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‘I told them to sign the contract and I would be home to run the new nursing home within a week’s time’

Gareth Macklin talks to Margaret Canning about how the pull of his family’s nursing home and hotel business tore him from M&S and why he wouldn’t change a thing

By Margaret Canning

Gareth Macklin (36) recalls the day his parents Brian and Mary first showed him the properties that would become the Malone Lodge Hotel, off Lisburn Road in Belfast.

“I was nine when we arrived at Eglantine Avenue that day. I said to my dad: ‘Which houses are ours?’ And he said: ‘Son, to be completely honest, I don’t know for sure’.”

Now the group — which has nearly 400 staff — consists of five nursing homes from Magherafelt to Dunmurry, as well as the landmark south Belfast hotel.

Father-of-two Gareth is managing director of the business, his sister Cara is a director, while his parents are still active in the company. Malone Lodge Hotel, which opened in 1991, is in the middle of planning 27 new bedrooms, subject to planning permission. The company has bought buildings on either side of the hotel.

“My father would have a phenomenal talent for being able to look at a building and know that he can or can’t do something to it, whether it’s hotels, nursing homes or even on any sort of building.  He can assess it within 60 seconds.

“One of my mum’s dreams was to have her own guesthouse.  One day they were driving down Eglantine Avenue and saw three derelict houses. They just drove on but phoned the estate agents.

“Without even stopping, my dad thought: ‘I think I can make that into a guesthouse.’ He bought it that evening.”

Gareth is now awaiting a decision on his extension plans and is confident residents will be in favour of it. “We are just waiting on the planning situation coming through for that at the minute and we’re hoping to get an answer fairly shortly.”

As well as 102 bedrooms within the hotel itself, Malone Lodge also operates 32 apartments in two blocks, one on Eglantine Avenue and the other on Sandringham Street. And Gareth has also set up software business OBBI Solutions, a finalist in the IntertradeIreland 2017 Seedcorn Competition.

He has fond memories his parents’ business when he was young.  Brian, a joiner by trade, and Mary, who was a home economics teacher, joined up with Brian’s brother and his wife to open a care home on the Antrim Road in the early 1980s. “My aunt was a nurse and my uncle a bookkeeper, so with my parents’ backgrounds, they used their four skill sets to run the home,” says Gareth.

“I had my little jobs to do with the helping and running of the home but I do remember going in as a kid and the residents used to look after you and play with you.”

His parents left the Antrim Road business and sought to open up their own care homes, starting with Arlington off Ormeau Road.  Much as he was absorbed in the running of the homes, Gareth chose to go to university and pursue a graduate traineeship in England. But it wasn’t long before the family business came calling...

“I did a business degree at  Ulster University and then got on to the Marks & Spencer graduate scheme. It’s a world-renowned company so I was lucky. Their values have always been all about looking after people, innovating, and brilliant products, so hopefully I learned from that.

“I was away for about 18 months on the traineeship when my parents told me they’d had an opportunity to buy a nursing home called Leabank in Ballycastle.  They told me that I could come home and run it, and it would be a big development.

“I told them: ‘Sign the contract, and I’ll be home within the week’.”

He says he did not feel under pressure to join the family business, but that it felt like a natural progression. 

Gareth and his wife Rose, a chartered accountant, are now busy parents themselves, with  “wee fella” Patrick Ted, who’s 23 months, and six-week-old Grace Eva Martha. Balancing family life and the business takes effort, Gareth admits, though he lives close to company headquarters in south Belfast. But he loves the people-focus of the nursing homes and the hotel. 

“The great thing in all the businesses, and the fundamental bottom line, is that our business it totally about people. We invest in our teams to find great people and it doesn’t matter if you’re the postman, baker or candlestick maker, it’s all about people, from the residents of our homes to the guests in the hotel,” he says. 

And despite a spate of new hotels being planned for Belfast — there are around 20 new hotels in the planning process, estimated to double room numbers in the city —he’s confident in the future of Malone Lodge. 

“Really, my parents built the first-ever purpose-built small guesthouse in that area. But it had no bar licence when it first opened because that was difficult with how Northern Ireland was in 1991.

“But we’ve been able to grow as we’ve had exceptionally good team members, and we’ve been investing in them. We’ve also been at the heart and the centre of the community and have been investing back into social projects and charity events. 

“It’s been constant innovation with everything we’ve done, including building the first-ever purpose-built five-start nightly-let apartments. You’re continuously having to innovate when you’re the small guy.” The hotel has been extended around three times. Its last extension in 2013 involved the addition of restaurant, the Knife and Fork, a ballroom and a civil ceremony suite.

Gareth feels the range of guests it attracts is another selling point. “We have a very, very diverse spread of guests and Belfast has become a top destination around the world. The leisure industry really has taken off in recent years, and we would have clients from every four corners of the world.

“We also have a couple from Stranmillis who arrive every four to six weeks, check into the hotel, go to the Lyric Theatre or up to the Giant’s Causeway or down to Fermanagh for a weekend away, then back to real life on a Sunday.  More hotels are going to be great for Belfast. More hotels allow bigger events and conferences. 

“And every business goes through challenges.  People would have said at the time, why are you opening a hotel? Our focus is always on driving innovation and being better today than the day before.”

Gareth’s parents’ first nursing home was the Arlington on North Parade in south Belfast, which they opened in 1987.

“It was down to my father’s talent again. He was thinking, there’s two lovely old houses which I can restore and we have expertise to run as nursing homes,” he says. 

Macklin Care Homes has recently won around a dozen awards, from Nursing Home of the Year for Dunmurry’s Park Manor at the Staff Nursing Care Awards, to Patients’ Choice Award at the Royal College of Nursing’s annual awards.

Gareth is evidently proud of the nursing homes but won’t declare that independent chains are a better proposition than the big national businesses. “I really don’t think it makes a difference as there are many extremely good big groups providing great care,” he says.

The homes vary in resident numbers, from 25 at Arlington to 84 at Ratheane. The company is carrying out an extension to its latest acquisition in Magherafelt and adding 45 new bedrooms. 

And while it’s business as usual, he does hope that the Northern Ireland Assembly can soon be restored. “Obviously it doesn’t help anybody and certainly the quicker things are sorted out, the better for all businesses. Ideally, now that elections are out of the road, we’d hope that something could be done,” adds Gareth.

“There are many things we’d rely on government for — like policies and procedures and the recruitment of staff.”

He estimates that around 15% to 20% of staff are from outside Northern Ireland. “From our side of things, we have always recruited the very best people we can get. There’s no difference if they’re from next door, five miles down the road or if they’re an international person. But the more restrictions there are put in place, it does make things difficult.”

Looking ahead, he’s hoping to emulate his dad’s longevity. “My dad’s in a hard-hat every morning from 7am and he’s the last person off the site. He’ll leave at 5pm, then be on to Belfast to one of the other sites,” says Gareth.  

“I don’t have the talents that my father has and it’s very rare for the building side of things, but I’d like to think I’ll be there for the foreseeable.”

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