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Winning strategies
for a successful business

In a tough market there are always likely to be winners and losers. Running a successful and profitable business involves having clear strategies. Successful operators have common approaches and behaviours to the way they operate which Greg Palfrey explores.

As with the UK health care industry generally, care home provision is experiencing significant difficulties. Growing regulatory requirements, rising payroll costs, public funding restrictions, expectation of improved physical facilities and increasing establishment costs are all causing a gloomy view of the care home arena. However, for care home providers it is not all bad news. With the UK population aged over 65 set to increase by 15% over the next seven years according to the Office of National Statistics, the already significant demand for care homes will continue to grow. There has been, and continues to be, consolidation within the sector and there is an improving appetite from funders, such as banks and equity houses, for the right business model. Although many operators and investors only want to acquire modern, purpose-built homes there is still a future for the more traditional, smaller care homes.

The key question many providers face is how to deliver a profitable business model that can satisfy the demand, balancing affordable fee levels with appropriate cost control.

How to succeed

Many successful operators share the following common attributes.

Consistently achieve good or outstanding Care Quality Commission (CQC) reports

This is achieved by implementing and regularly reviewing operational controls for personal care, medicines, hygiene etc. It may be beneficial to seek the opinion of a specialist regulatory adviser to not only keep you apprised of changing regulations but also to act as a devil’s advocate.

As a minimum, non-compliance with regulations will result in additional staff time/ resource being required to instigate corrective action. Further, as CQC reports are public, adverse reports may cause families to look elsewhere when placing relatives, or local authorities to cease placing new residents with the business. Continued failure to address concerns raised by CQC (in either a ‘requires improvement’ or ‘inadequate’ inspection rating) may result in an embargo being placed on the business preventing it from taking new residents or ultimately, an order for the closure of the care home.

Develop and retain staff

Wage costs can often constitute circa 50% to 60% of care home revenue. Rising payroll costs have had a significant impact in recent years with increases in the National Minimum Wage, pension auto-enrolment, additional staff training and increasing use of agency staff having caused a dramatic rise in overall expenditure.

High staff turnover is not only expensive, due to related agency and training costs, but also disruptive and therefore, detrimental to the operation of the business. Successful operators have a practical and targeted staff development programme. Although this may cost more in the short-term (both financially and in terms of time) it delivers substantial long-term financial benefits coupled with an increasingly motivated, efficient and technically astute workforce.

Retain a balanced client mix

A key issue for all operators is understanding the optimum mix of self-funded versus local authority-funded residents. A nationwide care home business needs to consider what services to provide as well as the geographical location of its operations, as local authority weekly fees vary considerably across the country.

A successful care home operator assesses and continually monitors the volume of potential residents able to fully self-fund. The higher volume of wealthier individuals able to self-fund in the South East means that many leading operators are beginning to only invest there. Given the constraints on the level of local authority fees, care homes routinely need to be cross-subsidised by charging self-funders more.

A living and relevant business plan

Successful operators have a clear business plan both for the short-term (often 12 months) and longer-term (three to five years). This will be a formalised plan which is regularly reviewed (by owners and management), questioned and amended in the context of changing market conditions and trends.

There should be no ‘sacred cows’ but rigorous questioning of the business model as to whether it is still relevant, with changes being made based upon a realistic and objective strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) analysis.

When drafting a business plan, key questions to consider include:

  • What are my unique selling points (USPs)?
  • Who are my key competitors?
  • What does the care sector look like now?
  • How is it likely to change?
  • Is my management and staffing structure appropriate to my current and future needs? • Should my operation be solely elderly care or specific to physical disability or dementia services?
  • What services can my business provide from its existing property?
  • Based on my existing care home operation would it be feasible to develop a domiciliary care operation?
  • Does the business need to make property changes or invest in new equipment?
  • Should I be considering an acquisition, merger or sale?
  • What funding options are available?

Strong financial control

Successful operators monitor financial key performance indicators (KPIs) on a regular basis to enable timely action to be taken to identify and rectify problems or to maximise returns where improved results are highlighted.

KPIs will often include occupancy rates, fee rates, debt ageing and collection, income and costs compared with revenue and cost forecasts, as well as margins by separate business streams.

Good business practice that is carried out formally and consistently by successful providers would include preparing and monitoring:

  • A rolling 12-week cash flow forecast.
  • An annual forecast consisting of monthly linked profit and loss account, cash flow and balance sheet forecasts, together with a written summary of the key assumptions upon which they are based.
  • Monthly management accounts comparing actual monthly and cumulative results with the forecast, explaining material variances.
  • Action plans to address material adverse variances or to maximise the benefits that can be achieved from, say, positive sales or margin variances. Names and timescales should be allocated to each action and monitored to ensure achievement.

Review purchasing strategies

To have a good handle on the business’ performance, successful providers regularly and vigorously review purchasing strategies for material costs, such as energy, food and transport to ensure cost efficiency. For example, when examining energy costs reviews they would not only look at the use of purchasing groups and longer-term supply agreements, but also energy saving measures such as insulation and any available grants. Similarly, reviews of food costs encompass looking at the quality and prices from a range of suppliers together with seeking to reduce waste.

Actively manage the relationship with their funder

The provision of reliable financial and management information gives current or potential funders confidence. A successful operator’s forecasting system enables them to predict funding shortfalls in advance and approach their funder not only with the problem but also a suggested solution.

Similarly, well thought-out, forward-planned capital expenditure and payback analyses are more likely to receive full consideration from funders. Funders do not like surprises. Early identification of issues provides both the business and the funders with greater options and is likely to result in a better solution for all concerned.

Strategies to success

Whilst care businesses increasingly appear within our financial warning criteria, there is still a very successful care sector operating across the country. Success in the care sector can typically be achieved by implementing the strategies and disciplines as summarised above.

There is a multitude of issues that care home operators must deal with on a daily basis. This often makes it difficult to take the necessary time out to review their business model afresh and implement appropriate changes. However, taking the time and even having external sources to assist with this is a key strategy to success.

‘It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.’

Greg Palfrey is Partner at Smith & Williamson

What are your successful strategies? Add to the debate or ask your question in the comments below. Subscription required

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