MILKING cows, caring for calves and walking greyhounds as she contributed to her parents’ efforts to turn around the ailing family farm in Drom, Co Tipperary, gave Evelyn Bourke an early sense of what it takes to run an enterprise. These days, she’s the chief executive of British health giant Bupa, having joined as the CFO in 2012, overseeing what some readers may know as a health insurer but which has become a global healthcare business employing more than 78,000 people. She’s also just taken a non-executive director role involving 36 days a year at Bank of Ireland, alongside bank CEO Francesca Mcdonagh.
Some of the Bupa numbers give a further sense of the scale of Bourke’s role. Turnover last year was £12.2bn (€13.9bn), while profit — which gets reinvested in the company every year — was £805m (€916bn).
Its workforce is approaching that of Irish building materials giant CRH, but it has about half the turnover. To put it another way, it has slightly more than twice Ryanair’s turnover, but about seven times as many staff. In short, her role is a significant one.
The organisation was established in Britain in 1947, and is an entity that has no shareholders, but is limited by guarantee, so its reinvestment every year enables it to grow and continue to improve its healthcare offering. Nor is she its first Irish boss — there were two others previously, Bob Graham and Ray King, she recalls.
One of the world’s largest dental companies, it has 949 clinics — including 20 Smiles Dental ones here in Ireland, which were part of an acquisition — and Bourke is also in charge of 17 hospitals, 345 medical clinics and 317 nursing homes and 61 care villages.
Bourke (53) retains her Tipperary lilt. Bupa’s bright and airy headquarters are in the heart of the City of London, close to the Bank of England. Across the street is also a tired-looking former AIB office awaiting new tenants.
Bourke is no stranger to having her photo in the Sunday Independent, early in her career she made the news on qualifying as one of the first two female actuaries in Ireland. Fast forward to January this year and Bupa proudly tweeted photos of her and a number of other CEOS of British firms on UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s trade mission to China, while last month she was pictured with Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, as they opened a new 400-bed hospital Bupa has built in Chile.
“The China trade mission was fascinating. I only got a chance to interact with Theresa as part of our group, rather than share a more private chat with her. As you’d expect, her schedule was jam-packed. You have to hand it to her, in that she’s absolutely tireless in trying to do the right thing for Britain,” Bourke says.
Bupa is interested in finding a partner with an established customer network to work with in China, while the business already operates in Chile and Brazil, and is keen to expand in Latin America, with a particular interest in Colombia.
“We’re interested in economies with a strong emerging demand for healthcare, that are growing well with an emerging middle class, and a government that’s supportive of private health provision and insurance,” she adds.
Bupa previously provided health insurance here, but the business was sold to Quinn Insurance in 2007, and there are no plans to re-enter that market.
While Bourke’s role does involve a degree of travel, she has more time to do this and get out on the frontline to meet with staff, such as emerging leaders in the business, as well as dentists, nursing home workers and newly qualified young doctors, particularly during the second quarter of a year, and then regularly across the rest of the year, she enthuses.
Could Brexit have an impact on the organisation’s ambitions to expand? “There will be some operational and legal impacts for Bupa once the UK leaves the EU, but we are well advanced with plans to respond to its impact. Personally, I think corporate Britain just has to get on with it. The uncertainty about the rules of how we will trade is unhelpful. Like any other business, we would welcome some clarification on that,” she says diplomatically.
There are other challenges ahead as well, she explains. Bupa has a toe in the water in the area of digital health with Healthtap, a medical advice app that facilitates a webchat or video call with a doctor after it has helped you figure out what might be causing various symptoms. “We have a lot of work to do to see how we can bring it to different markets and make it work in their regulatory environments.”
The organisation also invites digital health startups to pitch for an opportunity to work with it to refine their business propositions, with a view to a possible investment. A partnership in the US with Sandbox, a venture capital fund and a corporate medical insurance partner — though it doesn’t provide health insurance to the public in the US — also brings the opportunity to screen various investment opportunities.
She’s also very conscious she has a role at Bank of Ireland at a time when Mcdonagh navigates scaling back its operations while trying to deploy technology to meet customer service expectations, notwithstanding other issues such as the terrible