Birth pangs of the newly merged age charity

John Plummer talks to Tom Wright, chief executive of the charity formed by the merger of Age Concern and Help the Aged, and looks at his plans to cut 300 jobs and save £10m

Tom Wright, chief executive, charity formed by the merger of Age Concern and Help the Aged
Tom Wright, chief executive, charity formed by the merger of Age Concern and Help the Aged

Few voluntary sector chief executives have had more immediate impact on their organisations than Tom Wright. Last week, the chief executive of the charity formed by the merger of Age Concern and Help the Aged announced the organisation was shedding 300 jobs.

The cuts are some of the most savage ever to hit the sector and have been condemned by trade union Unite (Third Sector Online, 8 April).

Staff were shocked by the scale of the losses as well as the speed of the announcement, which came only six days after the new charity was formed.

Wright, appointed in November last year, says the cuts were being made to avoid duplication and were part of a £10m savings package. Back-office functions will be the worst hit: the organisation has six finance teams and three accounting systems. "The economic environment has affected many organisations," he says. "We need to make sure we have strong foundations and maintain our operational outputs." Management, union representatives and the staff joint consultative committee have entered into a 90-day dialogue.

Age UK, the charity's legal name, has 125 positions either vacant or filled by temporary staff. Alan Scott, a regional officer for Unite, hopes the number of redundancies will be well below 300. "We are disappointed and will be involved in the consultation," says Scott.

The charity hopes to generate about £150m in its first year, which would be similar to the combined income of the two charities in their final year, but expects legacy income to fall by 20 per cent.

It plans to reduce the number of London head offices it uses from three and has also restructured its operations into four areas: direct charitable work; enterprise; retail and trading; and a group services division. Michelle Mitchell, communications director at Age Concern England, has been made charity director.

Age Concern England's trading body, Acent, its personal alarm business Aid Call and Help the Aged's trading arm Intune all feature in the new organisation. But Heyday, the membership scheme criticised by the Charity Commission, has been wound up.

Sir Christopher Kelly, former chair of the NSPCC, is writing a report on the lessons that can be learned from Heyday, but Wright does not wish to discuss the matter. "I can't comment on what went before because I wasn't there," he says.

Many of the 329 local Age Concerns, which are individual charities, were unhappy about Heyday. It is unclear how many will choose to join the new federal structure - some could choose to retain their names and go it alone.

Catherine McLoughlin, the last chair of Age Concern England, said in October last year that 95 per cent of Age Concerns had agreed to be part of the new structure (30 October 2008, page 14). But Wright puts the figure at "well over half".

He says the gap between the official launch and January's rebranding "gives us the summer to engage with them". He adds: "It's their choice, but we believe we are putting together such a strong organisation that they will be enthused and will want to join us."

FACT FILE

Tom Wright is chief executive of the Age UK Group, launched on 1 April, which resulted from the merger of Help the Aged, Age Concern England and several trading companies.

The group employs about 2,500 people and has a turnover of about £160m. It will provide services, information and advice to more than five million people.

In January 2010, all activity will come under one brand to help improve the perceptions of ageing.

Wright was chief executive of VisitBritain for nearly seven years. Before that he was managing director of Saga Holidays and marketing and sales director for Center Parcs in England and Europe. He is a trustee of the Imperial War Museum and chair of the Society of Ticket Agents and Retailers. He has been awarded a CBE for services to tourism.

MERGED BODY WILL SPEND NINE MONTHS NAMELESS

It may be the biggest charity merger since Cancer Research UK was formed in 2002, but the new organisation will spend the first nine months of its life nameless.

Brand consultancy Corporate Edge has been hired in the run-up to the big rebrand in January. Until then, everyone is guessing.

The hot topic is whether the name should include the word 'age', which is considered practical but uninspiring.

Tom Wright, chief executive of the new charity, says nothing has been ruled out. "Many people have said they would like to see a name that is quite positive and recognises that we support people's lives to the full as they get older," he says.

'THE MOST COMPLICATED MERGER THERE HAS BEEN'

The lawyer who oversaw the merger describes it as "one of the most complicated set of connected mergers there has ever been".

"It was the first large UK-wide set of mergers since the introduction of new charity law in England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland," says Anne-Marie Piper, a partner at Farrer & Co.

The solicitors began work in September last year and were still finalising the arrangements on the day before the 1 April merger date.

The project involved the transfer of the assets and operations of the four national Age Concerns and the division and transfer of Help the Aged's operations in each of the four nations to four new charities. It was also necessary to make arrangements for the largest of the four new charities to take Age Concern England's place in the federation of 300-plus local, independent Age Concerns.

Farrer & Co coordinated teams from Turcan Connell in Edinburgh, Cleaver Fulton Rankin in Belfast and Geldards in Cardiff. Lawyers specialising in charities, employment, pensions, property, banking, corporate, intellectual property, commercial contracts, financial services and disputes were involved.

A spokesman for Age UK declined to reveal the cost of its legal fees.

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