Rosemary Armstrong can be described as a serial entrepreneur. Since the late 1970s Rosemary has been starting care homes, running them and then very successfully selling them to move onto new care projects.
This process began back in 1977 in Southampton in England with one care home, which Rosemary sold in 1988 to move closer to her ageing mother in Northern Ireland. She then had a new elderly people’s care home constructed in Portstewart, which she ran as the Montague Care Centre for 10 years, before selling it at the peak of the market to move onto other ventures.
Eleven years ago, Rosemary changed direction and while continuing to run care homes, began providing care for people with learning disabilities. This tapped into a rising demand for non-institutional care with the decision to cease accommodating people with learning disabilities in special hospitals.
“Northern Ireland was slow to look at taking these people out of hospital and put them into communities,” says Rosemary. She believes that process still needs to accelerate and points to the number of people – around 170, she believes – who continue to reside in Muckamore Abbey Hospital, who have no medical needs. She argues that because of lack of funding and appropriate accommodation, the hospital residents are not having their needs met to the standards possible in small care homes.
The provision of care homes for people with learning disabilities has developed into a strong and profitable market in England, with some companies backed by private equity firms operating groups of homes. In Northern Ireland, development has been much slower.
Rosemary does not fear the entry of potential competitors to Northern Ireland. She believes that the reputation for quality, standards compliance and value for money that she has gained with health trusts means she is well placed to continue to work for them. “There is a difference between competing on price and competing on quality,” she explains.
She points, in particular, to the individual complexities of her residents and that they may require a bespoke service of one or even two to one support. Rosemary has two homes: a newly built facility in Bangor, which is home to 29 residents, and a small home in Holywood, with just six residents.
“People with learning disabilities and associated mental health needs have to be looked after in small homely units,” says Rosemary. “And I can see tremendous results in terms of behaviour and language skills. Put that in a large setting and it doesn’t work.”
But it has not all been straightforward for Rosemary during her long entrepreneurial career. Dealing with banks has often been a problem. “Back in the 70s when I had to get bank loans, it wasn’t common for a woman and I had to prove myself,” she recalls. “It was very difficult for people like myself to get a bank loan. The Federation of Small Businesses was a great help to me.”
Rosemary has a good relationship with the health and social care trusts, but there are aspects of it she could do without. “I welcome regulation,” she says. “You have to have it. At the same time it too can be very bureaucratic.”
But Rosemary is not complaining. “I love it,” she says. “Being paid for doing the job is just a bonus.”