‘There are big opportunities in healthcare now – but it’s a difficult time for start-ups’

1 Sep 2020

Owen Curtin. Image: Healthcare 21

Healthcare 21’s Owen Curtin discusses supplying healthcare equipment during a pandemic, building a business through acquisitions, and the importance of multigenerational workforces.

Owen Curtin has more than 40 years’ experience in the healthcare sector. He is chair of Cork-headquartered Healthcare 21, a business he founded in 2003. He is also chair of VConnecta and director at Compliance & Risks Ltd.

Healthcare 21 supplies medical equipment such as ventilators, beds and blood pressure monitoring equipment from its warehouse in Blarney, Co Cork. It works with medical facilities and organisations including the HSE in Ireland and the NHS in the UK. Healthcare 21 also operates a decontamination centre in Limerick and employs around 500 people in total.

‘Digi-health is a huge area of potential growth for us moving forward’

Describe your role and what you do.

I am founder and chairman of Healthcare 21, which provides sales, marketing, distribution and service solutions to healthcare organisations throughout Ireland, the UK and Germany.

Our aim is to assist clinicians in improving the outcomes for their patients and clients. We provide solutions across all acute and primary care or community areas, and specifically in Ireland we have a significant presence in managing the recycling, repair and reuse of primary care equipment across the country.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

To be honest, organisationally I’m a bit of a disaster. I am an all-in guy but a bit of a butterfly, always seeking the next excitement. I don’t ever really switch off!

I am blessed to be surrounded by talented colleagues who keep me focused on what is required to be done and know how to keep me in a straight line.

What are the biggest challenges facing your sector and how are you tackling them?

There are big opportunities in our healthcare sector right now, but it is going to be a really difficult time for start-ups. Understandably, there is a lot of fear out there at the moment. The opportunities are ones of scale. To capture opportunities you need investment and you have to be realistic too about your future.

Supply has been a major issue over the past six months. Expectation for companies like ourselves is that the HSE will start to build requirements into contracts, especially around PPE contracts, that require us to hold a minimum of three to six months stock at all times. This will mean that only providers with adequate storage will be viable, and will potentially drive up costs. This may drive nationwide contracts that have previously been regional.

Supplier relationships were always key, but are now even more so as spikes of demand occur in a pandemic scenario. Robust supply chains will be the unique selling point or competitive advantage of the future – how to prove this to clients will be the challenge. It is pointless being the cheapest supplier if you cannot supply product when required.

What are the key sector opportunities you’re capitalising on?

We are always looking for the latest innovative products. To give you an example, our scientific team are currently selling a thermometer that enables you to check temperatures from a two-metre distance, which enables you to adhere to social distance guidelines.

In the last 12 months, we have acquired two new companies, Cardio Solutions and Xograph, and expanded into new areas. Ultimately, we want to be a pan-European solution for suppliers. Digi-health is obviously a huge area of potential growth for us moving forward. Remote selling will also be a focus for us.

What set you on the road to where you are now?

I wish I could say that it was all pre-planned but I am a bit like the accidental tourist at sea, brought wherever the currents take me. Once I am presented with an opportunity, I work really hard and am all in.

I had a really good education at Sullivan’s Quay in Cork and at UCC, and a good family around me. I gained great experience at the South Infirmary Hospital in Cork early in my career and that definitely set me on the healthcare path.

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

I’ve treated my life as an experiment. I sold my first business for €70,000 without any advice or consideration for my family.

I learned that failure is important. It is instructive as it tells you what not to do.

How do you get the best out of your team?

Honesty, respect, understanding and helping them to be as good as they can be.

Being flexible and understanding really helps. As an employer there has to be some give and take, and Covid has highlighted the ability and need to be flexible.

Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector?

In 1988 we had a new sales team in a huge distribution business and it was all male. At Healthcare 21, we now work hard to ensure we are an inclusive organisation.

The big area left to be tackled is ageism. Age stereotypes focus on the negative aspects of ageing – consider the language used in films, television, advertising – and it ignores the many positive aspects of older lives. Life experience is key.

Many workers have a mandatory retirement age of 65 years, however the current situation is based on an outdated version of retirement. The world is undergoing a massive demographic transformation. Globally, the number of people age 60 and over will double to total 2bn by 2050 [according to the World Health Organization] and those 60 and over will outnumber children under the age of five.

If those who look at the impact of an ageing population see it as a looming crisis, they fail to see the opportunity. They fail to appreciate the potential that older adults present as workers. It is important for organisations to create a vibrant multigenerational workforce. 

Did you ever have a mentor or someone who was pivotal in your career?

Yes, a few. I sold my first company to BM Browne – Peter Woods, who was one of the directors of that company, was a valuable mentor to me.

What books have you read that you would recommend?
  • Star of the Sea by Joseph O’ Connor
  • Messy by Tim Harford
  • Mythos by Stephen Fry
What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

Technology really helps me. We put in a large focus at Healthcare 21 on technology. Computers perform but intelligent processes perform much more efficiently.

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