For home care provider, Bluebird Care, these are self evidently not ‘normal’ times; the COVID-19 pandemic having seen to that.
For home care provider, Bluebird Care, these are self evidently not ‘normal’ times; the COVID-19 pandemic having seen to that. Yet despite this, the company has continued to go from strength to strength with Director of Finance & Operations, Wayne Smith, having successfully managed to navigate the company through choppy waters. Wayne tells Elite Franchise how he has done it.
Growing up in rural Devon, Wayne Smith always had a fascination for maths, chess and numbers, despite his surroundings. Yet he wasn’t sure what career he wanted to go into. Eventually, though, he decided to do a Maths degree at Durham University ‘to keep his options open’, as he describes it.
“Once there I quickly decided that accountancy was for me, but management accountancy rather than auditing, so I could work within a business to improve their results, rather than just audit and verify them,” he says.
This distinction, given Wayne’s subsequent career path as a commercial finance director in the retail, travel and tourism industries, has proven crucial because it has given him greater insight into not only ‘people management’ but also the way companies actually work. Indeed, various stints at Geest, B&Q and TUI, as well as a longer one at Carnival UK, where he oversaw the re-structure and turnaround of the cruise company’s hotel finance team performance - including the re-design and implementation of new corporate planning processes and so on - provided the necessary grounding for where he is now.
On the face of it Wayne’s subsequent move from the corporate behemoth that is Carnival to Bluebird Care, doesn’t immediately scream out ‘continuity’. But as Wayne is quick to point out, there was logic to his decision.
“I’d been at Carnival for around 9 years in a variety of roles and had in my mind to move to a smaller business in a Finance Director role and be part of the leadership team,” he says, adding: “A colleague mentioned to me that Bluebird Care were looking for a new FD and doing a bit of research made me keen to investigate further.
And as he pointedly goes on: “the cruise industry talks about how it is there to improve people’s lives, which of course is true, but Bluebird Care’s positive impact on people seemed so much deeper and richer.”
Bluebird Care was originally set-up in Hampshire in 2004 by Paul and Lisa Tarsey. However, following the acquisition of the business in June 2020 by equity partners Levine Leichtman Capital Partners (LLCP), via its portfolio company, Caring Brands International, they no longer have any active involvement in the business.
In the meantime, the company’s success - it’s the largest of its type in the sector - has been based on the breadth of services it provides to customers - these ranging from low-touch companionship type home care services, to caring for those with more complex needs, such as physical and learning difficulties, dementia, live-in care and palliative end of life care.
As Wayne puts it: “Bluebird Care prides itself on being able to help our customers stay in their own homes, surrounded by the things and people that they love, for longer. Our aim is that customers
can stay with us throughout their care journey without the need to change or move, thus keeping disruption to a minimum.”
That means adopting a flexible, customised approach; hence no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution. “We listen carefully to what our customers and their families want and need and provide a tailored care solution that ticks all the boxes. Ultimately, Bluebird Care is passionate about helping to keep people safe in their own homes for as long as possible,” he adds.
Core values for the company are being: ‘Kind and Caring’, ‘Professional and Respected’, Fun and Passionate’ and ‘Innovative and Supportive’, according to Wayne. “Our franchisees adhere to these values in a number of ways. At first entry into our network, our new franchise owners undergo training where they are immersed into the Bluebird Care family; this includes a large section on our core values, objectives and standards. We then hold annual conferences for our entire network where we come together and share successes and learnings, future plans and re-share our core values,” he notes.
Never far from the surface though has been the COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, a recent campaign by home care providers for social care provision to be changed from exempt status to zero-rated, for VAT purposes, recognises the impact it has been having. The campaign, so far, has met with mixed success and while MPs have been supportive the response from the Treasury has been more lukewarm as it continues its battle to control the public finances.
The argument behind it is that by bringing companies into the VAT system, yet not charging customers VAT because they’re zero rated, companies could then reclaim VAT on goods and services bought in. The reasoning behind this is simple enough, given the volume and price of required PPE has increased because of the pandemic. In addition, social care providers are facing higher operational costs elsewhere, including regulatory fees, staff training expenses, rising insurance costs, mileage, as well as investments in technology to allow for remote work.
Despite this, Bluebird Care continues to go from strength to strength with reported annual revenues of £200m.
Key to the company’s everyday business activities is the OpenPASS app, designed by EveryLIFE Technologies. It has meant both reduced administration time and an improvement in overall quality of service and delivery; since medication errors, late visits and any incidents, can be identified more quickly, allowing the company to be more proactive.
In addition, care records are completed and updated in real time and this information can be shared with customers, their family members and other professionals (so long as the customer has provided consent) via the app.
Also in the company’s armoury is the Bluebird Care Staff Guide app, launched in 2017, providing all care staff members access to vital information, guidance and advice in everyday care matters through their smart phones, 24/7. “It means that staff are never alone and never have to worry about not having access to guidance should they face a situation that is uncertain to them. It’s a digital comfort blanket of support and is used and accessed constantly,” says Wayne.
The company has also invested heavily in new digital platforms, advertising channels, and engagement tools. This has meant savings being offered to franchisees on initiatives they’d previously invested in at a local level, as well as providing flexibility for them to adapt their marketing focus month on month, depending on their current business focus, according to Wayne.
As he puts it: “We derived benefit from franchise industry partners, using experts in live chat, social media platforms and SEM. This approach garnered support and engagement in the marketing plan and consequently, despite all that 2020 threw at us, we saw double digital percentage growth and we smashed our marketing goals after just 6 months!”
In the meantime, a new UK-filmed TV advert to raise brand awareness of Bluebird Care, is due to be rolled out this year, alongside further investment in digital platforms and online marketing initiatives.
Under Bluebird Care’s franchising model franchisees initially recruit a Registered Manager to run the day-to-day operations while they manage and develop their businesses. That ensures “, a caring and experienced team of brand ambassadors are recruited and highly trained, to deliver the highest standards of home care and support to people in their community,” says Wayne.
“With access to a focused Onboarding Manager from Day 1 plus a Quality Manager and Regional Marketing Manager, there’s an abundance of support to get new franchise owners up and running quickly and efficiently,” he further notes.
For would-be franchisees total investment is approximately £115,000, including franchise fee and required working capital. Once established, Bluebird Care has expectations of franchisees achieving operating profits of between 15% and 20%, according to Wayne.
His advice to would be franchisees is simple: ‘follow the model – it works!’ Indeed, brand awareness, alongside policies, processes and procedures that have been developed over many years, underscores this.
Also, engage with the network by talking to other franchise businesses doing the same things; and the Franchise Support team who are “there to help you on your way to success,” he says. “They are incredibly experienced and so it’s extremely likely that whatever challenge you face, someone at the Support Centre or in the network is either trying to solve the same problem or has already done so,” he adds.
Given its more than 200 care franchises across the UK and Ireland, Bluebird Care has the region ‘pretty much covered’ according to Wayne, meaning growth, going forward, will need to be organic. That means working more closely with the network and drawing on experience to identify opportunities.
He adds that the company also needs to find ways to extend the customer journey time with it so customer needs can be met for longer, in order that ‘they stay safe in the home they love for longer’.
In the meantime - and with the COVID-19 national vaccination programme now well underway - Wayne sees the recently approved Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine as a potential ‘game changer- not least because it can be stored at normal fridge temperature vs. the -70C required by the Pfizer alternative. That means it can more readily be transported and administered by community nurses at home for those too unwell to attend appointments, for example.
“So, in terms of customers getting their jabs I would expect all Bluebird Care businesses to act in the best interests of their customers and support those most vulnerable, with consent, who do not have family support and cannot arrange getting their vaccinations themselves,” says Wayne. That means “advocating on their behalf with GPs, local hospitals, or vaccination centres to arrange appointments at home or supporting customers to access the applicable facility as required,” he adds.
But he also hasn’t lost sight of the fact that whilst the company has grown very quickly over its short life it’s a very different proposition to when it was founded and now needs to be more ‘corporate’ in its working ways with “agreed processes and controls, to ensure decisions are made consistently and fairly, to agreed parameters.”
That doesn’t mean micromanaging the business is on the menu though. Indeed, Wayne explains he’d be a fool not to gauge the views of the Franchise Support Centre in Waterlooville, for example.
“For me it’s a question of simple maths; I am only one, they are many. Therefore, I would describe myself as more of a delegator leaning on other’s skills and experience. Ultimately the decision rests with me, but I would expect us to get there through collective consensus,” he notes.
Success for Wayne ultimately means breaking down barriers and opening things up for his team to harness their strengths and abilities to deliver for Bluebird Care and themselves.
And, given the over 65 age group more generally is expected to increase to more than 20% of the population in 2024, according to the ONS, the home care industry is well positioned to benefit from more people electing to be cared for at home, instead of moving into residential care, longer term.