IN­TER­VIEW

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Business & Appointments - - FRONT PAGE -

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

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