Interview with MJ Medical’s Founders
Rounding off the celebrations of MJ Medical’s 30th Anniversary, its founders reflect on the international health consultancy’s beginnings in the late 80’s, why it was a different time for entrepreneurs, and why the business has stood the test of time.
In 1988, Cathryn Dart and Brian Hobbs moved to Cornwall with their four children and started MJ Medical. They had fallen on hard times and were eager for a fresh start. They sold their house in Sussex and moved south to the Lizard Peninsular and, with strong entrepreneurial spirit, they built their second business together, one that would survive many recessions and one of the world’s greatest financial crises.
MJ Medical has become one of the most recognizable brands in the healthcare facility design sector across the Middle East and the UK, having delivered more than 250 projects in 85 countries. In celebration of its 30th anniversary, Brian and Cathryn discuss the company’s origins and their thoughts on why it has stood the test of time
How did MJ Medical begin?
MJ Medical was really an evolution of two previous companies Brian and I built together. It all sparked off when Brian, after leaving the Royal Marines, was working as a theatre operating assistant at St Thomas Hospital in London. Government ministers, mostly from the Middle East, were arranging visits with him to understand how operating theatres functioned. They were building substantially sized hospitals and the insight they needed wasn’t readily available. He spotted a gap in the healthcare market for advisory services for hospital facility planning and medical equipment.
Around this time the UK Government was running an initiative which promoted entrepreneurship in the country. If you had a decent business idea, the government would fund business school and the cost of starting up your business. They also provided ongoing mentorship and networking opportunities. Brian applied and was accepted. He quickly began to build relationships with important contractors and suppliers both in the UK and internationally. He started a company called OTEC – Operating Theatre and Equipment Consultants – the first in a line of tortured company acronyms! His weekly earnings increased from £50 to well into the hundreds. Soon, I begin providing admin support, chasing-up unpaid bills and following-up new opportunities.
Initially it was exciting because being a business owner was something I had never considered. From over a course of months, I went from being a mother of four to a fully-fledged businesswoman in need of a nanny. I handled the marketing and administration while Brian travelled as our lead consultant.
The money was great and the market was growing. Countries across Africa and Asia were building their first general hospitals on the back of booming economies. It was clear early on that if we were to fully realize our potential, we needed to further our expertise beyond operating theatres. Once we built-up our knowledge, we set-up CBH Health Planning and began to look for bigger contracts. We expanded our services into the procurement of equipment and wider hospital planning.
The contracts paid well, but they were long-term, with long lead times for payments. So, I built another company supplying first aid kits to Iraq, using existing contacts. This commodity-based company provided us short-term gain to pay the bills. It also opened our eyes to a new market, but the resulting income didn’t provide a long-term solution to our cash flow issues. We just didn’t have the money behind us to keep the business going. Unfortunately we had to go into liquidation.
We might of lost the company, but not the knowledge. We sold our beautiful Victorian house to pay our outstanding debts following years of trying to keep the business afloat. With the remaining money, we bought a derelict barn in Cornwall. This is where we would build our home and start-up a new business; MJ Medical.
Yes, while Cathryn was setting up home, I was working in Saudi as a health planning and equipment consultant for the Al Hada military hospital. I was approached to do further work on the project, which would involve shipping medical equipment from Europe and North America to Saudi. I had no logistics experience but knew a guy named Martin Malone that owned a shipping and freight forwarding company. I quickly approached him and a few months later we joined forces with his business partner, James Pearson, as Martin James Medical.
This new company became a vehicle for developing other opportunities in equipment procurement and supply, particularly with development agencies like the World Bank. While most of our experience was in the UK and Saudi Arabia, we quickly expanded into places where the healthcare market was really growing, particularly in Africa and Asia.
Cathryn continued to focus on developing our services and market profile – and manage our home life – while I provided the technical expertise.
The 80’s & 90’s sounded like an exciting time to do business, tell me more?
Yes, it was an exciting time for healthcare internationally and for me, personally. Access to modern healthcare was increasing on the back of growing economies. Some of the first hospitals were being built in countries I had read about and only imagined visiting in Africa and the Middle East.
I was around 40-years-old when I began travelling and it was unusual for a foreign woman to visit let alone do business in many of the countries I visited.
Iraq in the late 80’s early 90’s was wonderful. There was the inherent beauty of the country, the heat of the dessert, the call to prayer, intriguing food, its dynamic and warm culture. The Iraqi people were so welcoming and respectful to me. Business deals were being done in smoky cafes – it felt like I was in the film Casablanca. It was all very heady and it added a huge element of depth to my life.
Then there was Africa. Having the opportunity to work in so many beautiful countries with strong cultures – Ghana, Sudan, Uganda and Zambia. The work we were doing was so positive and, at the same time, immensely challenging.
I remember watching a container of medical supplies arriving in the Uganda jungle – it was a logistical success on the back of our work. That moment brought so much happiness to me. Through ambition and hard work, we were helping build hospitals where they hadn’t existed, increasing access to healthcare and charting a new direction for the business.
What was your best memory?
Through our relationship with a Sudanese surgeon, we won a contract in Khartoum. I vividly remember arriving into the country. It was the first time I travelled outside of Europe on my own and it was an experience like no other I have had. I walked through the dessert surrounded by the smell of the hot air and new perfumes, the sight of beautiful Sudanese dressed in white robes, a backdrop of palm trees situated along the Nile with a burnt orange sun setting behind.
Our contractors welcomed me with an intimate dinner which was attended by government ministers and leading businessmen. Here I was – a woman, a mother of four from rural Sussex, here to do business. I felt I had arrived.
My memory rests in a more humbling place, but equally as joyous. Cathryn and I had been spending our days in a container yard in Zambia. I remember the heat of the sun beating against our skin – it was relentless. We were working with a group of Zambians unloading medical equipment packages to go out to rural health clinics and everyone’s spirits were high. There was something about it. Sharing this moment with someone I loved so much. We were on the same twig, enjoying the fruits of our labour. We both very much had the realization that in that moment we were working on a project which would ultimately enrich the lives of thousands of people and it was on the back of a business we built together. Although it wasn’t the intentions of our company at the outset, it was a product of what we created.
What’s been the most challenging part of running the business?
The most difficult times have been trying to navigate the various downturns the market has seen over the last three decades. Our work largely depends on private and public sector funded healthcare developments. We have therefore had to manage the impacts of both governmental policy changes and general macro-economic downturns. It’s undoubtedly made us stronger and we have created a pretty resilient business model to allow us to do this, but it is still a constant challenge.
The most difficult of these was undoubtedly the 2008/2009 downturn – we were just coming to the end of two or three major projects, and spending on major healthcare developments in our two key markets, the UK and Middle-East, all but came to end. This was coupled with our bank, as with most of the others, severally reducing the amount of support they were prepared to provide us to see us through the downturn. It was an extremely challenging time, and we lost several long-standing members of the team for a variety of reasons all related to the events of the period, which took us a long time to replace. It did however force us to become much more efficient in the way we delivered projects, and we invested significant amounts of time and money into our data management systems in order to facilitate this.
How has running business in the healthcare industry changed over the years?
When we first entered the market in the mid to late 80’s, Saudi Arabia was where you wanted be. The oil rich country was eager to build a strong healthcare infrastructure and catch-up to the world’s leading economies. The major architecture firms and construction companies were vying for considerable sized contracts to build the next big hospital. Countries across Africa had an appetite for modern healthcare systems and began building general hospitals in capital cities and thousands of rural clinics.
A majority of the bigger markets in the Middle East and Africa now have a reasonable infrastructure. So we went from very large beginnings, watching countries with significant budgets throwing money at things and now it’s become way more measured.
Even the UK, albeit less dramatic, has experienced less and less spending on healthcare over the years. The late 1990’s brought the introduction of the UK’s Public Private Partnership models, PFI and LIFT, meaning much more investment in new hospitals and medical technologies. The UK was really our bread and butter until about 6 or 7 years ago. Now a majority of the contracts are for masterplans, refurbishments or smaller facility developments.
Technology has changed considerably and continues to evolve at a rapid rate. Therefore, future technologies must always be considered within design plans. Hospital design needs to be much more adaptive to equipment and ways of working that are at the fringes of current reality. It requires one to be more optimistic and forward looking.
In relation to hospital design, there is also much more consideration for, and therefore input from, doctors and nurses. This makes the design much more complicated. You’re designing a hospital with a long life span, but still need to consider the feedback of a clinician that won’t necessarily be there ten years from now. At the same time, you need to ensure that they are comfortable with the design of the department and room where they’ll be treating thousands of patients.
Trying to get the best for everyone is difficult. The truth is whilst users input is crucial, the pace of advance in clinical care means that sometimes their approach isn’t as innovative as the way care is delivered elsewhere. In these cases our role becomes one of helping them realize and consider the potential benefits of other approaches. At the same time we need to facilitate innovation, new approaches and technology, whilst meeting the realities of inevitable financial constraints – it is a careful balancing act.
Out of all the other businesses you started, why do you think MJ Medical still stands today?
MJ Medical benefited from the lessons we had previously learnt. MJ Medical was developed gradually, funded properly and managed well. The company still benefits from our experience and entrepreneur spirit, but we take much more controlled risks. Over the years, we’ve welcomed new leadership, which has provided new perspective, which is great.
It’s really down to the dedication, integrity and perseverance of our people. The best members of our team have believed in our mission and taken it on. We’ve managed to retain the essential members of our team over the years, providing us with not only decades of knowledge but a group of people that do business with integrity. We’ve also built strong relationships with leading consultants, as they have moved around within the industry they’ve brought us with them.
Any advise for budding entrepreneurs today?
Go for it! Just make sure you consider the financial aspects of running your business, ensure you have enough finance to kick-start your business and support it through the slower months. It’s better that you are able to use your headspace to grow the business rather than worrying about how you’re going to pay bills.
Also, make sure you are clear about what it is that you are actually offering that is different. Is there something special about the approach you are taking, is your service unique, or are you offering a different quality or price pitch for services already in the market? If you can’t clearly articulate what is compelling about what you are offering, you may need to think again.
Where would you like to see the company go over the next 30 years?
Even though I probably won’t be around to see all of the next 30 years, I do hope we maintain our focus on keeping pace with the developments in technology, in regards to both care delivery technology but also the technology used to actually design healthcare buildings. For example, the last decade has seen huge changes in the way buildings are designed with the wide spread adoption of BIM. The full application and ramifications of this are yet to be seen, however one of the most interesting outcomes from my point of view is how it facilitates users of healthcare buildings having a much more valuable way of understanding and inputting into the design process. We developed new approaches to our service delivery approach very early on in response, for example by holding room design user group review meetings with a live BIM model of the room as the focal point. Suggested changes are modelled live in the meeting to determine the best design.
I would also like to see us continuing to expand the areas where we provide input and advice in the healthcare facility development process. Currently we provide services from beginning to end, from assessing need for communities at the front end, to installing, commissioning and managing equipment at the operational end. This is one of our great strengths, giving us economic resilience but it is also a body of knowledge whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It would be great to see us adding even more elements to what we can offer, either through internal development or close collaboration with other like-minded consultancies.
We’ve got a great team around us, and most of them have been with us for a long time. I think this is partly because of our approach to work-life balance – we have always been a family run company, and this translates into a ‘family first’ policy when it comes to supporting team members with their commitments and responsibilities in other areas of their lives. So wherever the road takes MJ Medical, I hope it remains a supportive workplace for the people who make it what it is.