Aspen Medical provides doctors on demand. It has grown fast since it was founded in 2003, and co-founder Glenn Keys shares what he has learnt about managing cash flow and building loyal relationships with suppliers with AMANDA GOME.
By Amanda Gome
Why are there so few fast growing companies in the health industry? Entrepreneur Glenn Keys has no idea, because there are enormous opportunities for entrepreneurs with innovative solutions to the problems in the health system.
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Glenn Keys is proving his point. His company, Canberra-based Aspen Medical, was started little more than four years ago and revenue has just doubled to $44 million for 2006-07, up from $19 million the previous year. The company was profitable after the first year, Keys says.
Glenn (right, with partner Andrew Walker) is happy to answer your questions. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
Amanda Gome: Why did you start Aspen Medical?
Glenn Keys: I could see an opportunity. I had been best friends at high school and best man to a doctor, Andrew Walker. I saw some changes in the UK market in the way they were changing their medical practices and processes and suggested he do something similar. They were looking at lots of ways to reduce the waiting lists and I could see that happening in Australia.
He said he didn’t have the project and tendering experience, and I told him I did. (Keys, who trained as an engineer, had spent years working in a US multi-national in business development, planning and logistics.) So it made sense to do it together.
You were almost 40 years old with young kids and a big salary. What did your partner say?
My wife was so supportive. I couldn’t have done it if she had even just said ‘it’s up to you. Do what you like.’ I needed her 100% committed and that really mattered when the money got tight.
How tough was it? You were setting up a business in the conservative health industry, which was used to government, not the private sector…
Starting the business was not tough. In fact we got our first contract in the UK delivering a report for the NHS (National Health System). That was very well received and from there we developed links and contacts.
What was tough was we grew faster than expected. To start the business we tipped in tens of thousands. But then we grew so fast we had to empty all our bank accounts to survive. Looking back I didn’t need those heart palpitations. I could have found a way to get a line of credit or had a better understanding of payment terms.
We also had to get customers to change their thinking. They would say: we have no staff we can’t do it. So we had to get people in the health system to say we don’t have enough staff: what are the innovative options we have?
How did you get them to change? How did you market the company?
Like any innovative start up. We pounded the boards and lined up people and talked to them. We also forwarded details of every previous contract.
(Aspen provides healthcare solutions and projects worldwide including Solomon Islands, Timor Leste, Ireland, England, Cook Islands, Malaysia, Samoa and clients include Rio Tinto, Australian Defence Force, Queensland Health and many Australian government departments.)
In some cases it is just the surgical teams. In others it is the whole management including planning and logistics.
You organise surgical teams to operate in hospitals. How can you guarantee the quality?
I am a big believer in not getting a phone call at 2am saying someone has died on your watch. So we do all our own credentioning and audits and we are also accredited to ISO 9001.
What is the hardest job you have ever done?
There was an accident outside the hospital at Caboolture (just north of Brisbane), 200 metres from the emergency department which had just closed, so the people had to be transported to another hospital. It became very charged with the media involved, and we were called in. But we had it open again until 11pm after two and a half weeks and open 24 hours after six weeks.
What is one great challenge?
Finding and retaining staff. We need to find people of a similar culture. We use a lot of internal references so we ask our great people, do you know other great people? We have 300 people and turnover is about 3% a year.
How will you grow?
The Labor (party) has committed significant money to reduce waiting lists, so we expect a lot more growth although it won’t continue to double.
Attitudes are continuing to change so we are doing more work in regional Australia. We are keeping our eyes open for acquisitions and have just bought a medical legal company that does Workcover checks.
We talk of floating or a trade sale but we are taking our time.
So why have there been so few companies started in the health industry? Is it because it has been government-owned for so long?
I don’t know. Perhaps the industry is not as innovative. As for opportunities: I have many ideas but I’m not giving them away.
>> See also the video profiling Aspen Medical in our feature Lessons from Top Entrepreneurs.