Fiona Lowry is a successful entrepreneur by anyone’s reckoning – she sold her first business for £95m and is now on her third start-up. But she’s not about to take all the credit
Some entrepreneurs like to shout their success from the rooftops. They clamour for column inches and flout their newfound riches driving fast cars, racking up enormous bar bills and generally enjoying the fruits of their labour. Fiona Lowry is the very antithesis of such behaviour.
After all, she’d have every right to be boastful: having enjoyed a high-flying 11-year career at the BBC, she then sold her first company Merlin Communications for £95m and more recently set up the Good Care Group, which provides high-quality, in-home care to elderly people. But when faced with talking about her business prowess, she says: “I don’t like talking about that arrogant stuff.”
Lowry has been successful in a myriad of industries. And although there is no immediately obvious link between Lowry’s first business in TV transmission support and the work of the Good Care Group, it doesn’t take long for a theme to emerge: people. She takes everybody with her on the journey. When she bought Merlin Communications from the BBC, it wasn’t just her and the management team who owned it – the employees did too. It’s a formula she’s repeated elsewhere: all employees at The Good Care Group were offered shares. Lowry retains 20%. “Ever since Merlin, any company I’ve worked with all the staff have shares; you’re in it together. That ownership is very important to me,” she says.
Lowry learnt a thing or two about leadership from her father, who ran the family precision engineering business. “I learned the importance of staff and morale from him. He had a very fixed staff base that he looked after, listened to and went through all the ups and downs of their lives with. He definitely created a sense of community, which is what I try to create too.”
Although Lowry came to the start-up world later in life, she hailed from a family of entrepreneurs. Growing up in East Finchley, both of her grandmothers ran their own businesses, “which was quite unusual at that time”. Her maternal grandmother was a milliner, while her paternal grandmother took over the family precision engineering business making parts for the car industry after her husband died at an early age. Her father was next in line.
“I loved going to the factory. It was very industrial – it had all these nooks and crannies and old cash registers,” says Lowry. “When I was very young I had this vision that he was a mint, that he actually made coins, because there was metal everywhere and at some point he must’ve said to me, ‘I make money’ and I took it quite literally.”
After her A-levels, Lowry went to university in Bristol. “I obviously had some engineering stuff in the DNA because I studied electronic engineering,” she jokes.
One of just two women on a course of 100, Lowry flourished at university and met her husband, Jonathan, who is now an academic. “He studied civil engineering; we met at the back of a maths lecture.”
It wasn’t all play, though. Lowry, who says she was a very diligent child, describes the course as “tough” and would often berate herself if she failed the odd exam. “It was terrible. I didn’t like failing. But it does make you not want to fail the next exam so you have slightly earlier nights. It got tougher as the years went by, especially in engineering – about 35% of the course got chucked out so you did have to work quite hard.”
After graduating in 1986, she joined the BBC as a graduate trainee in the engineering department. “It was a great time to work for the BBC because you learnt so much. And because I moved around a lot I got to work with a lot of different people: you learnt good management, you learnt bad management,” she says.
As she rapidly scaled the ranks, she became a manager herself, heading a team of 60. “I learned management from a lady called Dorothy Grenfell Williams who was absolutely stunning. She was head of the African service and she was the most fantastic journalist and broadcaster and the most wonderful, inspirational woman. She never wanted to move into management but she did and she did a brilliant job.”
She taught Lowry a valuable lesson. “She said to me, ‘Don’t ever think that management isn’t creative – it is the most creative job if you do it well’. And she’s absolutely right. That’s why I like medium-sized enterprises and starting companies: you’ve got a blank sheet and you’re in control of the culture, you recruit and you choose how to reward people.”
When the government privatised transmission of the BBC World Service in 1997, Lowry led a management buy-out and created Merlin Communications. This meant she was able to sell services back to the BBC but were also able to enlist other broadcasters as well as clients in the defence sector.
The £21m buy-out required private-equity backing – a whole new world for Lowry. “Learning about private equity was fascinating. It was the realisation that it really works: you don’t have to go out and get a load of debt as you do with a mortgage: people will actually put equity in and take a risk on the basis of the business plan. It was an amazing development couple of years for me.”
In 2001, the company was sold to Vosper Thornycroft, the defence company, for a cool £95m. Having recently become a mother to James, now 14, Lowry went on to have the couple’s second son Sam, nearly 12. Until 2005, she spent time with her young family and became a magistrate. “I was doing stuff but it was very bitty and part time,” she says.
When she went back to work full-time, she became part of the founding team of Oracle Care, which looked after “kids that had got into trouble. Most of them had at that point done something sexual, so it was those kind of behavioural issues.” Oracle was the first care group to marry care homes, school and psychotherapy. “We gave kids very intense care to try and reset some of their issues and get them back into the community,” Lowry explains.
The “heartbreaking” nature of the work took its toll on the entrepreneur. “It was really difficult emotionally because our youngest son was six or seven and the youngest kid [cared for by Oracle] was about that age,” she says. “All that kept me going was the thought that I would rather this kid be with us at Oracle Care than any other care company because I know what a great job we do.”
The company was eventually sold in 2012 for around £12m. But for some time before the sale, Lowry had been working on her next venture: the Good Care Group. Having seen the difference Oracle Care had made for children, she wanted to do the same for the elderly care sector.
“I’d watched my grandmother go into a care home with slight dementia and seen her go downhill very, very quickly. I later discovered that this is very common amongst older people with dementia where all their familiar surroundings have just vanished because they’re in this institution.” It’s often not even a quality issue, says Lowry. “Even a nice care home is still an institution where you lose some of your independence and a lot of people feel they lose some of their dignity.”
Lowry felt passionately that by providing top-notch care to people in their own homes, they would have far greater choice. “So my mother, my father, anybody getting older, could choose to stay in their own homes as long as they wanted. And for some people that meant choosing to die in their own homes too.”
To make her vision a reality, Lowry would need to create a workforce of capable and compassionate carers. The Good Care Group only recruits 5% of the carers that apply for roles. Lowry says the litmus test is asking whether or not she’d want this person to look after her own mother or father. “That’s quite a powerful thing because when you have a little doubt – not over whether they’re going to do anything awful but whether they’re of a Good Care Group standard – if the answer is ‘not sure’ then they don’t make it through.”
After all, the senior care sector can be tricky to navigate. The BBC’s Panorama programme carried out undercover investigations in 2011 and 2014 and uncovered shocking cases of neglect and mistreatment. This means that creating trust between clients and carers is more important than ever, says Lowry.
“I’m very mindful of that. You are dealing in people’s houses so you absolutely have to have everything in place to enable people to trust you. I’d say it’s the recruitment, the training and the retention that makes us different.”
A key difference between the Good Care Group and the many care agencies that operate up and down the country is that Lowry’s company employs its 450 carers full-time. “We’re incredibly diligent in terms of the checks before we hire someone. As an employer, we are highly regulated in a way that agencies don’t need to be.”
Each client generally has two carers with whom they forge long-term relationships. This means that they are able to keep a close eye out for changes to that person’s health or emotional state.
But it isn’t just clients of the Good Care Group that Lowry hopes will benefit from this new approach to in-home care: she’s on a long-term mission to change the way that care is dispatched to the UK’s senior citizens. “With this company, we’ve got a unique platform through which to actually change over the next ten years the way elderly care is funded and the options for elderly care.”
So what does success look like? “It’s about looking after more clients the way we look after clients but it’s also about changing the economics of how it’s funded,” says Lowry. She hopes we will see government money allocated differently so that in-home care won’t need to be privately funded. “There’s the economics of keeping people in hospital too long, about health budgets. I don’t think we necessarily need more money but it needs to be allocated in a different way. That’s what I’d really like to try and be part of changing in the next ten years.”
She’s definitely in it for the long-haul. While she doesn’t shy away from making money from the care sector, it is by no means a get-rich-quick scheme, she says. “All my companies are about long-term value. If it was about a quick buck you wouldn’t last very long in this sector.”
Lowry has form when it comes to building companies for the long term. The three companies that she’s founded have been profitable – but that’s almost secondary to ensuring customers receive a high-quality service. “There is a link between the companies I’ve been involved with: they’re always high-quality critical services.”
“In the world service it was delivering signals and information to people all around the world. At Oracle it was looking after kids and here at Good Care Group it’s elderly people. So it’s perhaps easy to see now why the widgets didn’t really do it for me in my father’s factory.”