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New Ryman Healthcare chief executive Richard Umbers on the future of retirement living

A house in Manchester he hasn’t lived in for years, one in Melbourne’s inner-city suburbs and aspirations to buy between Hagley Park and the office at Russley – Ryman Healthcare’s new boss has a global real estate footprint.

“We’re lucky, we’ve been coming here for years. We’re regular visitors to Queenstown and Wanaka,” says the Brit up the line from Christchurch where the retirement giant is headquartered near the airport.

He only left Melbourne for his new gig on October 25, so it’s all quite recent.

So what nationality is he?

“I carry British and Australian passports. It’s too soon to ask if I will become a New Zealander but being an Australian under CER (closer economic relations), I can live and work here. I’m not here on a visa.”

His most recent roles were as divisional director of buying at German supermarket chain Kaufland, and managing director of Australian retailer Myers. He’s been in senior roles at Woolworths in Australia and was managing director of Progressive Enterprises here.

Earlier in his career, he held senior leadership roles with Australia Post and Aldi in Europe so he sure knows retail.

Asked about properties he owns around the world, he stresses: “My home is now here. I still have a property over in the UK. I also still have a home in Victoria”.

Pressed for detail, he finds the questions somewhat personal but explains he hasn’t lived in his Manchester house for years and his Melbourne place is in the inner-east suburbs.

He’s keener to talk about his future with Ryman than his past as a globe-trotting retail specialist.

“I’m very much in tune with the cultural drivers,” he says somewhat mysteriously but follows quickly with … “We are building vital health infrastructure for the long-term benefit of the country”.

The Ryman shareholders also benefit from that expansion, the company clocking big property revaluation gains which boosted the November-announced half-year result to September 30, 2021 to around a quarter of a billion dollars.

So how is the ex-British Army recruit taking to life in Aotearoa and is there anything about being a military man that crosses over to village life?

“I’m here with my wife and my intention is to buy a home and settle here. I’ve been returning to New Zealand every year to Queenstown and Wanaka and travelling around, staying in hotels and self-catering rentals.”

He’s renting in Christchurch now. Where will he buy?

Ryman corporate affairs manager David King quips in on the call: “Either the flat or on the hill.”

But Umbers specifies he would like to be near Hagley Park, not too far from the office at Russley “and I want to get out and about and meet people. There’s a lot of nice suburbs. Where you live is more about the community you are in. We have long-standing friends, people we’ve known for a long time here.”

Doesn’t sound like he’s too worried about tackling the old school/rugby/societal confines of Ōtautahi, although he doesn’t call it that.

His first few weeks have been concentrating on visiting some of the 43 villages Ryman owns here and in Victoria, although industry experts soon expect it to expand into Sydney.

“I’ve been to two villages in Australia and here, I’ve been to Dunedin, Invercargill, in Christchurch to Diana Isaac and Kevin Hickman”.

Ex-CEO Gordon MacLeod was known as Gordie. Will Umbers be Richie?

“I will answer to a lot of things but most people call me Richard.”

Umbers has more to concentrate on than frivolous questions about nicknames.

Ryman has development work at 15 sites here and in Australia, some at existing villages where residents live, some are entirely new-builds, with eight here and seven in Victoria.

And Umbers reveals a bit of a breakthrough at a stalled project: the difficult, controversial Mt Eliza on the Mornington Peninsula outside Melbourne where local authorities rejected Ryman’s huge scheme to build on what locals call Reg’s Wedge in reference to former owner Sir Reg Ansett of airline fame.

“We are resubmitting to the Mornington Shire Council with a more boutique scheme than the first, following the feedback we’ve received,” Umbers explains.

“The new scheme has one less apartment block and there is one block that has been reduced by one level. There are 90 fewer apartments. We are proposing to build an 82-bed care centre, 35 serviced apartments which is 13 less than previously proposed and 104 independent which is 77 fewer apartments. So it has gone from 311 units and beds in total to 221.”

Umbers said the scaled-back scheme was being put forward after feedback from state authority the Victoria Civil and Administrative Tribunal as well as the shire.

He doesn’t mention the community backlash, claims of koala habitats or locals’ vociferous anti-Ryman campaign.

But it’s looking promising. But don’t say congratulations yet, Umbers warns: “We’re yet to go through the council. It all depends on your perspective.”

Ryman doesn’t have a history of backing down easily to community pressure.

Asked how his strong retail background will influence work at Ryman, Umbers responds: “I’ve worked in customer-focused organisations. I’ve worked on both sides of the Tasman and I understand Australia and New Zealand, and I’ve worked in construction as well.”

He’s lived in Auckland but never Christchurch, he concedes.

Of his army life, he muses: “We’re all a product of all our experiences going right back into our childhood. I’m used to adapting to new places.”

As for the pandemic, it’s made people scared of being in their homes and they appear to be fleeing the suburbs for villages.

“We’ve had zero fatalities. We did have one incident where a member of staff and a resident got Covid in Australia,” Umbers admits of Melbourne’s big Weary Dunlop.

“But we were able to manage this. People thought of retirement villages as hazardous. Now, they emerging as a safe haven. The message we are getting from potential residents is that they increasingly see Ryman villages as guarding against the risk of getting Covid.”

The numbers back him up: Ryman’s total assets are now $9.85b, up 18.1 per cent lately. Its reported interim net profit was $281.5m, up 32.5 per cent.

So now it’s on to the next stage of Umbers’ interesting, varied career.

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