The Big Interview: Edel Harris, chief of Cornerstone

When she was named EY Scotland Entrepreneur Of The Year 2017 overall winner at a glittering awards ceremony at Gleneagles earlier this summer, it came as a real shock to Edel Harris. 'I was in the company of some amazing businessmen and women so I wasn't expecting my name to be called out,' she says.

But the standing ovation she received shows the popularity of her victory, having beaten 18 fellow nominees to the title that recognised her work as chief executive of Aberdeen-based health and social care charity Cornerstone.

The organisation is one of the largest providers of social care services north of the Border with more than 2,000 employees and provides care and support services for adults, children and young people with disabilities and other support needs across Scotland.

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And the award credited Harris with achieving business growth of £10 million, diversifying into new care markets and delivering an “ambitious” capital plan to create new homes for people with disabilities and autism since she joined in May 2008.

Additionally, her latest transformational strategic plan, targeting the challenges and opportunities presented by the ageing population, was recognised as having “the potential to transform the social care sector in Scotland”.

Annie Graham, EY partner and leader of the EY Entrepreneur Of The Year programme in Scotland, said: “Edel Harris is an entrepreneur with ‘wow factor’. Her passion, drive and strategic mindset have made a significant impact to the lives of the people who work with and are supported by Cornerstone across Scotland.”

Harris admits to being somewhat uneasy about individual awards, and is keen to praise the rest of the Cornerstone team for helping drive her success.

But she points out that she is the first female to have won the title, and sees the victory as “certainly a career highlight, because it’s a well-respected award… to know that CEOs of other businesses rate what I do is a huge compliment”.

Harris follows in the footsteps of other third-sector winners, including Duncan Skinner who came top in 2013 with social enterprise Glencraft, and category-level winners such as Josh Littlejohn of Social Bite and Jim Duffy of Entrepreneurial Spark.

Harris is grateful for the spotlight her win has shone on Cornerstone’s work. The organisation was founded in 1980 by Nick Baxter when he united parents and professionals concerned about the lack and quality of services for those with learning disabilities and their families. It now supports more than 2,400 children, adults and families .

Before joining the charity, Harris was already familiar with its activities via her son Ross, who has a learning disability and continues to receive its support.

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And her move to the chief executive chair came about after she heard that Baxter was retiring. “I remember thinking ‘that’s the job for me’.”

She was working at the time as the deputy chief executive of social enterprise Aberdeen Foyer, which was set up in 1995 in response to concerns about youth homelessness and unemployment.

“But I am ambitious,” says Harris. Cornerstone “was a much larger charity with a national profile, not just an Aberdeen profile, and it was a cause that I felt and still do feel very passionately about… I did my very best to secure the appointment”.

She had previously been an officer in the Metropolitan Police, then she completed an Open University degree in health and social care and worked with NHS Grampian, covering health improvement and promotion.

In terms of the relevance of her pre-Cornerstone roles, Harris says: “All my working life has been in the delivery of public services… so I’ve always had an interest in the social aspects of public-service delivery.

“Certainly my experience in the NHS has given me a really good foundation for addressing inequality and supporting the more vulnerable members of our community.”

What was her strategy when she joined Cornerstone? “I inherited a very well-respected charity, and an organisation that provided really high-quality care and support across the country, but the organisation itself needed to be modernised.”

Cornerstone was facing financial difficulties, she explains, having operated at a deficit for two years in a row. “Like a lot of organisations that had grown rapidly, it wasn’t run in the most efficient way, so the initial strategy was to modernise, to introduce efficiencies and to look at ways of generating alternative sources of income, which we did through the capital development plan and through diversifying into other care markets.”

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Cornerstone broadened its remit from mainly being an adult learning disability organisation to encompass services specialising in dementia, mental health, children and families with the establishment of a fostering agency, and helping recently released prisoners reintegrate into society.

Turnover in its most recent financial year to March hit almost £40 million, with a small increase expected this year “with all the transformational change that we’re undertaking”, says Harris.

“But we need to concentrate on embedding the new culture, and then we’ll be ready, hopefully, to look at possibly social franchising and other ways of creating more self-organised teams of social care practitioners in communities across Scotland. That’s where the growth will come.”

The concept was inspired by a visit to healthcare specialist Buurtzorg in the Netherlands, which says its nurse-led model of holistic care has “revolutionised” community care in the country. It also cites one analysis documenting savings of around 40 per cent to the Dutch healthcare system, and in ten years Buurtzorg has grown from one team to 850 teams and now has more than 10,000 nurses across 24 countries.

As for Cornerstone, Harris says it has never targeted growth for its own sake. “We have always had a strategy to grow incrementally,” she explains, “because I think for any business you shouldn’t stand still, you should always be developing and growing, and that’s certainly the strategy that we’ve had since I came into post as CEO.”

She has picked up some additional duties during her time to-date with the charity, such as a two-year stint as president of Aberdeen & Grampian Chamber of Commerce ending in June this year. She is the first female to hold the role.

Harris was also one of the initial directors at Opportunity North East (ONE), which was launched in 2015 in a bid by the private sector to help regenerate the region after the oil and gas downturn, backed with £25m from Sir Ian Wood charity The Wood Foundation. Harris sat on ONE’s economic leadership board alongside names including Aberdeen Asset Management chief Martin Gilbert and Oil & Gas UK boss Deirdre Michie, but gave up her post when she stepped down from her Chamber role.

In 2016 she received the Aberdeen & Grampian regional director prize at the Institute of Directors Scotland Director of the Year Awards, and is currently a director of Aberdeen Football Club Community Trust. “I love that because I’m a mad Dons fan,” she says laughing.

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Now, having scored the Scottish EY entrepreneur goal, as well as netting the awards’ Building a Better Working World prize for which she was credited with “the potential to change the world” by the judges, she goes forward to the EY Entrepreneur Of The Year 2017 UK final hosted in London in October.

She will be joined by the other Scotland-based winners, including Alan Foy, chief executive of Glasgow’s Smart Metering Systems, and Calum Smeaton, chief executive and founder of Edinburgh-based television advertising technology specialist TVSquared.

And while Harris jokes that she’ll need to buy a new dress for the occasion, she is also pleased that the award allows the broader social care sector to dazzle – and highlights the obstacles all its providers face. It is subject to a “fast-changing and very challenging external environment” which faces hurdles such as public-sector funding cuts and regulatory issues. “The one I feel most passionately about is that it’s not a valued profession in society – it’s very hard to recruit into the sector,” says Harris.

A study published by industry body Scottish Care last month on the independent sector care home workforce found a shortage of nurses that was “little short of scandalous”, with staff vacancies at 77 per cent of homes. The report also examined the impact of the Scottish Living Wage, currently £8.45 an hour.

Harris points out that Cornerstone has been a Living Wage employer since 2012. “We want to demonstrate genuinely that we value people who work in social care… to do that we need to address some of the challenges,” she says.

A lack of recognition of social care’s key role in society “is one of the driving forces for the changes we’re making at Cornerstone”, as it tries to influence how social care is “commissioned, funded, and delivered across the whole of the UK”, says Harris.