1 Nov 22 - General

It all began with a cherished nana

The doors to the first Summerset village opened 25 years ago

Get ready to blow out the candles, it’s our 25th birthday! A quarter of a century ago, the doors to the first Summerset village opened, borne from a desire to create a home good enough for founder John O’Sullivan’s beloved nana. Now, a quarter of a century on, we have grown from our grassroots beginning in Wanganui to a publicly listed, trans-Tasman company, with 33 villages across New Zealand and Australia, and 16 more in the pipeline. Our guiding principle is still the conviction that our villages must be good enough for yourself, your parents, or your nana, but more than that, we want to bring the best of life to our residents.

In her 90s, John’s grandmother had become unwell and had moved from her home into a publicly funded geriatric ward. John was disgusted at the lack of space and privacy on offer and felt it was an affront to her dignity. “My nana was in what was basically a dormitory with only a plastic curtain between beds,” John remembers. “The room she had was so pokey you could stretch out your arms and touch all four walls. And all facilities were shared – nothing was hers; nothing was private. When I investigated the market, I found aged care was all like that.”

John and Rose O'Sullivan and John's nana, Mary Finnerty

Care for the elderly had always been the preserve of the state, but in the late 1990s the government was looking to move out of it. John, along with his wife Rose, called upon their combined background in hotel management, property development, and geriatric nursing, and in 1997 bought the site of the former East Wanganui Tennis Club. Their original goal was to provide a higher calibre of rest home level care, but John decided to build a few units on the excess land. These units proved extremely popular with seniors who wanted to keep their independence but liked the reassurance that help would be at hand if needed, thus creating a retirement lifestyle that offered a continuum of care.

Summerset’s Operations Business Manager Sonia Pratt was working in Wanganui at the time. “The idea of a retirement village was so new to Wanganui. It added another dimension of life for older people. I remember it being very flash, and lots of people wanted to go and have a look. There was a lot of talk about the villas being high-end and the gardens being well looked after. The new village was about inclusion and community, and that was all very new at the time.”

With the ethos of community and quality front of mind John and Rose brought on their accountant Norah Barlow to help grow Summerset. A vital partnership, John had the vision and the nerve to buy the land, while Norah drove the finances and ensured ideas became reality. Norah became Summerset’s first CEO and was a driving force in turning Summerset from a small family run business to an NZX listed company with a staff of over 2,000 and multiple offices across the country. “Listing Summerset meant that we could build with equity, rather than debt from the bank. We made it clear to shareholders that rather than paying big dividends, we would be putting the profits back in to our villages.”

Construction at Paraparaumu, 1999

This principle of reinvestment has continued, allowing Summerset to continue to explore how to do things better, for our residents, our staff, and the environment. A house is made a home through personal touches so residents can customise their villas, gardens and bring their pets along too. To foster community spirit, villages hold weekly Happy Hour drinks, usually in the village centre, although during Covid-19 village golf carts were repurposed as mobile bars visiting residents! Every village has an activity coordinator who plans outings and adventures to the local areas and beyond. Covid-19 gave us an opportunity to bring some activities online, our monthly Big Quiz, Cooking with a MasterChef, and An Interview With are just some of the activities residents across the country can access at the same time.

We know security and peace of mind is paramount. Five years ago, we introduced the first of our industry leading memory care centres, which offer apartment style living designed specifically for residents living with dementia. We are an accredited dementia friendly organisation, and all staff undertake dementia training. We have also invested in Kaitiaki — wellbeing assistants — to provide our most vulnerable residents with quality time and activities.

Sustainability and environmentally kind are not merely buzzwords to us. We know that building new communities can be resource intensive, which is why recent initiatives include solar panels in Summerset in the Sun and redesigning our village centres with sustainability and futureproofing top of mind. Summerset is also the only retirement village operator in New Zealand to be a signatory to the Climate Leaders Coalition, which has the aim of mitigating businesses’ effect upon the environment.

Finally, we think the secret of Summerset’s success across 25 years is the people who work here. All our permanent staff receive shares in the company, and we pride ourselves on our competitive salaries for our nurses and care workers. But it’s more than just about the perks. Our staff believe in our ethos and our mission, which is to bring the best of life to our residents. We must be doing something right, Sales Manager Brent Davis has been here for more than 20 years, and several staff members have themselves decided to retire to a Summerset village.

Love the life you choose