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The new director of the Institute of Health Services Management could do worse than find a role model in Agatha Christie's most unlikely heroine.

Stuart Marples - currently chief executive of Royal Bournemouth and Christchurch Hospitals trust - is quietly spoken and mild-mannered. Like his near namesake, Christie's Miss Marple, he would be easy to underestimate. Colleagues describe him as 'humble' and 'modest'. But if he is to lead the financially scarred Institute of Health Services Management into a brighter future, her detection skills could prove invaluable.

But Mr Marples is reluctant to probe the mysteries of the IHSM's financial situation - at least until he takes up his post later this summer. 'I don't see that I know a lot more than anyone else in the institute about the losses - if there were losses,' he offers cautiously.

On the organisation's financial track record, he admits: 'I suspect that does hang heavy over us.' But the long-serving trust chief executive will say little more.

'I don't know I understand the nature of the problem. How can I define the nature of the solution before I have started work? That would be presumptuous,' he adds.

Recognising the organisation's need for 'a sound financial base', he insists he cannot plan how this will come about until 'I see the scale of the problem - if there is a problem'. And this cannot happen until the balance sheets - due out in a few weeks - are published.

Mr Marples has spent 14 years in Bournemouth - first as unit general manager and, since 1992, as chief executive of what appears to be a model trust. It started tackling waiting numbers and times 'years before it became a national priority', and last year 'exceeded national waiting- list targets by three times'.

It was the first trust to receive a whole-trust Investors in People award, has its own open learning centre and awards its own NVQs.

So why would Mr Marples want to leave sunny Bournemouth and take on the IHSM?

'It's a very exciting opportunity. I am committed to the institute and I have always been committed to good management in the health service.'

He sees the post as an 'honour and a privilege' - a chance to influence good management practice. 'Leaving this trust will be a wrench. But I have reached a point in its development where I feel safe leaving the organisation. It feels like the right time.'

Mr Marples' career - stretching back 30 years - offers some clues to his interest in the IHSM and the direction he wants to take it.

He joined the NHS as a regional administrative trainee in the 1960s following his A-levels, and took IHSM qualifications.

As health service management became more graduate-oriented, he went back to night school, the qualifications leading him to a general management job at Rotherham General Hospital.

'For four years, I spent three nights a week at what was Sheffield Poly, doing a degree in business studies, and getting up at 5am to travel to Mansfield, where I was working as a deputy hospital secretary.'

'It was a big commitment at the time,' Mr Marples acknowledges, crediting his wife who brought up their family at the same time.

Education is, he believes, the key to the future development of the organisation, due to merge shortly with the Association of Managers in General Practice to form the Institute of Healthcare Management.

'In many ways it has been that interest area that has drawn me into this change of direction. I do firmly believe in management development as one of the primary reasons for this organisation.'

Mr Marples believes the combination of education and a new generation of managers is key to boosting the IHSM's membership.

'If we could only harness a proportion of the enthusiasm and optimism of those people coming up through the training system - that seems to be the best way to boost our membership.'

But he is also aware that management development has been one of the IHSM's priorities for years without having a significant impact on membership numbers.

What will be different this time?

'It is quite difficult to answer that in prospect. All I can say is I have a good track record in fulfilling the objectives I have been set.'

He emphasises the value of his past experience - in particular, an IHSM mentoring programme he piloted in South and West region.

'The evaluation of that programme was extremely positive.

'We need a total acknowledgement from the management community that there is a need for continuing professional development. That managers do not reach a certain level and then just free-wheel.'

Mr Marples is also keen to build links between the IHSM and the 'wider family of management'.

Pressed for detail, his caution returns. 'I don't know whether it is appropriate for me to go dabbling in at the moment. It may be this has already been tried. On the face of it, though, there is scope for development.'

Last year former IHSM president Ken Jarrold called on it to embrace its role as 'the voice of the NHS manager, able to speak unafraid to ministers about some of the things they are doing'.

Mr Maples agrees. 'I do accept the point that the institute needs to stand up and be counted.

'Raising the profile of managers is key to the improvement of the healthcare system.'

Yet he is reluctant to comment on any political agenda of 'manager bashing' beyond saying: 'I'm not sure it has got any worse.'

Mr Marples' plans for the IHSM suggest a change of emphasis more than direction. 'I am very conscious of the history of the institute,' he says. 'I am not planning to bring in a new broom and sweep all of that out of the way.'