The Big Interview: Robert Kilgour of Renaissance Care

Robert Kilgour recently caught up with a school friend over coffee, but a shiver went down his spine when his former classmate said he wasn't up to anything after retiring last year.

Robert Kilgour has made a big contribution to Macmillan Cancer Support as well as banging the business drum for the Union. Picture: Nick Mailer

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” he told his friend.

Having an empty diary is an accusation that can never be levelled at Kilgour, with a career that spans the private, public and third sectors, and can see him deal with six companies across various industries in one day.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

The 61-year-old serial entrepreneur, investor and property developer has also sailed into the murky waters of politics with the launch of pro-Union organisation Scottish Business UK.

“As you get older you realise that time is pressing,” he says. “I enjoy keeping busy – it keeps me from getting bored.”

Kilgour’s business interests include video and security systems specialist NW Security Group, where he is a co-founder and director.

Additionally, he was a founder shareholder of Fife radio station Kingdom FM, becoming a director 11 years ago and taking the chairman’s seat in March of this year. As well as several non-executive directorships and senior consultant roles, he has raised more than £2 million for Macmillan Cancer Support over the past 25 years.

But Kilgour has spent the lion’s share of his career in the care home sector, which he once said remained his “first love”. He founded Four Seasons Health Care in 1988, opening its first property the following year in Fife. He left in early 2000 when it was operating 101 care homes with about 6,500 employees, and completed his financial exit from the company in 2005. It is now Britain’s second-biggest care homes operator.

That was the year after he founded Musselburgh-based Renaissance Care, where he holds the executive chairman role. It is majority owned by his main investment vehicle Dow Investments, which he founded in 1990 and where he owns a 99.9 per cent stake. And Renaissance now has almost 1,000 staff, up from just under 100 a decade ago.

At that point, turnover was £1.77m, growing to £21m in its latest financial year, and projected to reach £26.5m in the 12 months to 30 November, 2019.

Kilgour last month announced the acquisition of the operating firms of Uddingston-based Rosepark Nursing Home and Croftbank Care Home, increasing the firm’s portfolio to 14 sites and coming amid plans to double the size of the company over the next two to three years to nearly 30 properties. It already has a presence in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Blairgowrie and Peterhead.

On unveiling the two latest transactions, Kilgour said he believed the growth target was “achievable”.

The operator’s expansion will be purely in Scotland (“I’m not interested in going down to England – I’ve been there, done that”), as he looks to provide robust career progression options to current and future staff.

Doubling the firm’s size would enable it to establish, develop and fund a staff training centre, according to Kilgour. “Although we have doubled our training budget in the past four years, we still want to do more in that area,” he adds, pointing out that Renaissance’s projected staff bill for 2019 is £17m. “Our staff are our key asset in my view, and we want to retain them and help them develop as much as they want in the areas that they’re interested in.

“Without our staff committed and on the journey with us in a positive vein we’re not going to be able to deliver the quality of care for our vulnerable elderly residents.”

Staff and recruitment are a serious concern in the sector. Renaissance is looking to fill 64 vacancies across the group. Scottish Care notes that nine out of ten care providers are struggling to fill jobs, while nearly a fifth of nursing posts in care homes are vacant.

Kilgour says Renaissance’s status as a family firm based in and committed to Scotland will help to attract new recruits. The firm is owned by the entrepreneur, his eldest daughter and a senior executive. “We’re not one of the big, corporate, UK-wide operators owned by overseas companies and all this kind of nonsense – we’re a Scottish company owned by a Scottish family and the senior management… we’re all day to day involved in the business.”

Though the sector is “tough”, he adds, “if you approach it correctly and are focused on keeping your standards up and looking after your staff – and through them your residents – I think there’s no reason why you can’t be successful.”

Yet simply remaining afloat is something that many care homes are struggling to achieve. Knight Frank last week highlighted the net loss of 267 care homes and 6,028 beds in the first six months of 2018, at a time when the UK’s ageing population “remains an unrelenting source of demand” for the sector. Julian Evans, head of healthcare at Knight Frank, said: “The care home industry desperately needs new facilities to be developed and built, otherwise we are going to see a crisis in care in the next few years.” The property consultancy estimates that 6,500 care homes are at risk of closure over the next five years.

One player to have suffered high-profile struggles is Four Seasons, which is effectively controlled by US hedge fund H/2 Capital Partners. The sale of the firm is to get under way early next year as it struggles under a £525m debt pile.

Kilgour, who started out in business selling jeans and T-shirts at Edinburgh’s Ingliston Sunday outdoor market, takes the view that where there are challenges, there are opportunities.

Just as in the finance industry, challenger banks have made inroads by striking the difficult balance between staying nimble and reaching the critical mass necessary to compete with their larger contemporaries, Kilgour also seeks to harness the benefits of Renaissance’s relatively compact size.

And he is looking to move into specialist care at Renaissance homes with spare building space or land. He is examining care for, say, younger people or those with Huntington’s disease, looking at where suitable sites can be combined with relevant local demand and expertise. The aim is to launch the specialist arm in the first half of next year.

Kilgour, who splits his time between London, his main base, and Fife, also enjoys having fingers in a range of pies.

“It is good to have a certain involvement in things that are outwith your comfort zone – it certainly gets the grey cells going.

“I think a little bit of politics, as much as I can spare on helping Macmillan both in Scotland and in London, and a variety of business interests is good.”

And the businessman, who has also served on both the CBI Scotland Council and the CBI UK SME Council, in April last year launched Scottish Business UK (SBUK), which bills itself as an apolitical pro-Union organisation representing businesspeople operating north of the Border.

Names on board alongside Kilgour include former Scottish Enterprise boss Jack Perry; aeronautical and mechanical engineer Richard Marsh who helped with the design of Concorde; and Ivor Tiefenbrun, executive chairman at Glasgow audio system specialist Linn Products.

As for what brought about the formation of SBUK, Kilgour said he felt Scottish firms “too shy and too slow to speak out about huge benefits [to them] of the UK single market” when it came to the 2014 independence referendum.

Providing “a forceful voice against a second independence referendum,” in September SBUK warned that independence would be eight times more damaging to the Scottish economy than a worst-case Brexit scenario.

Kilgour says the aim is to increase the pace of publishing SBUK research papers, while the businessman, whose father was also an entrepreneur, is certainly showing no signs of slowing down himself.

“Ideally as you get older you want to be doing more – not all the time – but doing more things that you enjoy than that you don’t enjoy. I am – touch wood – still enjoying working and being busy and look forward to continuing in that vein for many years to come.”