INTERVIEW: Norse Care chief Karen Knight’s rise from cleaner to managing director

How do you create a new company from scratch, to provide overnight care to 1,400 older people in Norfolk and create a new generation of homes for people to live in?

That is the task facing Karen Knight, managing director of Norse Care, which has been created to do just that.

Norse Care is no small operation. Part of the Norse Group, a commercial offshoot of Norfolk County Council, the venture which came into being in July has a turnover of �30m and 1,600 staff

It occupies around 10pc of the care market in the county, and over the next 15 years it will be tasked with generating the funds needed to build new housing with care schemes and dementia care units, either in partnership with other public sector bodies such as the NHS or even through borrowing on the open market.

Norse Care came into existence in July, and its first venture will be to build a new housing with care scheme in Aylsham to replace Aegel House. Details of other proposals are expected to follow shortly.

But Karen Knight's association with the council started as a student when she worked during the summer in care homes as a cleaner.

'My first job in the county council started as a cleaner in 1981,' she said.

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'I did it as a three month summer job at Somerley residents' home in Unthank Road in Norwich. Then I went to university to do a degree in economic history at the UEA.

'When I was a cleaner there was a supervisor who used to tell me off for talking to the residents!'

It is something the 51-year-old has not forgotten and she said she is keen to make sure Norse Care had an inclusive approach.

'I've always tried to have a focus on the customer,' she added.

'That's always been a feature of the jobs I have done. It was a natural progression, in terms of what I've been doing, in terms of public protection and management to be able to do that.

'I had always done voluntary work and then I trained as a social worker before coming back to Norfolk to get my first job as a child protection social worker in 1985.

'I have worked in children's services and adult services and had a variety of management positions.

'I would like to say I had massive career plans, but I had a child, and it was important for me that I stayed in Norfolk.'

Yet Norse has its critics, including those who wonder if it has an inbuilt advantage in the market place.

So does Norse Care skewer the market?

'We are a small percentage of the overall market and as far as our private paying customers are concerned we will be in exactly the same position as our competitors,' she said.

'In a commercial company we have got more autonomy to look for opportunities.

'That being said, if we are not delivering what our customers want and we are not listening to older people, they will go elsewhere. And quality is still fundamental for it to be a commercial success.

'It depends on the audience! Private sector people will tend to say it's just an arms length company.

'But the county council says we are a business and should be operating completely commercially.

'In terms of infrastructure and support, we have got a lot more support to be commercially focused and we are driving down the costs to make it more cost effective.

'The advantage of being in the Norse group is that we can use the strength of the group and really focus on getting some good deals.

'We know what it costs to provide the care, but we can be more commercially focused and cost effective.

'The other thing we can do, which is an exciting development is we can sell to private customers. The plan will be as we draw down the costs of providing care, we will be putting any surplus into building and transforming our new developments.

'For many years the county council has been trying to find a solution to what they should do with their 26 residential homes, which were built in the 1960s and 70s.

'The buildings are past their sell-by date and not fit for purpose.

'The staff were providing an excellent quality of care, but there wasn't enough capital available to be able to update them.

'We have got a transformation programme to develop 850 housing with care places, and 250 places for dementia care,' she said.

'Our plan is it will be a 15-year project that will see the older buildings replaced with purpose-built ones

'We need to develop new housing with care and dementia units. We've got the contract with Norfolk County Council and we want to look at other areas we might be able to market our services to.'

What she has in mind is working with other councils and also the NHS, to see whether Norse Care could provide a solution to stop bed blocking.

'The Norse group goes much further afield than Norfolk and there are other local authorities in exactly the same situation Norfolk finds itself in with their housing stock and their care.

'After things have bedded down in Norfolk, we will be looking at other opportunities across other parts of the country,' she said.

But for now she is relishing the immediate task of her new role, which she secured after fending off candidates from across the country.

'It's been very good – I had a transitional period and I was able to go out and visit every single establishment and all the managers and really get to know all our residents and staff.

'It gave me a chance to really get underneath the business and know what the issues were and also hear from residents about what they want improved.

'The transition of 1,600 staff was a massive transfer. It went incredibly smoothly and the proof of that was that our 1,400 residents never really noticed any difference at all.

'I am very inclusive and I'm interested in everybody's views, whether you are a cleaner or a senior manager.

'Everybody's views and ideas about improving the service are equally valuable.

'But ultimately I need to take the decisions and the buck stops with me. I have high expectations of all the 1,600 staff providing care. It's a privileged position to be in.

'We are in the business of making sure that every one of our 1,400 residents are properly supported and cared for and we have to take our staff with us on that.

'I feel really excited about it. I'm not underestimating the challenges going ahead, but it's a brilliant opportunity.

'I've got a very good management team and I'm really looking forward to moving it ahead.

'I didn't tend to have a plan with my career – it tended to be 'how can I get to pick up the children?'

'What I would hope it would show is that whatever position you hold in this organisation, if you want to you can aspire to being the managing director. That's the message. I would say it shows both women, and men that you can do what you want to.'