To describe Glenn Keys FAIM as a high achiever is an understatement. Along with co-founder Dr Andrew Walker, he created Aspen Medical, a full-service healthcare provider to governments and businesses across the globe. The 14-year-old business has been active in treating and containing Ebola outbreaks in Africa and improving Indigenous health outcomes at home. In his ‘spare time’ Keys put his project management smarts to the test with the creation of Project Independence. This unique scheme gives intellectually disabled people the opportunity to own their own homes. The idea was conceived in 2011, and ground was broken on the first units in Canberra in 2015, with residents moving in last September. Plans are afoot for similar housing in other states. AIM chief executive David Pich caught up with Keys, who was AIM’s Community Leader of the Year in 2016, to find out what makes him tick.
David Pich: How did you come to set up Aspen with Dr Andrew Walker?
Glenn Keys: Andrew and I have been best mates since school. We were best men at each other’s weddings. In England I saw the complete revolution of the healthcare system under Tony Blair where they needed to get people from outside the UK to come in and try to address the issues they had. I spoke to Andrew about what was happening there and while he saw the need for medical understanding in this kind of business, he said he didn’t know anything about government tenders or project management. But I do. I’m a mechanical engineer. Then I did aeronautical engineering, and then went to test-pilot school and did flight-test engineering. It was really the blending of both of our skills.
DP: What sort of client requires total healthcare outcome solutions?
GK: Typically, governments, and large companies that have very difficult or intractable solutions. There’s a huge surgery waiting list for the UK, so the NHS [National Health Service] was one of our very early customers. We’ve tackled dental waiting lists and Indigenous health. For the Australian government we went into the Solomon Islands to provide all the healthcare solutions as part of the RAMSI, the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands.
DP: This sort of start-up must have required huge investment. How did you fund it?
GK: We mortgaged our own houses. Nowadays I see many start-ups running out and fundraising and I think this could be [dangerous] because you start to think you can do whatever you want, whereas when you use your own money it forces you to be very lean and focus on what’s important. We’ve never had any debt in Aspen, even during the GFC. All of our acquisitions are out of our own cash flow, and we’ve fuelled our growth out of our own cash flow.
DP: How long was the start-up period?
GK: We had our first contracts within a year. We had the contract in the Solomon Islands to do a complete healthcare solution, everything from primary care to surgery, the emergency department, dental, environmental health and ambulance services. And we had to provide everything: the buildings, the equipment, the people, pharmaceuticals, consumables, ambulance, everything. And at the same time, we picked up a huge contract in the north of England to clear waiting lists.
DP: What was the biggest challenge?
GK: Cash flow. The stats say one in three companies in the first three years go broke, because they lack cash flow. We managed our way through that quite carefully. One of the other challenges in this was a new style of business. So, nowadays, people refer to it as deep-water strategy, but at the time we were just doing what we thought was a good idea. But trying to convince people of that could’ve been tricky because no-one has bought services in this way before.
DP: What are the highlights? I imagine Aspen being responsible for saving [then East Timor Prime Minister] Jose Ramos-Horta’s life must certainly be one.
GK: Jose Ramos-Horta was shot three times with high-powered bullets in an attempted assassination. He was brought into our hospital, he was on the table for six hours and then flown back to Darwin. There are people who have said that if he hadn’t survived, the country probably would’ve descended into civil war. And when he returned back to the country, he presented the Timor-Leste Solidarity Medal to all of our staff who saved his life. They were the only civilians to ever have been awarded the medal. I have to say another highlight is the Ebola work that we did. We were the only civilian company to be contracted to respond to Ebola, and we were actually the only organisation contracted by three separate nations: UK, the US and Australia. And while some of the organisations – some of them not-for-profits – did do amazing work over there, one of them had 23 of their own staff infected with Ebola and 14 died. We didn’t have one single infection in any of our staff, be they expat or African, and we had more than 200 expats and 800 African health professionals working in our facilities.
DP: Clearly a triumph of your risk management processes…
GK: Oh, absolutely. We’ve got a very, very strong focus in project management, risk management and operational management: that sweet spot, that’s absolutely where we exist. I can see the Venn diagram in my head.
DP: Do you find that some medical professionals who work in foreign aid and emergency environments might let themselves be open to risk, because that’s their mission?
GK: Normally, they understand the risks and they’re working to them. Ebola was very, very different, because most medicine is around speed: “How quickly can I get a diagnosis, how quick can I treat someone”, whereas Ebola is about being slow and deliberate. It’s about making sure that there is no splatter, that there’s no fluids that can be transmitted, it’s about cleaning and it’s about not touching the patient. It’s almost the antithesis of everything that a health professional has been trained to do. And so subsequently, that’s very, very hard. We did an enormous amount of training, not just at the start but every day in order to make sure people had the skills and understanding in order to be able to operate in this new environment. The people we had were all excellent.
DP: Were you on the ground there at all?
GK: Both Andrew and I went to Sierra Leona and Liberia – I was there the day that school went back up after nine months, and that was just incredibly powerful to be there for that. We were incredibly proud. I’m also very proud that we provide health professionals into really remote, challenging Indigenous communities across the Northern Territory, and coming up this year, we will have provided our 5000th health professional.
DP: Can you tell us a bit about your day-to-day role?
GK: I stepped back about two years ago from being a day-to-day CEO. I’m now the co-executive chairman with Andrew. So I’m in the office most days. I live in Canberra, where the office is headquartered, and so I see my role primarily as strategic and relationships. So I get to do the fun bits and [managing those] those long-term relationships that are critical to us. I think those are my strengths: staying connected with people, drawing up good ideas and creating good ideas. I love creating answers to problems, particularly if they’re wicked problems that people see as intractable. A lot of stuff is written about networks. You know, you can see some people cruising a room and they’ll catch someone and then go, “You’re of no use to me”, and they move on to the next one and the next one. Whereas what I do is spend a lot of my time not talking about me, but finding out about that person. I’m a big believer that if you chat to anybody, you find they’ve got a fascinating life, and if you can do something to help them, well, you should. We think that it’s paid back benefits dozens of times over.
DP: What have you learned across your career, about the actual role of being a leader?
GK: A few things. You absolutely have to know what your values are and you must live them. Now, in the sort of environments we work… if you don’t understand where your ethical guidelines are, you’re in a world of hurt. And we’ve had occasions, ones that impacted us commercially, where I’ve just said, “I’m sorry. We’re not paying off an individual”, or “We’re not going to do that,” and that’s been critical. And now that just permeates everything we do and everybody knows we don’t do those sorts of things.Leadership is about making sure that you do what you’re asking everybody else to do. We also delegate. We trust our people and we stand behind them, and there’s no way you could be operating around the world in so many countries if you didn’t trust your people and stand behind them.
DP: Tell us about Aspen Medical’s corporate social responsibility activities and why you do it.
GK: We started it since day one and I always say to people, “You don’t need to be a big company to start. When you’re one person, say, a graphic designer, you can offer to do a bit of graphic design work once a fortnight for a charity, because what you are doing is setting that culture in your company. So then the next person who starts with your organisation says, “Well, this is the way the company’s built. I like this.”
LEADERSHIP IN 60 SECONDS
PREFERRED COMMUNICATION METHOD? EMAIL, IN PERSON, PHONE? Definitely in person.
WHICH LEADER DO YOU MOST ADMIRE? Muhammad Yunus [microfinancing pioneer and Nobel Peace Prize winner]. He was one of the first people to truly enable and empower women in the business sense. And microfinance had been an area of the world that was written off. I think he’s incredible.
YOU HAVE A BUSY AND VARIED CAREER. HOW DO YOU MANAGE YOUR TIME? Probably not as well as I should.