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CEO Interview: David Ellis, National Star

PUBLISHED: 15:37 20 April 2017 | UPDATED: 15:37 20 April 2017

David Ellis, CEO of National Star in the grounds of the college at Ullenwood near Cheltenham

David Ellis, CEO of National Star in the grounds of the college at Ullenwood near Cheltenham

© Thousand Word Media

David Ellis is no stranger to the charity sector. From CLIC Sargeant via the National Trust, he’s been at the helm of National Star for the past seven years. And, as the organisation celebrates its 50th anniversary, there are ambitious plans afoot

On the table in the corner of David Ellis’ sunny office, overlooking National Star’s glorious grounds, is a plate of exquisite little cakes.

Pretty, petit fours - coconut tablet; miniature brownies; tiny, toppling scones filled with jam and clotted cream.

They’re the kind of things you’d see on a three-tiered porcelain cake stand in a smart hotel and are so inviting it’s all I can do not to eat all of them.

But this wasn’t the by-product of a quick whizz around Waitrose.

They’re made in the StarBistro, the renowned - and deservedly so - restaurant at the heart of National Star in Ullenwood.

Once upon a time, it was the brainchild of Cotswold chef Rob Rees and National Star, a vision of a kitchen where young people with complex disabilities could work alongside chefs to learn new skills and boost their employability.

It’s a triumph. Much like everything else National Star has accomplished under David’s seven-year leadership.

Things have come a very long way since the groundbreaking charity and specialist college - The Star Centre - opened its doors with just 10 students in 1967.

David Ellis, CEO of National Star, speaks with students Alex Johnson and Bethan Griffiths
David Ellis, CEO of National Star, speaks with students Alex Johnson and Bethan Griffiths

Diversification is now key to its considerable success, from the glamping pods - complete with barbecues and fire pits - it rents out to walkers on the Cotswold Way, to exclusive use weddings and glittering parties held in the wood-panelled rooms of the old manor house.

It’s this focus on attracting innovative revenue streams which has led to one of the charity’s most long-standing successes, and the one of which David is most proud - a working relationship with some of the biggest businesses in the UK.

“EDF Energy had their AGM at Old Trafford one year then they thought - because they’re in Barnwood - ‘let’s do something a bit more local’,” says David.

“So they looked around and found us and they came here and they were just wowed.

“That might be something to do with the fact we delivered ice creams to them out the front…. No, it’s been a great relationship, because they’ve taken trainees from us and they’ve employed students from us.”

From ice creams came this groundbreaking deal with the energy giant, which has now been rolled out to other companies nationwide - a commitment to take trainees from National Star on fixed-term supported internships, with support from the charity’s specialist team.

It embodies everything National Star is determined to do: enable people with disabilities to realise their aspirations, to be active participants in society.

Working in partnership with the community and businesses is something David strives for. And the relationship is most definitely two-way.

“Charities and businesses don’t operate in a bubble,” he says. “They don’t operate in isolation. They are both an integral part of the community and society as a whole.

“We play a part in the local community. We employ people, we provide services, and so do local businesses.

“It’s about using the skills and strengths of both to the benefit of society and the area.

“What we’ve got is the ability to work with and maximise the potential of young adults with complex disabilities and learning difficulties.

David Ellis, CEO of National Star in the grounds of the college at Ullenwood near CheltenhamDavid Ellis, CEO of National Star in the grounds of the college at Ullenwood near Cheltenham

“What they (EDF Energy) have is a requirement for a workforce. Working together, we’ve been able to convince them and show them that actually we can provide the support to enable them to trial students working with them.

“So they’ve given them fixed contracts and then sustain the individuals in that work environment.”

Discussions must have been tricky, at least in the beginning, I suggest.

“The conversations at the beginning of the relationship are often very difficult,” he says.

“For completely understandable reasons. EDF Energy was nervous about employing people with disabilities, they weren’t sure about the level of support, they weren’t sure about the impact it would have on the rest of the workforce and productivity.

“It was really about saying let’s just work together, let’s try it.”

One of the early-days placements didn’t work out. National Star went in, addressed the issues and moved the intern.

It gave EDF Energy the confidence to carry on, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Now, a number of small businesses as well as large corporations are taking supported internships as part of the Steps into Work programme. It’s been a huge success, with 83% of interns successfully completing and finding employment.

National Star also works with more than 140 businesses as part of its skills for work programme which provides meaningful work experience.

Juggling the expectations of families with the needs of the students and stakeholders is no mean feat.

On site in Ullenwood at any one time are 170 learners, 120 of whom are resident, and, across its different sites a 853-strong workforce, made up of full and part-timers who keep the cogs turning 24/7.

It’s a surprisingly big player in the Gloucestershire economy.

The college boasts a centre in Hereford and another in south Wales; its learners staff the StarBistro in Cheltenham’s Royal Crescent; there’s StarGolf and StarSwim and StarPrint, and it has programmes running across the UK, including independent travel training in the south east.

Here, specialists work with young people who can’t travel on their own either because they have confidence issues or for whom physical disabilities or learning difficulties get in the way – and make it happen.

This one programme alone is saving local authorities tens of thousands of pounds in taxi fares.

“That’s a win-win,” says David. “There’s a win to the local authority, because there’s reduced expenditure, and there’s a win for the individual because they’re much more independent and they get out and about by themselves - which is what we’re all about.

“It’s a big success. We give individuals the message that they are equal and active citizens. It’s one thing saying you have equal rights and equal access to services, but the other side of the coin is responsibility. Be active. Don’t be a passive recipient of care.”

David is quietly-spoken, warm, affable, measured - until the subject of adult care provision comes up.

It’s clear this is a subject he feels passionate about.

“One of the reasons we’re protecting our post-16 and post-19 provision is because we want to develop those skills of working with young adults, and part of that transition is from home to independent living,” he says.

It might be a geographical transition - learners come from all over the UK - or simply working with families who find it hard to let go.

“The college is a transition from childhood to adulthood, from one part of the country to another, school to employment,” David says. “Transition feeds everything we do.”

This is coming from the master of transition, I venture.

A physics and geophysics graduate, he volunteered abroad after university and was hooked by the charity sector.

That followed high-profile positions with the Red Cross, Guide Dogs and the National Trust, but it was his years at cancer charity CLIC Sargent that moulded him into the man he is today - universally revered in the corporate world for his incredible analytical skills and clarity of thought.

“Look,” he says, when I ask him how his education fed into his career. “When you’re 18, you pick a degree and you’re never quite sure why.

“The honest answer is, when you start working in a voluntary sector capacity you begin to see things, and I fell in love with it.

“No, I haven’t really used my physics degree - but it did teach me a certain way of thinking, an analysis that in a management job is actually very helpful.”

Soon after he joined Bristol-based CLIC (Cancer and Leukaemia in Childhood), an organisation which supported children’s cancer nurses, he found a synergy with Sargent Cancer Care, whose role was to support children’s social workers.

“Often we’d go and work with the front-line staff and see a Sargeant social worker working with a CLIC nurse on the same case. Sometimes sharing the same office, sometimes sharing the same desk,” David says.

“It was very obvious that the synergy was just there, and for all the reasons - not just economy, of scale or from a financial point of view - it made sense to try to take them through a merger.

“Gratefully, it worked, because the last time I looked it was about a £25 million charity. When I picked up CLIC it was about a £5m charity. I’m really proud of it.”

David’s vision is formidable.

When he arrived at National Star, it was, as he says, just a charity and a college of further education, albeit a “brilliant” one.

But he knew diversification was the only way to survive in a challenging economic climate, not least having to weather swingeing local authority cuts.

Part of that has been developing additional services in different areas and opening longer-term accommodation in Gloucester and Malvern Link.

It’s the only time I see him agitated. And then only slightly. Why? Because local authorities, he says, is not listening.

“There’s a huge need for students who have particularly complex needs,” he says.

“There’s a strong push for supported living among local authority commissioners, but we’ve had a lot of students who’ve left us who want to live with a peer group, and actually supported living is very isolating.

“You get three 15-minute visits a day and that’s it, whereas if you’re actually living in a community it’s much better. But of course there’s a push against residential care because it’s seen as institutionalised but it doesn’t have to be. Institutionalisation is only about the culture you adopt.

“I don’t know many 20-somethings who want to live on their own. Most, when they come out of college or university want to live in a group, with friends in a shared house.

“Why are our students any different?

“We always look at them as young adults first. Their disability does not define them. If young adults want to live in small housing groups, why would it be any different if they have disabilities?

“There’s certainly a strong desire to push supported living, and I do understand that, but we need to be much more cognisant of the wishes of the client group.”

So what does the future hold for National Star? The strategic concept is the central hub at Ullenwood - a hub of expertise and knowledge - but being so close to the centres in Hereford and south Wales allows specialists to work together.

“One of the things that makes National Star special is that we work on a multi-disciplinary approach and a student-focused approach,” David says.

“Both of those sound like management speak, but in practice what that means is that, if you put the student right at the heart of your thinking, and you say, ‘what does this individual need?’, then you’ll get the team of specialists to start working around that individual.

“So the physiotherapist starts working with the language therapist and the occupational therapist, and they say, ‘look, if we just did this, it would be much better for the individual’ rather than their own specialist disciplines.”

It’s a huge juggling act, and that’s without the outside safeguarding and lifting and handling training programmes the charity runs.

Plans are in place for another centre, further afield, though David remains tight-lipped about its whereabouts and he admits the challenges of running even one operation are enormous - not least recruitment.

Cheltenham isn’t blessed with high unemployment, and the uncertainty surrounding Brexit will affect the 8% of National Star’s workforce that comes from European countries outside the UK.

“We put a lot of store by getting the right people, and so if the people who come aren’t right or don’t fit or don’t work to the values and standards of National Star, then they won’t last,” says David.

“But I do like a challenge. What keeps me here? The honest answer is the organisation itself.

“I’ve worked at a lot of charities and this one stands head and shoulders above everything else, and the reason for that is the people are superb. Wonderful people to work with, the students are great and it’s not a bad environment.

“The goodwill in this organisation is the glue that holds the whole thing together. Anyone managing this organisation needs to be fully cognisant of the amount of goodwill that goes on here.”

It’s something a lot of CEOs would do well to remember. That, and cake.

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