Interview: Tom Wright

The merger of Age Concern and Help the Aged to form Age UK was the biggest charity merger since 2002. The process wasn't always easy, the new charity's chief executive Tom Wright tells John Plummer

Tom Wright, chief executive, Age UK
Tom Wright, chief executive, Age UK

Tom Wright has been getting up at 5am to train for the London Marathon. This helps his body prepare for the physical pain of running 26 miles; the mental resolve probably comes from his experiences as the first chief executive of Age UK.

Wright was recruited 18 months ago to oversee the biggest charity merger since the formation of Cancer Research UK in 2002. The Age UK merger has involved several charities, 40 subsidiary companies, 2,500 staff, 45 offices and 34 websites.

A merger of this scale was always likely to generate turbulence, and at times it has been fierce: hundreds of jobs have been lost, some local Age Concerns have threatened to mutiny and Wright has attracted personal criticism for his role as chair of a separate marketing company.

The merger is still bedding down and the dispute with local Age Concerns shows little sign of abating. So far only 81 - about a quarter - have agreed to become 'brand partners'.

However, the publication of Age UK's first annual report at the beginning of the year provided some cheer. It showed that the charity recorded a surplus of £1.3m in 2009/10, whereas Age Concern England and Help the Aged suffered a combined final year deficit of £3.8m. Reserves have increased and the merger achieved savings of £10m.

But income went down. The charity generated £160.7m - £9.6m less than Age Concern England and Help the Aged's combined final year income. Only by reducing expenditure and trimming salaries by £6.6m did Age UK achieve its surplus.

Wright is happy with the progress. "We've brought everything together under one roof: one organisation, one website, one database, one name and brand," he says. "Two-thirds of people in the country are now aware of Age UK. There aren't many new organisations that would get that level of awareness that quickly." He says it's too early to predict whether income will increase in this financial year. But he warns that fundraising is tough and the cold December hit shop trading hard. "January, February and March are big months for us in terms of income," he says.

Age UK now employs 2,200 staff, 395 fewer than at the time of merger. A recruitment freeze and natural wastage did not prevent about 100 compulsory redundancies. By spring, all staff will be housed on one site in London's Tavistock Square.

The impact of the merger has been felt across the Age Concern federation. Some of the country's largest Age Concerns, including Birmingham and Liverpool, are so unhappy about the terms they are being offered to partner the new charity that they are planning to set up their own organisation, which could become a trading rival.

"It's perhaps understandable that a relatively small number would consider and examine the partnership offers that are out there," says Wright. He says he respects the "fierce independence" of local Age Concerns. "Equally, we want to make sure we have a strong partnership and network to make sure we are doing more to improve later life," he says. "We can do more collectively than we could do separately."

Wright says he has not considered relinquishing his role as chair of the marketing firm RHC Advantage, despite the adverse publicity and criticism that it could lead to conflicts of interest and divert attention from his day job.

"RHC Advantage is a tiny organisation with one member of staff," he says. "It takes a few hours a month, if that. It has had absolutely no impact on my day-to-day work or commitments."

He says it's common for chief executives to have non-executive interests and that the position complements his role at Age UK; RHC is a member of Age UK's Engage business network.

"It wanted to improve communications to older people," says Wright. "I support its work, just as I support the work of all the members of the Engage network.

"Where do you draw the line? I also do work for a charitable trust that helps prevent fuel poverty. They are all part of improving outcomes for older people."

Wright has worked in the public, private and voluntary sectors, and describes Age UK as "an interesting combination of all three". It lobbies government, derives two-thirds of its income from commercial trading and provides charitable services.

"Part of the appeal and, I think, part of the expertise that I bring is the ability to understand all the dimensions," he says.

Wright will no doubt be hoping that there will be more attention on the charity's activities in 2011 and less on the fallout from the merger.

CV 

2009: Chief executive, Age UK

2002: Chief executive, Visit Britain

2000: Managing director, Saga Holidays

1996: Marketing and development director, Center Parcs

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