The boss who used Army skills to turnaround fortunes of patient transport firm

Andrew Pooley’s experience as an Army reservist in Afghanistan set him on a healthcare career path that led him to becoming managing director of ERS Medical, writes Lizzie Murphy.

Andrew Pooley, managing director of ERS Medical

Andrew Pooley was a reservist in the Army watching medical staff save the lives of soldiers and civilians in Afghanistan when he realised where his future career lay.

The university science graduate was working as part of a protection team, looking after the aircraft on the ground as it picked up casualties, and flying with the doctors, nurses and paramedics as they cared for the patient on board.

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“It was really quite a remarkable thing,” he recalls. “We would be flying 50ft above the ground at full speed in one of the fastest helicopters there is. You’ve got a casualty in the back with a doctor who is frantically trying to save a guy’s leg or stem a bleed. I was watching them thinking ‘this is incredible’ and from that point I knew that when I got back I wanted to be in healthcare.”

When he returned to civilian life in 2013, Pooley initially applied to be a paramedic but then he saw an opportunity to be a junior operations manager in Plymouth at patient transport firm ERS Medical.

“It was one of the first contracts that the private sector had mobilised for Plymouth Hospital Trust,” he says.

Pooley realised the patient transport industry was a good fit for him. “The role suited me down to the ground and I loved it, leading and motivating teams through complex projects often under pressure and all with a very human element,” he says.

He adds: “No-one leaves school thinking ‘I want to work in patient transport’ but actually when you think about it, for many older people their overriding impression of a hospital visit is that journey in an ambulance. If that’s not right, it affects their experience. It’s very rewarding”

Pooley went on to oversee the rapid turnaround and growth of First Care Ambulance (FCA) as operations director in 2016, increasing revenue to upwards of £7m and achieving a good Care Quality Commission rating in less than 18 months.

The following year, he and the other FCA directors led a complex acquisition bid for the trade and assets of Leeds-headquartered ERS Medical at a time ERS was incurring significant losses.

“We saw an opportunity because the frontline staff and local management were fantastic and it had a really good geographical spread,” he says.

Pooley led a project to move over 850 staff, associated premises and assets into a new business, ERS Transition, which trades as ERS Medical. The business was based on a refined version of the successful FCA model, providing patient transport for NHS Clinical Commissioning Groups, NHS Trusts and private organisations.

As managing director, Pooley led a turnaround of the company, focusing on restructure to bring the business towards breakeven and improving the culture and compliance of the business.

The company, which employs 1,000 staff, now has 24 sites across the UK and 600 vehicles.

In its last accounts filed at Companies House, ERS reported a £1.3m pre-tax loss on a £25m turnover in 2018. According to Pooley, the business had a profitable fourth quarter in 2019 and profitable 2020 projections.

Key to the delivery of ERS Medical turnaround strategy, he says, has been the implementation of a well-defined leadership model, Mission Leadership, based on the military principle of ‘Mission Command’.

This involves the empowerment of managers at all levels to creatively solve problems within a senior manager’s intent.

He has introduced social initiatives and projects including gender pay gap initiatives, mental health first aiders, apprenticeship training through the ERS Academy, pay ‘streaming’ and financial advice through Wagestream, and a corporate partnership with the Alzheimer’s Society and the Military Covenant Employer Recognition Scheme.

Environmental initiatives include an ambitious target to be carbon neutral by 2024 and replace the fleet with ultra low emission vehicles ahead of the governments road to zero policy. ERS is working towards piloting an all-electric ambulance in London. It is also working to reduce reusable plastic in its supply chain and go paperless.

The turnaround project completed just before the Covid-19 pandemic hit the UK. In March this year, Pooley sold his shareholding in FCA and completed a 100 per cent buyout of ERS. The business grew turnover by 27 per cent in 2019.

However, from the end of March 2020, activity levels at ERS fell by 50 per cent due to the cancellation of outpatient hospital appointments as the UK went into lockdown.

Despite the challenges, Pooley said ERS Medical delivered on its existing service level standards and provided extra services to support the NHS.

During the initial phase of the crisis, the company focused on transparent communication, a responsive approach and measured decision-making.

It used modelling tools to provide evidence-based data to forecast the effect of COVID-19 on service levels.

Pooley says: “We prioritised our response and tracked key indicators to ensure we could plan and make evidence-based decisions.”

He adds: “I’m really pleased to say that we didn’t make any redundancies as a result of the pandemic. We maintained recruitment and training (with relevant safety measures) and implemented a policy of prioritising recruitment of staff friends and family members who had been made redundant as a result of COVID-19.”

Although ERS is headquartered in Leeds, Pooley, who is also an executive director of the Independent Ambulance Association, lives in Plymouth with his wife and two young children.

The 39-year-old describes himself in business as ‘passionate’. “That’s really important,” he says. “There have been some real lows and it’s been really tough at times at ERS because it’s been such a massive turnaround. Not only does everyone else think you’re going to fail but there are times, of course, when it looks like you will. You have to believe in what you’re doing.”

He adds: “However, I think the really exciting thing is that we’re just getting started.”

CURRICULUM VITAE

Title: Managing director of ERS Medical

Date of birth: March 6, 1981

Education: BSc (Hons) Human Bioscience from Plymouth University

First job: Sales assistant at my local bike shop. I’ve always been into cycling and I spent all my salary on bike parts.

Favourite holiday destination: You can’t beat the North Cornwall coast

Favourite film: Platoon

Favourite song: Welcome to Paradise - Green Day

Last book read: The Future We Choose. Christina Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac

Most proud of: From a business point of view, the work that has gone into ERS Medical has been remarkable and I am very proud of what the team has achieved so far.