Business Hub: Bupa boss Carolyn Cooper – from the ER to heading $1.6b business

Carolyn Cooper is the only woman to head one of New Zealand’s six major national retirement village businesses.

But “I never see it like that. I see myself as a leader of a village and aged care business and I happen to be a woman. It’s not held me back,” says the managing director of Bupa Villages & Aged Care NZ.

Cooper is also the only nurse to head a large retirement village business, having worked in the health system for more than 40 years.

Around 47,000 New Zealanders live in properties owned by Arvida Group, Bupa, Metlifecare, Oceania Healthcare, Ryman Healthcare and Summerset Group.

Cooper moved out of nursing and into health management roles, to the point where she now heads a business with $1.6 billion of assets in this country. But she says working on the healthcare front line taught her many skills now useful in management.

Bupa has 54 New Zealand locations and 5000 residents.The business has about 4000 staff and has 36 villages with care homes, and another 18 stand-alone care homes.

“We’re also building on five sites: Napier, Whangārei, Prebbleton, Crofton Downs in Wellington and Palmerston North. We’re spending around $100m a year on our development.”

Cooper grew up on a Wairarapa farm and chose nursing because her mother and aunts were nurses. She thought about hairdressing, “but I don’t have the artistic skills for that”.

She trained at Masterton Hospital, since re-named Wairarapa Health, “and it was a great place because you got lots of opportunities to do lots of things and I specialised in emergency nursing. Lots of trauma and drama and things I can’t share because it might shock people. Some of them are quite funny but it’s people’s personal lives.”

She fondly recalls Masterton nursing, saying she often knew patients personally or their families.

From Masterton, she became charge nurse manager of the emergency department at Hutt Valley Health, “a great change for me”.

On emergency nursing, she says, “it’s kept me quite calm in my career because emergency situations are unpredictable. People walk in and all hell will break loose. You have to stay calm. That can translate into a whole lot of things in careers. It’s like a duck: calm on the surface, busy underneath.

“I loved suturing because it’s such an achievement. Someone comes in with a big gaping wound. You can have it all nice and tidy,” says the qualified registered general and obstetric nurse.

Cooper has never kept count of how many lives she’s saved or helped save “and most emergency nurses wouldn’t”.

She was in a lecture theatre at Christchurch Hospital when the February 2011 earthquake hit. “Being underground and close to the river, it was vigorous shaking. The lights went out. I was standing while everyone else was sitting, so I managed to get myself to a safer place. Then we got out of the building and drove over to Princess Margaret Hospital because that was where the crisis management team was. A trip that would usually take 10 minutes took over two hours. The road was opening in front of you. I was responsible for Burwood and Princess Margaret Hospital. We needed to get back there.”

As well as nursing and management skills, Cooper has other qualifications: a specialist diploma in public sector management from Massey University and she is a fellow of the Australian College of Health Service Managers.

She has been executive director of clinical operations for the Illawarra Shoalhaven Local Health District in New South Wales, general manager for the Canterbury District Health Board and chief operating officer at Wairarapa and Hutt Valley district health boards.

In 2017 she joined Bupa as director of clinical service improvement. Later that year she became its chief operating officer, and in November 2018 accepted a secondment to the role of interim chief operating officer of Bupa Australia, with 72 aged care homes.

She returned to New Zealand in July 2019, when she was appointed managing director of Bupa NZ.

Cooper is on the advisory board of InterRAI NZ, which provides clinical assessment tools used in aged residential care, the board of the Aged Care Association and the executive committee of lobby group the Retirement Villages Association. She is also a member of the national aged residential care steering group.

Compared with the other big listed operators, Bupa is more regionally and smaller-town focused. “We are right from the Kauri Coast to Riverton in the south,” says Cooper. “We’ve got locations in Pahiatua and Dannevirke and Gore – smaller areas like that. We do have a number in cities as well but we’re more widespread [than larger operators]. We have about 70 per cent care and 30 per cent village.”

The sector’s two biggest challenges are a lack of government funding and a labour shortage, she says. “And the two are linked. We would pay our staff more if we had more funding.”

Then there is the challenge of dealing with Covid-19. The outbreak hit Bupa’s Gladys Mary Care Home in Napier last year, “but we’re very fortunate to manage it extremely well. There were no poor outcomes. Staff were for 61 days in full PPE. Six residents in the dementia unit got it. They all survived.”

Bupa Care Services NZ, with its headquarters in Newmarket, is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Bupa Aged Care Holdings of Australia, but the ultimate parent company is British United Provident Association Limited of Britain, according to its accounts. It is funded through retained earnings and borrowings, predominantly corporate bonds. It says it reinvests profits into providing more and better care for the benefit of current and future customers.

The company declared total assets of $1.6 billion for the year to December 31, 2020, up from $1.4b the previous year. Of that, $1.07b is property, up from $950m previously.

“It is a big business,” says Cooper. “It’s part of the Asia-Pacific group and I report to a CEO in Melbourne. There are benefits to being part of a global company. We’re a sub-group of the UK. I’m part of the top 65 strategic leaders across the world for Bupa. Every two months, those 65 meet to talk about strategic direction. There are 85,000 employees across the world.”

But not all is well in retirement village land.

Consumer NZ’s research head Jessica Wilson wrote in February: “Our review of contracts offered by six major retirement village operators – Arvida, Bupa, Metlifecare, Oceania Healthcare, Ryman Healthcare and Summerset – found terms we think unfairly favour the village and risk leaving residents out of pocket. They could also fall foul of the Fair Trading Act.”

And the Retirement Commissioner has recommended that the government review the laws around retirement villages, to better protect the elderly.

Cooper responds: “we’re constantly making changes. We listen to our customers who are current or future residents. We’ve made changes over the last 12 to 18 months that were nothing to do with the [retirement] commissioner’s comments. Everyone has to get legal advice before they sign an agreement.”

The people who live in Bupa’s villages don’t own properties, but sign occupational rights agreements or licences to occupy. Asked if those residents can keep a share of property capital gain, Cooper says: “no, our current contracts don’t provide that but there’s a lot of discussions about that. It’s about risk-sharing for residents. When they come in, they know exactly what they’ll get when they leave.”

On Consumer NZ’s accusations against the sector of misleading claims on the range of care available, Cooper says, “we try to make sure there is that continuum of care. If you live in the village, you’ll want to move into the care side. Yes, there are assessments and not every village offers all levels of care.”

Her mother lives in a Masterton retirement village owned by Arvida Group, “but I’m sure she would live in a Bupa if there was one in Masterton”.

Carolyn Cooper:

Job: Managing director, Bupa Villages & Aged Care
Offices: Newmarket
Age: 60
Lives: Grey Lynn
Last movie seen: Downton Abbey
Last holiday: Castlepoint Beach; owns a house with her sister
Car: Audi sport SQ2
Book she’s reading: The Seven Sisters by Lucinda Riley
Family: Two children, two grandchildren

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