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THE BIG INTERVIEW: Helping Hands CEO Andy Hogarth

6C1B0581 Andy Hogarth cropped

After 18 months at the helm of Helping Hands, Andy Hogarth discusses the pressures of stepping into a company with a 30-year heritage, the challenges of leading a home care business through a pandemic and the strategies he’s introduced in order to improve quality and empower the workforce.

Like many people who enter the care sector, Andy Hogarth did so because he wanted to make a difference to people’s lives. Domiciliary carers had looked after his mum in the last few months of her life and that made a huge impact on him. He wanted to give something back and help people live their best lives possible.

But he didn’t have the easiest of starts – taking the reins of a family business with a 30-year heritage was daunting enough, without then facing the challenge of leading a company through a pandemic just 14 months into
the role.

Here, the CEO of Helping Hands talks about overcoming these challenges, the strategies he has introduced that have led to quality improvement and his heart-felt vision for the business.

Helping Hands operates over 100 branches across the UK.

Where were you before you joined Helping Hands?
I was the CEO of a business called Staffline Recruitment. I retired from this position, but I wasn’t very good at being retired. So I left there in January 2018 and had a hugely enjoyable summer of not doing very much. Then I realised, actually, I needed to go to work. So I joined Helping Hands as chairman, after the investment that was made by Livingbridge, a private equity firm, to help grow the company. Then, after a few months, Tim [Lee] and I decided to swap roles, so I became CEO and he became the chairman.

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What led to that decision?
It’s hard to say. Things just sort of evolved. There was never a decision, it just ended up feeling like the right thing to do for both of us. Tim had been growing the business for 30 years – his entire adult life – and done a phenomenal job. There are very few entrepreneurs that can take the business from very small beginnings to about £100 million a year in turnover. His mother, Mary, started the business, but it was very small at the time, and I think it just got to the point where Tim wanted to take a step back and have more of an overview, rather than being involved in the nuts and bolts of it every day.

I brought to the job experience of running large corporations. Staffline was doing about £20 million a year when I joined and, by the time I left, we were doing about a billion. So I was used to putting in systems and processes that enables a company to remain successful as it grows. Tim very much wants to see Helping Hands grow like that. I don’t think we’ll reach £1 billion, but that sort of scale of growth, and I think he’d probably felt he’d done his bit by the time he’d stepped up to the chair role.

Did you feel nervous about stepping into a family business with a 30-year heritage?
Very. There’s 30 years of history and it’s really important to respect and honour that. You have to be much more sensitive than you would in a normal corporate business. We’ve had people employed here virtually since day one, and so we owe them a lot for their time with the business. So my aim is to try and keep the family feel to the business, but also professionalise it.

Professionalising can actually sometimes mean that a company becomes very corporate and very unfeeling, but it’s really important that we always remember that this is a people business. It’s a trite thing to say, but, actually, we have no business at all if we don’t look after our people.

It’s really important to me that we continue to do that and allow people to grow, if that’s what they want to do. And if they’re happy in the role they’re already doing, then we’ll support them to stay in that role, and make them
feel cared for and able to enjoy what they do.

If we can continue to make a positive impact on people’s lives, then that’s enough of a vision for me.

What inspired you to join the home care sector?
It’s interesting, isn’t it? I think what we do is probably about the most important thing that any human being can do in work, or in life. When you really get down to it, the only thing that matters in the world are other people. Lots of people go to work every day and they’ll make a lot of money, but the jobs that really matter are the ones that have an impact on other people’s lives. There’s millions of those jobs – you could become a fireman or a doctor and save people’s lives. What we do, not just at Helping Hands, but in the whole care space, is give people the best quality of life that we can give and that is right up there with saving a life.

That sense of purpose, for me, is what gets me out of bed in the morning. There’s all sorts of things I love about business – I’ve spent my life being involved in running different businesses, but to do so in a way that actually adds something to humankind is really important. Joining the company was with trepidation after 30 years of Tim being the boss, but knowing that there were things that I could do that I thought would help and improve the company gave me a real sense of excitement, and still does.

Helping Hands offers a range of services, from live-in care to respite care.

What was your strategy coming into the business 18 months ago and has this changed at all since then?
The first thing I wanted to do when I joined the business was to improve the quality of what we offered. We’d gone through a pretty turbulent period of growth and, as the company expanded, I think that some of that original ethos of the business had got watered down, simply because there were so many new people joining us. So the quality of the service that we’re offering our customers was just starting to go slightly wrong.

We’d got to the point where we were getting a number RIs (Requires Improvement) on inspections, and I think to have an RI is probably the worst thing we can do in our business. So we’ve put in some quite stringent quality processes and our new head of quality, Karen Reid, has driven a lot of change, which has had a massive impact. It’s changed the way that we look at our business.

The carer comes first in our business because if we look after our carers then they will look after our customers, and I think it has to be that way around. Ultimately, of course, customers are really important because it’s their money that we use to pay all the overheads and pay the salaries, but without the carers being happy and wanting to come to work then we don’t really have a business.

So the strategy initially was to put the carer at the centre of everything that we do and to make sure that the quality of what we do is as good as it can possibly be. You never get to the end of that journey – you can always improve on things.

How challenging is it to make sure that your carers are happy? It’s not easy making sure that they’re well paid, they have training opportunities and have good career prospects…
We do pay well, so that’s a fairly simple thing. We charge our customers more than most other care providers and we use that money to pay our carers more than most other care providers. But, in my experience, people don’t go to work for just the money. We all have to go to work and we all have to pay the rent and buy food, but once we’ve done that, there’s an awful lot more to gain from work than pay.

There’s an old saying that nobody comes into care to make a fortune. The pay is not as good for carers as it would be in other industries, so it’s more important that we support them in other ways. We can give them gifts to show them we appreciate them, but what really matters is that if something goes wrong and the carer doesn’t know what to do, for instance, then there’s somebody on the end of the phone to help them solve the problem that they are faced with. We need to be there to help and support them.
We introduced, fairly early on, autonomy to our branches and I think that’s probably one of the biggest things that I’ve brought into the company in the last 18 months, along with Karen Mackenzie, who’s our managing director and joined at the same time as I did.

One of the biggest things that I’ve introduced in the last 18 months is autonomy to our local managers – empowering them to make a decision.

How does that autonomy empower your managers?
Historically, Helping Hands had been run from the centre, like many organisations that start off very small. Mary started the business from her kitchen table, so she knew everything that was going on and could control it. As the company has grown – we had just under 100 branches when I joined – there’s an awful lot of people to make sure they’re all doing the right things in the right way. The organisation was set up with a controller at the centre, rather than out there in the field, and my experience and knowledge over the years has shown me that companies can get to a certain size where the founder or CEO can control it from the middle, but there comes a point when that no longer works.

The care sector is so fast-moving and a problem can suddenly grow so quickly that, actually, you need people that are very close to the issue to
be able to make decisions and sort things out. So that’s probably one of the biggest things that we’ve done in the last 18 months – to empower our local managers to make a decision. Sometimes they’ll make a mistake, and that’s absolutely fine because we all make mistakes. I make more mistakes than anybody because the role I’m in means I have to make more decisions.

We’ve created the ‘Granny Test’, so as a Helping Hands manager, before you make a decision, you have to ask, in your head, ‘would my granny approve of what I’m about to do?’ Your granny wants you to do the right thing because she wants to be proud of you and what you’re doing, so you have to think ‘is what I’m about to do morally okay and is it ethically okay?’ And, if it is, then get on and do it because we will support you.

That takes people a long time to accept and understand because in most organisations people aren’t allowed to make decisions – it all has to go up the chain and then come back down very slowly. So, we’re still on this journey – we don’t yet have that with every manager in the business, but we want to push that through to carers as well, so that a carer does what they think is the right thing to do to look after their customer at any given time. Getting that sense of ownership actually changes the whole organisation and its journey we’re on. It’s what I’ve been on before and it worked. And I’m confident that it will work again, particularly in this
space, because nobody goes into care to not care.

So, it’s all about putting trust in your workforce…
Yes, and if you can do that then it gets repaid in shuttle loads because they end up feeling like they can do the right thing and get on and do it. And if they’re not sure, there needs to be someone there for them to ask.

In terms of challenges you have faced, it can’t have been easy leading the business through a pandemic, 14 months into the role…
Yes, there would have been better times to start, wouldn’t there? We’ve all learned a huge amounts in the last few months and the world that we thought existed has been thrown upside down. I was extraordinarily lucky in that I’d just bought someone into the business from a consultancy to look at our procurement processes in general.

She started work about a week before all this kicked off and, instead of looking at her processes, suddenly she was just on the phone trying to buy PPE. That was just luck that she happened to be here at the right time. It was somebody I’ve worked with in the past and I knew I could trust her to get on and do what we needed to do. And, of all the things in the early days, I was very happy that we were able to send every one of our carers out with sufficient PPE and to know that, to the best of our ability, we’re keeping them safe. That’s changed over time; the requirements keep changing as we learn more about COVID, so we buy different stuff, we’ll spend more money, but we’ve done everything that we possibly can to keep our clients and our workforce safe.

Andy Hogarth and his team hope to empower the workforce to make key decisions at a local level.

What are your thoughts on the government’s response to the pandemic and the support it has shown the care sector?
I’m sure there wasn’t enough support but, equally, you have to feel a little bit sorry for [the government]. There’s an argument that says that the government should have been looking to see what was happening in China months earlier, and if they had done we may well have been better prepared. But, like us, they’re learning all the time and they have to make it up as they go along, just as much as everybody else does. So, I have a lot of empathy with them. When you look back, some of the decisions were poor decisions, badly executed, but it’s very easy in hindsight to apportion blame and I’m sure, over time, we will learn a lot from this.
We had a few trial runs with SARS and Ebola, which didn’t actually come to anything, and so I guess people thought we’re not going to spend billions of pounds on something that probably won’t come to anything. Unfortunately, this time, it did.

Have you faced many cancelled care visits during the pandemic and how has this impacted your company financially?
Yes. We had a lot of customers who either reduced or cancelled the number of visits they had in the first few weeks. Other customers, who probably had more hours of care from us each week, have actually increased their visits over the time, probably because they felt less able to have their family come in and look after them. So, overall, we’ve actually ended up growing through the pandemic. Obviously, the cost of operation has gone up hugely so, financially, we’re fine and we’re still profitable, but we would have been making an awful lot more money without the pandemic. But, looking at lots of other businesses and industries, we are coming out quite well.

Have you been able to recruit more people into the sector during this period?
We’ve certainly seen a big spike in applications. I think that lots of people don’t understand care and what it involves, so it sounds like a lovely thing to do and we’ve had a lot of publicity, as a sector, which has driven people to work in care. Whether the reality, in the long-term, means that all of those applications will come through and people stay in the space is another question, and I think that will take a bit more time to see how it plays out.

We’ve all learned a huge amount in the last few months, and the world that we thought existed has been thrown upside down.

What are your thoughts on lockdown restrictions being eased and the potential impacts, both positive and negative, on your clients?
On the one hand, it’s hard to see why we’re all suddenly going back to the pub and trying to go back to life as normal because the disease is here just as much as it was before, but, economically, the country can’t afford for us all to become hermits and live at home. So I think the way we’re going – allowing people much more freedom to do what they want to do – is the right thing. As someone who is over 60 and overweight, I know I’m a higher risk and, therefore, need to keep tucked away more than someone at 30 who’s perfectly healthy. So I think our customers and people like them will need to be pretty careful for quite some time. I can see this going on for some months, if not well into next year, until a vaccine comes available.

But, of course, isolating has an impact on people’s mental health as well. What work have you done to try and reduce loneliness during this period?
We’ve trained all of our carers on how to use Zoom, so they can then help their customers communicate with their family. It’s not the same, of course, but I suppose the good thing is that our care is face-to-face, so they may not be see their family, but they are, at least, still seeing our carers. We are seeing with our support staff, who are working from home, that some are going a bit stir-crazy, so we are allowing them back into work. If you’re young and single and living somewhere like London, where the accommodation is expensive, this has been a tough old time.

Returning to the topic of company growth, you recently expanded your business with 21 new branches across the UK. How important was it for you to open these offices during the current climate and how challenging was that?
Looking back, it was a daft thing to do. We certainly didn’t plan to do it during the COVID crisis – we’ve been planning it since the end of last year and, as I’m sure you appreciate, the opening of a new branch takes an enormous amount of work. We went for the big bang, opening 21 branches all on the same day just because, actually, once you’ve done the process for one you might as well do it for more. Not all of those branches have physical locations – some of them we’re running out of a nearby location because we were in the process of either renovating or signing the lease with the landlord.

So we went ahead because we’d done all the work and we’d done all the selling. But, in an ideal world, we wouldn’t have done it during this period. But it’s actually been reasonably successful. We opened well ahead of budget in terms of the amount of business we had when we started, but as COVID hit, we lost a lot of that business pretty quickly because people were coming to us with more of a discretionary spend, rather than in a life-and-death situation where they had to have care.

Since then, the new branches have been growing, so they’re roughly back in aggregate, at least to where we were when we opened. And, in the meantime, people have learned an awful lot in terms of what does and doesn’t work. We’ve recruited quite a few people, not from the care industry, but from other industries, so it’s been a bit of a baptism of fire for them. But they’ve probably learned more in a few months than they would have done in a year otherwise and, to the best of my knowledge, we haven’t had anybody running back to where they came from.

Helping Hands has opened 21 new branches this year.

Are you prepared for a second wave of COVID-19?
It’s something I think about a lot. On one level, absolutely. In terms of PPE, we’ve got very, very good stocks now and a lot more on forward order, so we know that we are in a great position. The stuff that’s a bit trickier to know about is people. This has been draining for all of us, and, for some, it’s been worse than others. There’s a slight sense that we’re getting to the end at the moment, but if there’s another spike and we were to go back to where we have been then I’m not sure, psychologically, that any of us are prepared for that, so we’ll just have to see how it goes.

We’re planned for it, in terms of staffing, and a lot of people are working at home. It’s odd because we’ve been extraordinarily efficient over the last few months. Lots of people have said working from home is actually better and we’ve encouraged all of our staff to split their day up, especially if they have children. I have an eight- and four year-old and you’re very lucky that they’ve not joined our call.

What other projects have you got lined up?
I think what we do, we do really well, and I don’t have a plan to spread wider. I just want to keep doing what we’re doing and grow the business, in terms of the number of customers that we look after. I’m sure technology will change things, as will things we have to create to react to certain things.

What sort of technologies do you incorporate into your business. Do you use technology-enabled care?
No, we are pretty basic at the moment and I’m sure there is stuff happening out there that we haven’t yet come across that will help give our customer a better experience. I’m probably risking being flooded with information, but if anybody’s got any interesting ideas, I’d love to hear about them. Falls is a big risk for older people because that then leads to deterioration in other ways, so anything that we can do to help that I’d love to be able to introduce to our customer base.

In terms of software solutions, we’re introducing a new IT system, which we’ve put into all the new branches and we’re gradually rolling out to the whole business. In theory, it will completely change the way we work and, so far, it’s working well. To have a warning on a MAR chart that indicates that someone hasn’t had the medicine that they should have had, and to be able to react to that in real time, rather than realise that there was a problem two days later, will be of huge benefit, I’m sure of it.

Giving people the best quality of life that we can give is right up there with saving a life.

What’s your vision for the company over the next five years or so?
To keep the quality that we’ve now established and increase the autonomy so that everybody feels confident and empowered to make the right decision and play their part in making the business successful. I’d like to continue to grow. I think we’re all very fortunate in the domiciliary care space that there are more people living longer and with more money available to them, so that going into a residential home is not the only answer anymore. It is possible to be looked after in your own home, in the comfort and familiarity of your surroundings and, therefore, have a better quality of life than you would have otherwise.

Nursing and residential homes are very effective for a lot of people, but not necessarily everyone. I learned about Helping Hands because I used them for my mum when she had dementia in the last few months of her life. I’d never really knew anything about domiciliary care prior to that, so that’s what piqued my interest first.

I know, for her, as she was very confused in her last few months, that if we moved her into a residential home then it would only have added to the confusion. Her quality of life wasn’t great because of the dementia, but it was certainly a lot better being at home than being in a different setting.
So if we can just keep doing that – making an impact on people’s lives – then that’s enough of a vision for me.

To view a Zoom recording of this interview, click here.

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Sarah Clarke

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