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Business Leadership

by Suhail Mirza


Passion And Leadership In The Social Care Sector

Last year Suhail Mirza interviewed Paul Marriner, CEO of Lifeways Group for Caring Times. Here he shares his career journey starting as a nurse, and his thoughts on business leadership in the challenging and crowded social care sector. Find out about his inspirations and vision, and how this has influenced his leadership style and success.

Leadership Qualities Needed For Health Sector Success

Paul Marriner is CEO of Lifeways Group, which is one of the UK’s leading providers of support services for people with learning disabilities and other diverse and complex needs in community settings. The business, established in 1995, currently supports more than 6000 tenants and individuals, employs more than 10,000 staff and has a turnover in excess of £230 million.

“It’s been a busy year for the business and I guess the acquisition of the learning disabilities business of Care UK (which turned over more than £50 million) was a significant milestone,” Paul explains.

Lifeways clearly seems to have taken that on board with its service offerings and its history of high profitability – partly thanks to the lessons put forward by one of the most influential business books of the past decade, Blue Ocean Strategy (W Chan Kim & Renee Mauborgne, Harvard Business Review Press 2005). Its authors argue most companies compete in a ‘red ocean’, ie in an overcrowded market where margins are continually driven down. Kim and Mauborgne suggest that to succeed the key is to differentiate one’s offering by establishing a presence in an uncontested market (the ‘blue ocean’) where margins are greater.

“Supported living is the core and largest part of our business and within that we have been different as the first provider to successfully develop and deliver a new model of purpose- built supported living services for people with diverse and complex needs,” says Paul. “We have also branched into more specialist segments of the market, including acquired brain injury as well as a wide range of mental health services.”

Sporting background

Today Paul is widely recognised across the social care sector for his contribution, not least advocating innovation. And yet his initial career aspirations were not related to social care at all.

“I grew up in Yorkshire in a working class family passionate about sports. I played rugby league semi-professionally, football, badminton, and my real passion was table tennis. During my A levels I wanted to be a policeman. I applied but was told I had to wait 18 months for commencement of training and then the miners’ strike was looking likely.

“I was very close to my late grandfather, John who, particularly later in his life, was severely physically disabled. In the late 1970s I used to attend a day centre with him in Pontefract, which during the day was a centre for people with learning disabilities. My aunt said I would make a good nurse given my empathy and ability to interact with people, so I thought ‘why not?’”

He duly qualified as a nurse and then in mental health (“back then we were called mental handicap nurses!”). Having spent over nine years in the NHS, including the last four as a community nurse in Leeds, he joined the independent sector in 1993 with what was then Northern Life Care. This move had a lasting impact on his professional career.

“I was blessed to have a superb mentor there in Dorothy Jarvis Lee, who was an innovative thinker in the world of social care. Back then, more than 20 years ago, we were providing supported living almost exclusively. Indeed, one of my first roles was to work towards closing down a 17-bed residential care facility. The business was ahead of its time. My time there added to my inspiration to make a difference and think differently.”

Paul flourished and was promoted to Regional Manager and then became Head of Development. He found time, in 1994, to complete a degree in health and social care in the process too.

Roles at Lifeways

He eventually joined Lifeways in 2000 (having ignored the entreaties to meet the founder for more than six months) and moved to Devon (with his wife Tracie and then baby daughter Caitlin). At the time Lifeways had just 100 service users and 150 staff. By 2007 Paul had been promoted first to Development Director and then combined Development & Operations Director. During this time the business had experienced explosive growth and now served 900 services users and employed 1500 staff.

“I worked hard and had faith that supported living models offered real opportunities to service users to live and be connected with a community and realise their self-worth. The supported living model also offered value for money for commissioners and I was confident that, commercially, due to demographic trends, there was a great opportunity to grow the business.”

At this juncture the founders of the business wished to retire and Paul took up the opportunity to realise his vision and lead a management buyout with the backing of August Equity. This proved a spectacularly successful meeting of minds.

“August Equity shared my deep passion for quality. It was the item that led all board meetings and we knew that this, together with innovation, would distinguish our business.”

Over the next five years Lifeways, through both organic growth and acquisitions, grew exponentially. By the time OMERS PE (the private equity arm of one of Canada’s largest pension funds), backed a secondary management buyout led by Paul, Lifeways served 3000 service users and had more than 5000 staff.

Paul highlights that the deal was good for both August Equity and OMERS PE, with August doing exceptionally well after five years. He further mentions OMERS PE’s passion for quality and financial strength as key enables of growth they have enjoyed since 2012.

Paul’s mastery of the numbers matches his encyclopedic understanding of care.

“I have an affinity with numbers, did an A level in maths and also fancied being an accountant. I did complete an MBA in 2004 but left being a qualified accountant to my wife Tracie!”

Strategy for growth

The last three years have witnessed a continuation of Lifeways’ impressive growth and this includes several acquisitions, culminating in the Care UK transaction of earlier this year.

John Kotter, a Harvard Business School scholar, has emphasised that truly outstanding leaders need to have a clear vision in which their colleagues have belief and be able to inspire them to continually make the changes needed to realise it. Paul personifies those ideas.

“My leadership team shares my passion for empowering all our service users to receive the best person-centred care and support that enables them to make choices about their lives and to live as independently as possible. In fact, the senior leadership team has been with me since 2008 and having that continuity has been key to our growth.”

And how does Lifeways seek to establish itself as a leader in its markets?

“Quality of service is paramount. This has always been so but, particularly in light of recent scandals, the scrutiny of independent sector providers has never been greater. In that regard we have Quality Focus Groups that meet regularly and we also ensure the individuals we support are also involved in our quality team’s independent audits of services. This ensures all have optimal involvement in the delivery of care.”

He adds that equally important is the culture and values of staff in any care organisation,

“We have adopted a Recruitment Toolkit which ensures there is a nexus or bond between staff and service users in that its aim is to ensure nobody is recruited without some input from people who receive support.”

Paul is a champion of community-based care provision and his days within the NHS have provided him with an empathy to the challenges facing commissioners.

“We have long advocated a move away from silo-based thinking,” he says. “We welcome adoption of a holistic, whole-systems model of care and support where, through transparency and collaboration, providers and commissioners can join up health and social care delivery. This promotes service user choice and also offers best value; critically important at a time of restraint on the public purse.”

Forging partnerships

Paul remains driven to improve the extent of choice and control vulnerable adults have about their models of care:

“Too many adults are not getting the care and support they deserve and live in inappropriate settings. To redress this Lifeways has partnered with investors and housing associations to deliver a purpose-built flat scheme model that works for both some of the most complex individuals or individuals who require small amounts of support each week; Lifeways delivers the 24/7 care and support and the scheme makes full use of assistive technology.”

Paul may be the CEO of a £230m turnover business with aspirations to grow much further, but he remains very much hands on and spends time every week in services “rolling up my sleeves and being close to where care and support is delivered”. The spark that was lit in Pontefract looking after his grandfather all those years ago clearly burns brightly today.


I hope this insight into the career and leadership style of Paul Marriner will provide you with an insight into the factors that make a successful business leader, whether in social care or in other sectors. If you would like to contribute your thoughts on leadership in the health sector, please leave a comment below.







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About the Author

Suhail Mirza

Suhail brings a unique level of insight and business experience to the challenging health and health care market. This insight and Alium's ability to source the best people this industry and wider will help enable the many changes needed across this industry. Suhail works with leading healthcare providers across both the NHS and private health market, delivering the right experts and team resources by accessing our comprehensive health talent pool.

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