Voyage focuses on staff in quest for quality
BRUCE McKENDRICK, chief executive of specialist care provider Voyage Care, talks to Caring Times editor Geoff Hodgson
“I have a real interest and desire to make a difference to lives, whether it’s my own or my family’s life, the lives of the people we support, the lives of the people who work for us, the lives of investors who are happy that we deliver great returns. It doesn’t matter – making a difference to people’s lives is a real driver for me. That is the vision for Voyage Care – to improve the quality of people’s lives.”
So speaks Bruce McKendrick, chief executive of Voyage Care, a specialist provider which, since acquiring Solor Care (formerly Robinia) in April, is now the biggest specialist care provider in the UK with an annual turnover of more than £180m.
With 363 registered care homes, averaging six to eight beds, Voyage supports people with learning disabilities, physically disabled people and those with acquired brain injuries in a variety of settings, including registered care homes, supported living and homecare.
Bruce is quick to qualify the bit about Voyage being the biggest, pointing out that the specialist care sector is very fragmented with Voyage’s market share, since the acquisition of Solor Care, being still less than 3.0% of the market.
His career path is not what might be expected for a boss of a specialist care provider group – he first qualified as a lawyer and spent a short time in private practice, and then in the construction and property development world before working as a corporate lawyer in the North Sea oil and gas industry. In 1990 he joined Eurotunnel, when construction had not long started, and was there for more than 10 years.
“During my time with Eurotunnel I stopped being a lawyer and became the retail director, building a massive duty-free, tax-free and food and beverage operation on both sides of the channel.”
Leaving Eurotunnel in 2000 he joined private equity-owned The Tussauds Group later that year as managing director and ran visitor attractions such as Alton Towers, Thorpe Park, Chessington World of Adventures, Warwick Castle, the London Eye and half a dozen Madame Tussauds around the world.
“During my seven years at The Tussauds Group we grew customer scores, staff satisfaction and profit from less than £30m to about £100m, most of it organic, so it was a fascinating time.
“I started with Voyage in 2010. When you think about my jobs over the previous 20 years, they were all in very customer-focused service businesses employing large numbers of staff, many of whom were young, or working on the frontline. So a lot of my experience has been around energising staff, how you support them, how you enable them to achieve their potential. That’s what I really love doing.”
Specialist care, I suggested, is surely, well, a specialist business, quite different from leisure and retail – massively regulated with a market dominated on the purchasing side by ever more cost-conscious local authorities and health trusts?
“I wasn’t really looking outside leisure to begin with,” said Bruce. “When I was approached to take on Voyage in early 2010 it really caught my imagination. I think it’s good to challenge yourself and get out of your comfort zone.”
What direction then, can we expect Voyage to take with Bruce McKendrick at the helm? Apart from the acquisition of Solor Care in April, the company has made just one other small acquisition in the North-east of England called Partners in Specialist Care, a very high-end support business, looking after people in their own homes who would otherwise be in intensive care.
“The previous growth of Voyage was built on investing large amounts of development Capex. I am focussing on targeted development, organic growth and selected M&A. Quality in this industry is absolutely about the quality of your staff, particularly home managers. We need the best managers we can have, with the best teams, and then we know that our services are being operated well, safely and to the highest standards. A huge amount of our effort is now going into proper recruitment, selecting the right types of people and training and developing them. If they haven’t got the right skills we can train them, but you’ve got to care to begin with, you’ve got to be of the right calibre.”
Such is the weight given to getting the right people on board that Voyage has begun to do some psychometric testing as part of its recruitment, developing its own matrix by analysing current staff to determine what makes a good care worker or otherwise.
“Customer focus in this sector is defined as being ‘person-centred’ so we’re big into person-centred thinking, person-centred planning, person-centred practices. I, and all of my team, have a one-page profile which shows what people like and admire about us, what’s important to us – in our personal lives as well as our work lives – and also how best we can all be supported. Eventually every member of staff will have such a profile and every one of the 2,500 people we support will have one. This will help us support them in a much more person centred way. It also helps us match staff to people, so if you have a person who likes animals, why not try to match them with a staff member who has a pet dog?
“I want to be able to communicate to our customers, to local authorities, that we have the best, most highly trained, highly motivated workforce, because that’s a key differentiator. If you are a care manager and you want somebody to be safe and looked after properly, then I think it’s very important that our staff are highly trained, highly motivated and highly compassionate towards the people they look after – it’s a very intense focus of ours.”
Voyage also deploys its workforce very differently from many other providers in that it moves people across different settings, just as those who need care move across different settings.
“We focus on the people we look after and say ‘this is the client group we are competent to look after and it doesn’t really matter where they are – we will look after them’.
“If somebody’s needs are reasonably high acuity, either with a learning disability, an acquired brain injury or a profound physical disability, we have the skills to look after them in a variety of different settings.
“For example, we have expanded our rotas to allow staff who are used to working in a registered home to also provide domiciliary care. The staff love it – giving people that variety makes their job more interesting and makes them happier and more passionate about working for Voyage.
“In domiciliary care, we have gone from a standing start 18 months ago to providing over 12,000 hours a week. Our ambition is to increase that significantly.”
What is Voyage’s approach to working with local authorities, many of which have sought to cut their spend on specialist care with moves towards supported living ‘funding calculators’, third-party oversight and other measures?
“Local authorities are our customers and I appreciate they are under a lot of pressure from central government as a result of the spending review, so we try to work with them,” said Bruce. “There are circumstances where a person is moved for financial reasons, the placement breaks down and the person has to be moved back, often at a higher fee because they need a lot more care, so it’s completely counter-productive. I think care managers and I are at one with that. They want the best care and they know what the consequences of moving a person can be, but financial pressures can force them to look for a lower-cost placement.
“So I’d much rather work with a local authority to find solutions to cost pressures. For example, a person may have improved significantly under our care so we can modify that care for a lower fee.”
Any plans for future growth?
“Until the economic world changed in 2007-08 people were comfortably making lots of money. Local authorities were placing people and fees were going up each year by inflation. There was plenty of money available for people to build nice new homes and fill them quickly. Across all sectors people were making decent profits without having to get stuck into the more difficult, more challenging aspects of business.
“Life has become a lot harder since then. Management teams need to work a lot harder and smarter to create value.
“But I passionately believe this is a sector in which we can expand. When I joined 18 months ago people told me that supported living was the new thing and that registered homes were dead. I didn’t believe it then, and I don’t believe it now. One of the reasons we bought Solor, which has a large number of registered homes, is because I don’t think many people were focused on it – they were part of this chase towards supported living.
“Will the specialist care market consolidate? Possibly, but I think one of the issues is that generally when people consolidate in other sectors they can take out a lot of costs. In small, six to eight bed homes you cannot get the economies of scale that are available in other sectors. It comes back to personalisation: we don’t buy cornflakes for 363 homes – people go with their carers to their local shop and buy the cereals of their choice and at the same time get to know the person behind the counter who is serving them. That’s an absolutely fundamental part of our service. So you’re not going to get those sorts of economies of scale.
“I think to some extent people have been looking at services in silos – registered care, supported living, domiciliary care – and that may have inhibited consolidation. Consolidation will have to be led by quality of provision. Voyage already has one of the highest quality reputations in the sector, but I want to take that even further. I want to challenge ourselves to be even better than we are now, more person-centred, better at developing our staff. That is what might lead to consolidation, because if local authorities start saying ‘Voyage is the best – that’s where we want to place our people’ we must have a presence nationwide to satisfy that demand.
“I love what I do. It’s so interesting and so challenging. It’s an advantage, sometimes, to come in with fresh eyes and look at different ways of going about things. While I loved what I did in the past, it was never as important and satisfying as this. We gave a lot of people a lot of fun, but at Voyage we really make a difference to people’s lives.”