THE BIG INTERVIEW: John O’Byrne, CEO of Ability Matters Group

A key service provider to the NHS and an increasingly influential player in the mobility retail sphere, the Ability Matters Group has just topped off another successful year trading. AMP visited chief executive officer John O’Byrne at the company’s Abingdon HQ to discover how the firm is driving for multi-sector growth by offering comprehensive and competitive services, securing NHS tenders and making its retail arm an increasingly important part of the business.  

What’s behind Ability Matters’ success of appearing in the Sunday Times Track 200 list, which ranks the mid-market British companies with the fastest growing international sales, for four consecutive years?
Part of it is organic growth and part of it is acquisitional growth. All of our offices outside of the UK have grown; we set up the Dutch office several years ago; we’ve got successful businesses in France and Ireland and we do also export products to Europe and further afield. It’s a combination of all of those factors.

Turnover increased 8% last year and a lot of that was down to securing new NHS contracts and in particular wheelchair tenders. How is this part of the business growing and what’s behind that success?
We’ve had a successful service business, working predominantly in orthotics and prosthetics, for nearly three decades. What we’ve done with posture and mobility is take the principals of what we do already and adapt it to the wheelchair services market. We’ve got an in-house IT team who develop software to help us run our services, we’re an ISO13485-accredited organisation, and we have a strong clinical governance framework. Our growth within wheelchair services also reflects the recent shift from NHS-run centres to commercial contracts, which has given us the opportunity to put together strong and successful tenders. It’s an area that we’re definitely looking to expand on.

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A strong focus is placed on an efficient and quality service.

What is your model? Are you just supplying the equipment or is it a comprehensive service-based proposition?
Within wheelchair services you have a fully-managed service. In every case we provide a building, we employ the staff — initially you get the clinical and technical staff moved across from the previous provider, with wheelchair services it’s usually the NHS — and then we are managing and developing those staff and providing the most appropriate products to the service users. What we are doing predominantly is providing the clinical service.

When you’re competing for these tenders, what do you find are the main priorities for the groups buying the services?
It’s a balance between quality and price. Price is increasingly important when you’re providing services but the tender process is a really comprehensive process that asks a lot of questions about your quality procedures, your clinical procedures and your technical procedures. I think that CCGs, certainly the ones that we deal with, do an awful lot of background checks to make sure you’re an appropriate provider and can provide the best service within what is a challenging budget. It’s definitely a balance between the two.

The Ability Matters group directs its operations from its Abingdon HQ.

A lot of services are moving from in-house to commissioned-out. Have you noticed any correlation between factors like cuts to the NHS, for example?
In terms of the motivation for services going from in-house to commercial providers you’d probably have to ask the commissioners themselves. Our understanding is that they’re looking to try to provide a more cost-effective solution. What we provide, as do the other providers, is a pretty sophisticated logistics network on
the back of our clinical service. And so it’s a combination, I imagine, of trying to improve the effectiveness of the service and also trying to control costs.

Is the 18-week wheelchair provision period challenging to adhere to?
It can be difficult when you’re trying to work within tight budgets but that’s the service we’re all aiming to provide.

You have several arms to your business. Which part of the market are you focusing on looking ahead to next year?
The core of our business is our service provision, that’s where we started as an organisation and where we invest the most. We do have a retail outlet because we understand the challenges faced by service users and by the NHS with regard to specialist equipment. The NHS provides a good service but if someone wants over and above that then alternative suppliers are needed. That’s why we started our retail business around seven years ago.

The group runs a number of retail sites around the UK.

With these different elements in mind, is it difficult keeping a focus on where the group wants to go?
Not really. We work hard on the structure of the business so we have different people who are focused on growing the retail business, growing the service business, the product business, the international business and so on. It’s key to us that we do everything in a way that represents us as an organisation. I don’t see that they need to be mutually exclusive in terms of growing in one area and not in another area.

Are there any challenges associated with operating in these different sectors?
I think everyone, including CCGs and the NHS themselves, has recognised the need for the retailer in addition to the NHS provider. It’s just about making sure that you’re doing things in a responsible way. We haven’t come across too many challenges in regards to that, no.

What is the retail side of your business like?
We started our retail business around seven years ago and we have several sites across the country. What we try to do is utilise our knowledge in dealing with service users and then transpose that into a retail environment. So it’s not a hard sell, it’s trying to find the most appropriate equipment for the people coming into the retail service. We have also just been awarded Large Motability Dealer of the Year. The team’s done a really good job because what [the award] does is take into account satisfaction of the people using the retail service. That’s been great. We now have sites in a number of centres and it’s something that we believe is going to be an important part of our future.

“What we try to do is utilise our knowledge in dealing with service users and then transpose that into a retail environment. So it’s not a hard sell, it’s trying to find the most appropriate equipment for the customer”

How beneficial is it to your retail sites that they are part of the Ability Matters group?
It means that we’re able to invest in them and can provide an efficient service that represents the size of the company that we are. Being part of a larger group that’s used to dealing with the NHS and health professionals within the NHS, I think gives it a bit of credence with the customers.

Generally, in terms of ambitions for the Ability Matters group, is there an end goal that the business wants to reach?
We’ve grown fairly consistently over the last few decades and we’re happy to grow, but only in a way which means that we’re able to deliver our core competencies as well as we can. That means providing the best service possible to the NHS partners and the service users that we work with. In terms of ‘pick a number in a few years’ time’, we don’t have that conversation in our board meetings. We look for different opportunities where we can add value and that’s how we’ve grown the business fairly organically over a number of years.

Looking at the wider market, who do you regard as your main competitors and how do you aim to stay ahead?
We’ve got different competitors depending upon the market. This is probably going to sound a little bit cheesy, but what we always try to do as a business is acknowledge the fact that we’re not perfect in anything that we do. We’re always trying to improve, and that can be from working out how we get someone’s device to them more quickly to manufacturing a product for a patient with a particular requirement, and lots of other things. It’s always stood us in good stead to try and keep improving on what we’re doing.

The mobility landscape seems to be changing rapidly. What is it looking like in your view?
I think it’s the same with other elements of the NHS. We know that the NHS is going to struggle to afford to give people the products they want, and therefore it’s likely that more people are going to decide to source things through retail services rather than through NHS services.

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