Abbeyfield UK (NI) Ltd. - a successful merger

Before merging 16 separate societies were operating under the Abbeyfield brand, all providing similar services. It was decided that by merging these organisations could run more effectively. A case study of their merger is presented here.

Organisational details and services

Abbeyfield UK (NI) Ltd is a voluntary, community and social economy sector (VCSE) organisation dedicated to making the lives of older people easier and more fulfilling. Abbeyfield helps people to live independently by providing a range of services, all of which are linked to the local community. Abbeyfield UK (NI) Ltd has 19 supported sheltered houses located throughout the region.

Abbeyfield UK (NI) Ltd offers rented accommodation in supported sheltered houses across Northern Ireland. At the centre of every Abbeyfield house is a professional house manager who is employed to provide support to residents, including preparation of meals, ensuring that the house is comfortable, clean and safe; encouraging residents in activities and to be part of the local community.

Reasons for merger

Before the merger in 2003 there were 16 separate societies operating under the Abbeyfield brand providing similar services. All the organisations had the same basic ethos and guiding principles, however, not all organisations were operating at full capacity and it was decided that by merging these organisations could run more effectively.


Another reason for the merger was that most of these societies in Northern Ireland had a strong volunteer base and were volunteer run. These volunteers were responsible for the all the management and administration, human resources, and health and safety, including environmental health and the fire safety of the premises. It was the responsibility of volunteers to directly undertake these essential tasks, and it was decided that this should be reviewed.

Process

Prior to any discussion of a merger some of the Abbeyfield societies were working together with regards to joint training for both staff and volunteers. The Chief Executive of Abbeyfield UK (NI) Ltd, Geraldine Gilpin, believes that the communication established through the joint training assisted in the speed of the merger.

“I organised most of the training, and this helped with the merger since staff already knew who I was.”
Geraldine Gilpin, Chief Executive,
Abbeyfield UK (NI) Ltd

The Chief Executive of Abbeyfield started the merger process by having a discussion with representatives from the other Abbeyfield societies across Northern Ireland.

Geraldine Gilpin, Chief Executive Officer,
Abbeyfield UK (NI) Ltd.

Geraldine drew together a detailed proposal of what a merger would look like. It outlined that there would not be a central office in Belfast and that administrative centres would be established within service areas.      Once the proposal was discussed she then sent out an expression of interest form. All societies returned these, with 14 in favour of the merger. Once it was agreed to merge the Chief Executive contacted the Department for Social Development and explained the changes that were about to take place. The Chief Executive then drew up a transfer agreement which all merging societies completed. Each merging society made its accounts available and signed over their assets.

“We did a transfer agreement and it was very simple, about two pages. It meant that the people we were dealing with weren’t faced with this huge legal document. It was a simple system.”
Geraldine Gilpin, Chief Executive,
Abbeyfield UK (NI) Ltd

Once completed the Abbeyfield society leading on the merger took over control of the merging societies and renamed its organisation Abbeyfield UK (NI) Ltd.

The next stage in the process was the establishment of new posts. Before the merger some societies had an administrator. These administrators became area managers once the merger took place and some new posts were created. The Chief Executive also established a five year plan which examined the different rates of funding each society received and the different charges made to residents for rent and support. The Chief Executive contacted the main funders and gradually, over the five year period, charges were standardised, the number of variations reduced, and the same rate of funding negotiated across all supported accommodation schemes. The Chef Executive also worked with the Centre for Housing and Support (CHS) and found its framework very useful in ensuring that all the policies were in place. Once the merger took place new contracts of employment were established for six months and then all employees were transferred to the newly formed organisation under the legislation known as TUPE.

Challenges

The Chief Executive of Abbeyfield (UK) NI Ltd highlighted a number of issues which she found challenging as a result of the merger. One was that on occasion there were difficult conversations with the some of the volunteers who ran the old societies.

“There is always an element of negativity; we had some very difficult conversations with volunteers.”
Geraldine Gilpin, Chief Executive,
Abbeyfield UK (NI) Ltd

In addition the Chief Executive felt that standardising the service, whilst at the same time making sure that the residents didn’t notice a difference in the service, was a further challenge.

“We ensured that they were fully informed and it didn’t impact on them at all.”
Geraldine Gilpin, Chief Executive,
Abbeyfield UK (NI) Ltd

Collecting information was also challenging. The Chief Executive found it difficult to access information on staff prior to the merger and, when submitted, the information was sometimes inaccurate.

“People would just come back to me and say, ‘we have only two members of staff’ when actually they had four members of staff, two members of staff were cleaners and they hadn’t classed them as staff.”
Geraldine Gilpin, Chief Executive,
Abbeyfield UK (NI) Ltd

Another challenge was that some of the volunteers who managed their own Abbeyfield society had a feeling of ‘giving up’ some of their own homes and they felt that they had no control over the societies that they had managed.

Positives

The time between initial discussion and merger was seven months. The Chief Executive believes that this short turnaround time meant that the merger process was conducted in a very effective and efficient manner.

"The initial meetings were in February and we were merged by October. It was a very quick merger” Geraldine Gilpin, Chief Executive,
Abbeyfield UK (NI) Ltd

As many of the merging societies had no senior members of staff and were mostly volunteer run there was no issue with regard to reallocating or appointing of staff.

“As there was no one jockeying for position, that made life a lot easier for us”
Geraldine Gilpin, Chief Executive,
Abbeyfield UK (NI) Ltd

The establishing of new positions also worked well. The Chief Executive found that creating new posts gave a fresh start for staff and more buy in.

"The administrators became area managers. I would suggest to people that they create new posts, it gives a fresh start, so that people aren’t thinking, ‘oh that’s not what I do, this is what I do’, it’s also exciting too. We made sure that they were involved right from the start so they didn’t feel threatened by this.”
Geraldine Gilpin, Chief Executive,
Abbeyfield UK (NI) Ltd

Advice

Geraldine's advice with regard to a merger is:

“just get on with it – endless pontificating doesn’t achieve anything”
Geraldine Gilpin, Chief Executive,
Abbeyfield UK (NI) Ltd

Every effort is made to ensure that the contents of this document are accurate, but the advice given should not be relied on as a definitive legal statement.

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