Boda Gallon, Chief executive of Keiro

Chief executive of Keiro Boda Gallon isn’t afraid to challenge the status quo, but as he tells reporter Robert Gibson, effective partnerships could prove the key to making a success of his latest venture, The Gateway

Chief executive of Keiro Boda Gallon
Chief executive of Keiro Boda Gallon

On Saturday, thousands flocked to the Chase Park Neuro Centre in Whickham, Gateshead, for a dazzling music festival headlined by Sunderland rock band, The Futureheads.

It’s the fourth year the event has been held and the concept remains as simple as ever: to include those with disabilities in something the rest of us would take for granted.

Yet, Boda Gallon, who runs the centre, says it’s still a radical idea to some.

“Healthcare has not necessarily been an innovative field,” he adds.

And here’s where Boda stands apart; whether introducing a health club at the rehabilitation centre or exploring the benefits of art therapy, he keeps his focus firmly on what works, not on what everyone else is doing.

Yet the chief executive of Keiro also speaks passionately about collaboration – which perhaps isn’t surprising, given the scale of his most recent project.

The Gateway in Middlesbrough, due to open in December, will be the first facility of its kind in the UK, featuring not only rehabilitation services for people who’ve suffered brain injuries or have neurological problems, but a specialist community wellbeing hub, and transitional housing in partnership with Erimus Housing, part of the Fabrick Group.

The aim is to support the NHS by facilitating quicker discharge from hospital and reducing long-term care costs by helping people live more independent lives.

The centre will also have close links with the nearby Middlesbrough College, boosting the number of disabled people getting into education.

It’s little wonder Boda believes it could prove so successful he could double both his current £3m turnover and 100-stong team of employees within only a couple of years. “If we nail this, we have a scalable business model,” he says excitedly.

“But for us to become investor-ready we have to be able to grow our executive team, grow our systems, to become much more fit for purpose as a larger organisation, but without losing the core fundamental values that underpin everything we do.”

Naturally, it’s a “huge risk”, as Boda himself admits. This is an untested model and, while Keiro’s previous business activities have been funded with its own money, its role in this £10m project is financed through a £6.5m loan from Lloyds TSB Commerical.

“It’s a real leap of faith,” Boda says.

“Fundamentally, the bank has all the assets from our existing business and we’re putting them at risk, as we’re pushing boundaries again to a much more significant level.”

But the 42-year-old takes comfort in the fact that so many people have trust in the project – from the “forward-thinking” Lloyds to partners Erimus, the college, Middlesbrough Council and the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA).

Indeed, in his mind, Keiro is becoming less of a standalone service provider and more of an integration manager.

“The system is currently fragmented, but in the chaos is the opportunity,” he says.

If Boda sounds more like a Zen master than your typical British businessman, the explanation may lie in his exposure to other cultures from an early age.

For five years just before his birth, his parents lived in Japan, his father, John, living his dream of being a top-level professional judo fighter.

It was natural, then, that Boda should be named after a famous judo competitor of the day – and that he himself should develop an affinity with the country during a gap year he’d spend there, aged 18 (Keiro means “pathway” in Japanese, providing a more meaningful name for a specialist healthcare provider than its previous one, Whickham Villa LLP).

On returning to England, Boda’s parents settled in Whickham and, with John continuing to work as a judo teacher, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Boda himself went on to shine at the sport. He was technically a Commonwealth Champion in 1994 – technically because the host nation, Canada, decided not to include judo officially that year – but was prevented from competing in the Atlanta Olympics two years later because of a recurring shoulder problem.

“I retired at 27 and that’s really young,” he says.

“Judo was my passion and I felt really sorry for myself.

“I’m a competitor and if I had my life again, I’d love to be a judo champion.”

In this life, Boda completed a business studies degree at Liverpool University and later went on to do an MSc in property development at Manchester. During his studies, he undertook research for engineering and project management company Amec, then, when his father had a spell of poor health, became involved in the family business, the Millfield House Care Home.

By own his admission, Boda knew little about care homes, but he did have a businessman’s natural sense that people needed something that wasn’t being provided.

“I said, ‘Dad, you’ve got three options’,” he recalls.

“One, you can do nothing; two, you can sell the business; or three, you can let me do something completely different with it.

“I thought he’d sell it, but instead he said, ‘See what you can do’.”

Boda’s first move was close a good portion of it down, refocusing it on providing services for younger adults.

At first, it was a steep learning curve, but this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it meant Boda was forced to get to grips with everything from management to day-to-day tasks.

Within a number of years, through hard work and vision, then, he developed a renowned 60-bed centre, divided between rehabilitation and nursing care, along with a health club.

If the centre has a mission, it’s to help people reach their potential and make the most of their lives, rather than being pushed immediately into specialist homes.

The focus on rehabilitation isn’t just good for the individual, but for the State, Boda argues – and he can back that up with real-life examples.

“In the case of one young lad, Paul Belk, the life costs for him going into a long-term specialist care home would have been about �4m to the State,” he says. “But his mum and dad fought hard for him to get to our rehabilitation service. Two years later and he’s now discharged.

“This is someone who was going to be left fully dependent for everything, but who is now living with a personal assistant in South Shields and working two days a week for the NHS himself.

“The cost to the State will be about �1.4m and he’s actually become a wealth creator.”

It was Paul, a drummer, who, along with an occupational therapist at the centre, inspired the Chase Park Music Festival.

Boda had already rejected a proposal from a law firm that a conference be held there – “It’s the same old people saying the same old things and it never attracts the end users” – but was intrigued by the idea of an event that would raise the company’s profile in a way that was in line with its values.

“I said, ‘I’ll give you two weeks and a �5,000 budget’,” he recalls.

“‘See what you can do – go ahead and scope it out. My only condition is that the event will be free’.

“People with disabilities often cannot afford to pay for things like music tickets. It had to be accessible, the kids from the local school would steward it and fundamentally it would be about building the community.”

Thus the festival was born and, like Keiro itself, it’s gone from strength to strength, last year becoming the only one in the country to receive a silver standard assessment from the charity Attitude is Everything.

Boda, who’s clearly still got the fighting spirit despite giving up competitive judo, is now determined to win a gold.

In saying that, whatever he undertakes, achieving work-life balance remains important, with Boda teaching judo classes twice a week and following both Newcastle United and the Newcastle Falcons.

He’s also keen to spend as much time as possible with wife, Liza, and his three young children, Rocca, Mischa and Renzo.

As to his over-riding business philosophy: “You only get one shot at life and life is about people.

“Any business has its challenges, but you get more out of seeing real outcomes for people than from making a few quid.

“If you can make a few quid while doing something worthwhile, that’s the ideal.”

The Questionnaire

What car do you drive?

Audi A6.

What’s your favourite restaurant?

Pasqualinos at the Theatre Royal.

Who or what makes you laugh?

My three kids and proper dad dancing.

What’s your favourite book?

The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff.

What was the last album you bought?

Home by Rudimental.

What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got?

A sportsman.

If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you would teach it to say?

“Fridge pickers wear big knickers!”

What’s your greatest fear?

My kids getting hurt.

What’s the best piece of business advice you’ve received?

Put People first!

And the worst?

If it’s not broke don’t fix it!

What’s your poison?

Guinness or a Mojito.

What newspapers do you read?

The Guardian and the Sunday Times

How do you keep fit?

Spinning and chasing my three kids around the house at bedtime!

What’s your most irritating habit?

Misplacing my car keys.

How much was your first pay packet?

An offer of free board and lodgings from my dad in return for taking judo classes for him.

What’s your biggest extravagance?

I’m not extravagant on anything other than cars.

What historical or fictional character do you most identify with or admire? 

Muhammad Ali and Homer Simpson.

How would you like to be remembered?

For my passion, my vision and my fun.

Which four people would you most like to dine with?

Prince, Anthony Robins, Keith Lemon, Yasuhiro Yamashita [one of the most successful judo competitors]

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer