care home in east Leeds, where I grew up. Every time we welcomed a new resident, I would move bedrooms. Those are the abiding memories I have of my childhood. I thought it was normal to watch TV in the evenings with seven old ladies.

I grew up with a real empathy for older people. When I was a teenager, I worked in the family care home to let mum have a lie in on Saturdays. That was fantastic because I chatted to the residents, asked what they wanted and made their breakfast.

I realised from a young age how amazing older people are. Often, the people who don’t brag about their lives and keep themselves to themselves have incredible stories to tell. But you wouldn’t know unless you asked. I also saw how vulnerable they were.

“I looked at it and thought: it needs M&S-ing”

I went off and had a retail career with Marks & Spencer, becoming a senior manager. In January 1994, mum wasn’t well. She thought she had flu but it was terminal cancer. It took her in four weeks. I promised my mum I would look after dad and the business, so that was how I came back.

Dad wanted to sell it. He didn’t think he could go on without her. But I had given her my word. He decided to retire and I started running the family business.

I looked at it and thought: it needs M&S-ing. M&S was a great brand, one of the leaders in the high street, regarded as a leader in staff relations and benefits. Its strapline was: the customer is always right. I took that attitude as I extended the care home, adding ensuites to all the rooms, and from there I developed my care village concept, opening up a series of new sites.

Heart of the community

The care village concept is quite simple, really. I wanted to create bigger care homes in the heart of the community with coffee shops, cinemas, bistros, you name it. Older people still aspire to be part of the communities they live in.

I found a site in Seacroft in East Leeds. Within 100 metres, it had a GP surgery, a pub and a library. The village green was right there as well, alongside the bus terminus, village hall and more. I bought that in 2009 with my own money.

It had been derelict for 25 years. It had two listed buildings on it, so developing it wasn’t easy. I spent two years trying to get planning permission. When I finally got it, the world was in financial meltdown. No banks were lending.

“My nine-year-old said her friend’s dad had money to invest. This turned out to be true.”

My daughter, who was nine at the time, said one of her friends’ dads had a new job with money to invest, and I should go and talk to him. This turned out to be true. We happened to meet each other on a train coming back from Harrogate. He said he worked for BGF and wanted to invest in good quality small and mid-sized businesses with potential.

This was on a Thursday. He came over on Sunday to talk me through what BGF was, and that was the start of the journey. BGF invested in June 2012.

People of their word

I was the tenth business BGF invested in and the first in Yorkshire. I met Stephen Welton, then CEO of BGF, in York for breakfast. He explained BGF’s approach: they would be minority stakeholders; they wouldn’t try to get the last pound of flesh in the deal; they never wanted to be obsessed with monetary issues but instead would focus on backing quality management.

The approach resonated with me. I was anxious about taking on investment. I was going to have a financial director and a chairman for the first time, and a BGF investor on the board. It was a big step. But I felt comfortable after that meeting, and ten years on, I can say that everyone I’ve dealt with at BGF has been a person of their word.

BGF has done a number of follow-on investments. They have invested £30 million in the business now, which makes Springfield one of their largest investments.

BGF were there for us through COVID and I’m very grateful for that. All my care home managers were sent a hamper, which I thought was very caring. They are fair and honourable people. It’s been a fruitful and positive journey and an absolute success story.

“BGF are fair and honourable people. It’s been an absolute success story.”
Chocolate Works, Leeds, a care home developed by Springfield Healthcare

Real, not pastiche

I now have six purpose-built or converted care homes or villages. In total there are 550 care beds, all with an ensuite, all of the highest quality and all in the heart of communities with services like hair salons, spas and restaurants.

They are all different. One of my favourites is the Chocolate Works in York, in the old Terry’s chocolate factory (pictured). When I bought it, it had been empty for 11 years. Water was pouring in and it was deteriorating. It took me three years to get planning permission, but I was determined to make it a success.

One of the main features was a market square. I had sleepless nights about that square. It had to look real, not pastiche – real lampposts, real shop fronts, an oak tree. It caused me two years of, ‘Oh my god, what if this doesn’t work’. But now everyone says it’s amazing.

For me, it’s great to see older people being housed in this historic building. And it’s a nod to a great company that had brought such joy to people and employed so many. Five years ago, that site won an award for the best care village in the UK.

Going the extra mile

There have been difficulties along the way. Because I’m trying to be innovative and break new ground, that brings pressure. We also have the challenge of workforce. Post-COVID and post-Brexit, a lot of European workers have gone home and can’t get back. The workforce is not as mobile as it was.

Every sector is struggling for staff and care is a real vocation. If you have the right people, who are passionate and care, you can train them to do anything. But you can’t train them to care.

“You can’t train people to care”

The pandemic tested my teams to the limit. We have 1,400 staff across the group and they are amazing. There was such pressure, they were working incredible hours and in social isolation. I’m so proud of them all. If ever you need a sign to remind you why you do this, watching my team going the extra mile in Covid was it.

Taking all the things I learned as a child, this is my chance to create amazing environments with amazing care for older people. In the 70s and 80s, care homes didn’t have a good reputation. People would say to their grandkids, ‘Whatever you do, don’t put me in a care home’. I’ve set about trying to change that.

Springfield is a real family business. My elder sister and her husband work here. I have two amazing children; my son works with me now. I want to improve on what my mum and dad started. I’m still driven by that promise I made to my mum all those years ago.

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