After more than 12 years at the helm of Millbrook Healthcare, Phillip Campling explains how the company has evolved to become one of the most diverse businesses in the mobility sector and shares his ambitious plans to double the company turnover within three years.
Millbrook Healthcare has grown to be one of the leading companies in the sector, providing over 30 services to the NHS and local authorities. But not many people will know that the business could have followed an entirely different path if it wasn’t for a chance meeting some 20 years ago.
Millbrook Industries, as it was known then, started as a family-run business in Millbrook, Southampton in the 1940s, upholstering car seats, before becoming a contractor for the Crown in the 60s and 70s. The company refurnished numbers 10 and 11 Downing Street, sprayed the QE2 ocean liner and fitted out all of the embassies across the world.
In parallel to this, Millbrook Furnishings was formed and upholstered all of the famous green and red leather furniture in the Houses of Lords and Houses of Parliament, and installed the doors on Downing Street. It even started creating film sets, including for Indiana Jones.
Colin Croll and his brothers took over the business from their father, Walter, in 1965 and then Colin bought out his brothers in the early 1990s. It was at this point that Colin and his two sons, Paul and Mark, really took the business forward.
Millbrook had previously sprayed lockers for the army, and in 1995 someone suggested to Colin that the business should expand to spray wheelchairs, and that’s how Millbrook Healthcare was formed.
Around five years later, Colin attended a soft market testing event, which turned out to be a community equipment tender presentation. He later submitted a tender and won the contact.
By 2008, Millbrook was turning over around £16 million, but it was at a crossroads in its journey – it was either going to carry on with healthcare or exit and focus on other parts of the business. And that’s when Phillip Campling was brought in as managing director. He had worked for the NHS for 10 years and, with the support of Colin, set out to diversify the Millbrook Healthcare portfolio.
Today, Campling sits in the position as CEO and the company not only provides community equipment services, but telecare, wheelchair and home improvement agency services.
Here, Campling explains how Millbrook Healthcare has evolved during his tenure and shares his ambitions for the future.
What did you do during your time at the NHS and what experience did you bring to the company?
I started my journey purely by accident, really. I left university and fell into a graduate programme as a production planner. I had enough of that, went travelling for three months and my aspirations to be the next David Attenborough went unfulfilled, so I ended up in the NHS as a planner for patient transport services, just to get a job an earn some money. It just so happened that I joined at the time when the NHS was rolling out NHS Direct and my analytics skills from university was a good grounding in using a technique called statistical process control to analyse data.
I was asked to help set up the information department for NHS Direct Hampshire and I later took over a leadership role within the health informatics unit, supporting all NHS Direct sites, and I think there were 22 at the time. From there, I moved into a consultancy role for the NHS Modernisation Agency, which it was called at the time. I worked on a programme called Improvement Partnerships for Hospitals, which was supporting trusts to understand how emergency and elective flow impacts on their demand and capacity management. I was there for about a year and then I went back into the ambulance service. My chief executive from NHS Direct had taken over the Hampshire Ambulance Service and she brought me in to set up an information management department to support the whole of Hampshire Ambulance to understand its data better and look at outcomes to help make meaningful management decisions.
I took over a few roles – I was information manager, but I also took over an assistant director role, looking after things like fleet patient transport and a few ancillary services. Then, when we merged with South Central Ambulance Service, the CEO moved on and I took over the divisional role, looking after all emergency services for the Hampshire division.
I did that for two or three years and then, as I was approaching my 10 years in the NHS, it was time to try new things. The role at Millbrook Healthcare cropped up and it was perfect. My skills in the NHS were around commissioners – understanding the commissioner relationship, understanding how the NHS functions, how decisions were made and understanding patient pathways. That experience was absolutely invaluable coming into Millbrook, which, at the time, was being run with a manufacturing type of ethos and really needed to change its approach to commissioner management, relationship building and patient outcomes.
Apart from the pandemic, what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced since you joined the company?
The continued changes within the NHS and social care – more so within the NHS. We’ve seen CCGs and now we’re on ICSs and I’m sure we’ll be back to the old SHAs next time around.
The other challenge we face continues to be not so much the restricted budgets, because they always seem to find the money, but the continued fight every year around constrained budgets and higher demand. The demand placed on our services today compared to 10 years ago is significantly higher. Everything is also much quicker and the pace of referral and demand into the system is getting quicker all of the time. So the challenge we often have is working with our commissioners to be able to execute that change, pace and budget that they have, whilst delivering quality outcomes. It’s that constant balance between great outcomes at great value and, often, commissioners are looking to us for the answers.
But, to be honest, I still find the sector really exciting. There a lots of opportunities where we can deliver better value and outcomes through outsourcing and, more importantly, through integrating services, which is why we set on that journey of diversification a few years back, so that we can be a provider that delivers community equipment services, home improvement, telecare, wheelchairs and adaptations to the home, all through one system.
Is the challenge of constrained budgets something that concerns you going forward?
It’s always on my mind, but with an aging population we know that we can deliver services more cost effectively in the home, rather than people being admitted into more acute forms of care, such as a care home or hospital, and also deliver a better outcome.
I think COVID has certainly changed people’s perception of where they want to be looked after – people don’t want to go into a hospital if they can help it. So whilst there are restricted budgets, I think there is enough downward pressure to move budgets where they are most needed and where it can deliver the biggest bang for its buck, and that is in the home.
What is Millbrook Healthcare’s biggest growth area right now?
Community equipment has clearly grown at the fastest rate for a number of years and is the biggest part of our business, but our wheelchair services, our home improvement agencies (HIAs) and telecare are also all fast-growing areas. Within our HIA division, we have also become a contractor installing level access showers and stairlifts to support our contracts to deliver faster outcomes for end users because there isn’t a huge contractor base out there. We’re very excited about that. Within telecare, we opened our first 24-hour alarm monitoring centre earlier this year. Again, we’re really excited about that. It used to be an area that we subcontracted, but we’ve brought it internally.
Our strategy has always been to vertically integrate where we can, whether that be our supply chains or services. Ultimate Healthcare, which is part of the Millbrook Healthcare group, was formed in 2005 to supply beds and mattresses through to our community equipment contracts, and that’s gone from strength to strength. We’re always looking for opportunities where we can deliver services and solutions internally if we know we can deliver a better outcome at a better price, and deliver value to our customers.
Opening up our telecare alarm centre was part of our tech-enabled care strategy. We picked up our first tech-enabled care contract in Essex, which goes live this month, earlier this year, so that’s a really exciting agenda for us. And I think you’ll probably hear from many other providers that telecare and tech is probably, moving forward, going to be one of the fastest growth areas for all of us.
Millbrook was bought by private equity firm in 2019. How has that purchase benefited your business?
Hugely. The Croll family decided to sell their shares in 2019 and in July 2019 a private equity firm became the majority shareholders. What that’s brought is a fresh insight into building services and a real commitment to invest, and I mean heavily invest, in systems, people and our processes. We’ve got many multi-million pound projects on the go at the moment around developing new systems for our community equipment services. An ecommerce solution is being developed at the moment as well.
The takeover has really brought a focus on investment and development for the future. Cairngorm Capital is really keen to build growth quickly and build profitable growth quickly. When they came in we were turning over about £125 million and our strategy is to build that to £250 million plus within the next two to three years. But they know that to get to that figure we have to invest.
When you announced the takeover in 2019, you spoke about expanding to launch a retail model. Did that come to anything?
Not so much a retail model, but, yes, we’re heavily investing in a in a B2C platform at the moment. While we’re much bigger in other areas compared to our competitors, ecommerce is an area of growth for us. Like I said, this year we’ve got a multi-million pound investment going on around this, which we hope will launch during 2021. This will be quite ground-breaking and we feel that there is a gap in the market for the solution we’ll bring.
How has your company fared during the pandemic?
We’ve done well. To be honest, lockdown one was a lot easier than the last lockdown. The last lockdown was tougher because volumes were really high. During lockdown one, referrals fell, but the speed of delivery really increased. And because demand dropped we were able to cope with it much better, even though a number of our colleagues were off, either through shielding or isolating. During the last lockdown, the demand was the same or higher, plus we had a number of colleagues off.
But let’s be honest, we were one of those fortunate companies to be in the right sector and to come out the other side of it. More than survived, actually, we survived and thrived. Ultimate Healthcare was able to respond really quickly to supply beds and mattresses to health and social care, our community equipment services were able to keep people out of hospital, and now we’re starting to see the rebound in home improvement agencies and wheelchair service referrals coming back through.
The challenge now, particularly for the home improvement agency sector, is having enough contractors to meet the demand because the housing market, as we all know, is booming and everyone wants to do DIY in their houses. So each of our divisions has had different challenges, but as a team I’ve been immensely proud of how everything’s gone.
Have you been able to continue with your wheelchair assessments during the pandemic?
Yes we have. We moved all of our wheelchair assessments initially online – we use Attend Anywhere as our chosen platform – and it’s responded really well, and I don’t think we’ll be going back. We do our all of our wheelchair triaging via video conferencing if the service user has that technology. If people wanted to come in we would see them, otherwise we’d offer virtual assessments.
What are your views on government support for the sector, as well as the wider health and social care sectors, during the pandemic?
From our perspective, our commissioner support throughout has been great. Their response was immediate in terms of their support for us. Everyone had concerns around funding, drops in demand and whether we would meet our costs, but from the outset our commissioners have been really supportive. We’ve been really open with them throughout, as they have been with us, around continuing service funding.
That’s good to hear
Yes, it’s been pretty much business as usual throughout, but with a real edge of pace to everything. We all want a rest, but we can’t get one as demand has actually picked up well above pre-COVID levels. We’re now starting to see the catch-up of assessments that weren’t undertaken during COVID and there’s a lot more ADL-type products going out the door. Our colleagues in Consola are now starting to do wheelchair seating assessments and they are seeing some very, very complex cases for services users who haven’t been assessed for about a year and have seen their conditions deteriorate quite a lot. That’s been very humbling.
You announced your takeover of Ross Care in February. What triggered the move and what attracted you to this company?
Ross Care has a very similar heritage to Millbrook Healthcare and the partnership has been on my radar for quite some time. Michael Turner was the majority shareholder and has similar backgrounds to Colin, in terms of developing the business and growing it. They also operate in very similar sectors to, so they do clinical services, approved repair (AR) and community equipment services, and they operate off the same IT system as us.
It was a strategic play on two fronts – geographically, because we are very much focused on the Midlands down and they’re focused on the Midlands up, and they have a niche area in approved repair contracts, whereas we’re very much a specialist in clinical contracts. So I think that it’s a fantastic partnership. Certainly, moving forward, our clinical and their approved repair expertise puts us head and shoulders above our competitors in terms of that knowledge and experience. We’re really excited about this opportunity.
What are your ambitions for Millbrook Healthcare over the next five years?
As I said earlier, our strategic direction is to achieve significant profitable growth over the next two to three years. Some people might say ‘why have you got financial goals as part of your strategy?’ Well, for us, it’s important because it means we can continue to invest in our people and our processes. Importantly, that means we can make a bigger impact on more people’s lives, and that’s what our whole strategy is built on.
To support our growth we’re just rolling out a new end-to-end system for our community equipment services, which we believe will be quite ground-breaking when it comes on the marketplace. It’s a fantastic tool for prescribers to use, but also our teams to be able to manage services in a different way. We’ve also got a wheelchair system rolling out, a new community equipment service rolling out and then we’ve got ecommerce, our direct labour offering, as well as a host of smaller projects and, of course, the Ross Care Integration.