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Grupo Ballesol: Retirement Can Be Beautiful

The Madrid company's retirement homes are more like five-star hotels than traditional nursing homes

Grupo Ballesol, a Spanish operator of retirement homes, flourishes at the high end of a labor-intensive business. The Madrid company employs 65 people to tend to every 100 residents in its 32 retirement homes. A medical team of around seven doctors and specialists attends each center, and all employees have to attend at least 15 days training just to start work.

And the facilities? They're more like five-star hotels than nursing homes: ritzy locations, formal table settings, fresh flowers. The approach works. Sales rose 138% last year, to 50 million euros ($64 million). The company doesn't disclose profits, but average monthly rates for a resident are 1,800 euros.

Grupo Ballesol owes its success to Lola Soler, who, after raising four children and without prior work experience outside of the home, decided to combine her husband's knowledge of the construction industry with her own love of caregiving. She opened the group's first facility in 1980, after an exhaustive study of the market and nursing-home industry outside of Spain. That first center became one of the few comfortable alternatives to the nursing-home options then available to Spaniards, which consisted of spartan religious hospitals or asylums for the elderly. "I have always enjoyed working with sick people and seniors. You have to in order to be in this business," Soler told a radio interviewer recently.


Ballesol's success has attracted some of the smartest investors in Europe. British venture-capital firm 3i has put 18 million euros on the table to back the company's project of further, faster growth, in return for a 20% stake. By the end of next year, Ballesol will have 47 centers up and running. As Europe ages, business should stay brisk. Spain's central government is also pumping an additional 12.5 billion euros into elderly care between now and 2015.

Meanwhile, Ballesol is easing its way into a market segment as yet underdeveloped in Spain. It will open a 400-bed resort next summer on Spain's eastern coast in Alicante, where residents can rent or own an apartment on the beach. Based on Ballesol's track record, those apartments should be quite spectacular.

Tarzian is a correspondent for BusinessWeek in Madrid .

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