Coronavirus crisis taught us what it really means to care

Jamil Mawji, Co-Founder of National Care Group, recently featured in a Sunday Times article where he reflected on the beginning of the business and its growth through the Coronavirus crisis.


When he started National Care Group five years ago, Jamil Mawji “rented three desks in the basement of a small office on the Strand in London— and there were two guys, a dog and a dream”. He had no idea he would soon be leading the business through the sector’s biggest crisis.

National Care Group has grown into one of the UK’s biggest independent providers of care for people with learning disabilities and brain injuries. Sales were almost £60 million in the year to March 2020 — up by nearly a third from 2019 — and underlying earnings were £3.8 million. Then Covid hit.

Since the start of the pandemic, 10 per cent of the group’s 1,300 customers have tested positive for Covid. Six have died. Two employees have also lost their lives.

“We’ve been lucky [not to have suffered worse], but it’s been very hard,” said Mawji.

The company had a daily Covid call when the crisis was at its peak. The meetings became weekly as the situation eased and are now bi-weekly.

National Care Group owes its existence to a happier moment — a chance encounter in an antenatal class. Mawji’s wife, Fatima Jivraj, became friends with the wife of 99p Stores heir Faisal Lalani. The two men struck up a friendship and, with 99p Stores having been sold to Poundland in 2015, went into business together — first with care homes and, more recently, a UK franchise for Taco Bell restaurants.

Mawji’s entrepreneurial instinct was instilled in him by his father, who ran a dry cleaning business with seven stores in Edmonton, Canada. Born in Tanzania, Mawji and his family moved repeatedly during his childhood, to the UK in the early 1970s and then — after being unable to secure a visa — to Canada.

Although he did well in school, he never felt that he put down roots in Edmonton. “It just wasn’t me — I didn’t fit in,” he said. He was accepted by several Ivy League universities, but instead went on a scholarship to Queen’s University near Toronto. “That’s where I flourished,” said Mawji, now 48.

After university, he landed a job working for Goldman Sachs in New York. He also did stints at GE Capital and Deutsche Bank, before starting an asset management firm in London in 2013.

After three years, he decided to leave the business. “Asset management wasn’t for me,” he said. “We could have done very well financially — but it’s not always about money.”

After taking the London office on the Strand to explore new ideas, Mawji and Lalani, now 44, spotted an opportunity to build a new care group using technology and tailored care plans.

The pair were ambitious and put in “a couple of million pounds” to get the business off the ground. “Care is one of those businesses where you have to invest to grow, and you can’t just do it organically,” said Mawji. “Or if you do, it will take years.”

And taking years was not their plan: “We are called National Care Group for a reason — we wanted to be national. We weren’t looking at being a small company.”

The founders adopted a “buy and build” approach, acquiring care providers. Since the first deal in October 2016, they have made a further 42. “Each of those businesses has doubled in size since we bought it.” The group now employs 2,500.

One of its early mistakes was hiring on the basis of experience, rather than attitude, Mawji said. “It’s a very cold-hearted banker way: thinking, ‘they have the skillset, I can get along with them, [and therefore] they’ll fit’. But actually we should have been hiring to our values [from the start].”

Creating a business in the care sector has changed Mawji’s outlook in ways he had not predicted. “I’ve become hard in some ways — I’ve found I don’t take a lot of [nonsense] anymore. Before, as an investment banker, you’d have to position things in a certain way. Now we tell it like it is. If there’s a problem, we won’t hide from it.”

In other ways, he has softened and become more attuned to what makes people tick. “I’m more understanding of what it is to be a care worker and of choosing a career based on what you get out of it, other than money.”

Mawji praised the efforts of the group’s carers during the pandemic: “A young lady drove miles and miles from her home because .. . all the service users and staff had Covid. She packed her bags, left her family behind, and moved into that home for a week to take care of them.”

Having the right people in place helped when it came to the Covid crisis. Mawji, who has three children and lives with GP wife Fatima in London, said his best piece of advice for entrepreneurs was to recruit “for your values”. But added: “If you believe in your growth, hire early. Don’t wait for the growth to come.”

© The Sunday Times Hannah Prevett is Deputy Editor of Times Enterprise Network