The public relations officer who set up the meeting with Val Gooding, the new chief executive officer of BUPA, had a few words of advice. “No questions about what it’s like to be a woman at the top or on her home life please,” she said firmly. It is a sad fact of life that if a woman moves into a senior role then her gender is somehow more interesting than her job. It must be tedious to be constantly quizzed on this and equally annoying to be asked for personal details.
Val Gooding, 48, however, shows no signs of being rankled by anything. She has a tranquil air, despite having one of the toughest jobs in the business.
Gooding joined the company in September in 1996 as managing director for UK operations, before taking over as chief executive last August from Peter Jacobs who retired. She had previously worked for British Airways as director of its Asia Pacific division. BA was her first port of call after leaving Warwick University with a French degree and she held a variety of managerial roles including responsibility for training, marketing and cabin services. In a relatively short time she already has a formidable grasp of the health insurance market.
But while PMI is the largest part of BUPA’s business, it is still only part of the picture. The company offers a range of other insurance products including dental, critical illness and cash plans.
Then there are private hospitals, nursing homes and screening centres. In the UK alone it has centres in Salford Quays, Staines, as well a nationwide private hospital chain and screening centres. There is also international health insurance and medical business in countries including Spain, Thailand and Ireland.
Val Gooding has a luxurious office based in BUPA’s London head office in Bloomsbury. The cool and spacious building is filled with wood and modern art and is a stylish work environment.
But the surroundings have not been enough to cushion BUPA from some rocky times. The media in particular has not always been BUPA’s ally.
Some months ago, an article in the Mail on Sunday newspaper suggested BUPA was up for sale. It seems this story was based on unfounded information, but as a lead in the paper’s business section, was obviously read by many people including staff.
Gooding was annoyed when it came out. “This story was totally inaccurate. It was hard work reassuring our staff and customers that this was untrue and that we were not for sale, and certainly not talking to the Halifax or Lloyds TSB as had been suggested.
As a provident, BUPA would need to change its status before becoming part of a public limited company which the story implied. Gooding added this was also nonsense. “BUPA also does not plan to give up its provident status. I think most people do understand what this means and like the fact we can put profits back into the business rather than giving them to shareholders.”
BUPA has also had to contend with a Watchdog
appearance. which suggested it would be unwilling to pay for a policyholder’s operation. The truth was the patient wanted to be a guinea pig for a revolutionary type of surgery previously only done in the US. But BUPA was in the right and won hands down. It had already paid for the patient to be treated under tried and tested methods and more than met its obligations.
The trade press also knocked BUPA last year when articles claimed the company was ditching brokers to focus on the direct market.
Gooding takes a pragmatic view. “I think it is always better to appear on programmes such as Watchdog
and put across your point of view. We have millions of customers and we are not 100% perfect. If we find we have make a mistake we will put things right, but if not we will vigorously defend ourselves.”
As far as intermediaries are concerned, BUPA is now gradually coming back into favour and the company has made a big effort to win them back.
“We hope we have sent them a clear signal we are looking to build our intermediary business and this is now happening,” says Gooding.
A new head of intermediary business, Colin Webb, was appointed last year and the company has held roadshows and launched an IT training package and quality literature to prove its commitment.
But it has not all been roses for BUPA’s direct sales force. Gooding says last year this was cut by 50%. She claimed the cuts had to be made as the numbers previously in the direct sales force had not been viable.
BUPA’s business is split into about 60% corporate and 40% individual. According to Gooding it is the number one provider with a market share of 41 %.
But, following the recent merger of Guardian and PPP, it now has a rival hot on its heels. Gooding admits to being fully aware the market is “hugely competitive” and says BUPA cannot be complacent about its market share.
“There are a lot of good companies out there such as Prime Health, PPP and Norwich Union and I have a great deal of respect for them,” she says.
But Gooding insists the BUPA brand is as strong as ever. She says in relative terms the company does not advertise heavily and there are no plans for a move away from its key theme of “You’re amazing, we want you to stay that way.”
There has been recent advertising of its screening services on Channels 4, 5 and cable television which she says let to a marked uptake of this service. This was hard-hitting and showed the trouble spots on human bodies and the benefits of having early diagnosis.
BUPA is keen on sponsorship and Gooding says this will continue. The company backs the Commit to Get Fit initiative and numerous athletics events.
But Gooding’s key focus has been to build a strong company culture. She launched a major staff initiative, One Life, aimed at recognising and motivating each individual who works for BUPA.
“At first it was clear people at the One Life seminars were not sure if they could say what they thought, but it’s only when you get people together and communicating you get ideas,” she comments.
A staff newspaper also came out of the One Life project. “I wanted to make sure people realised this was not just going to be BUPA propaganda,” says Gooding. “I think when people have raised controversial issues in letters to the paper they have been surprised when they were published.”
Gooding has also implemented a £50 million investment for improving services for customers, including better telephone’ services to pre-authorise claims.
But the PMI business needs more customers, especially new ones, yet sales figures are static. Gooding believes around 20% of the population have sufficient disposable income to pay for PMI – the problems is convincing them do so. “We need to get across the message that really needy people would get better treatment on the NHS as fewer people would clog up waiting lists,” she says.
Longer term, she sees increasing pressures on people to provide for themselves, but is not expecting the government to make any statements in favour of the private sector and she describes the removal of tax relief for the over 60s as “unfair”.
“We do feel the market has potential to grow, but we need to look at product innovation, distribution and, in particular, better and clearer ways of reaching customers,” she says.
Wait and see
Gooding says there are no immediate plans to follow Norwich Union into the private GP markdt. NU now offers aploicy sold through Medicentres, which are surgeries based in stations and supermarkets. She adds she has yet to be convinced. “We are keeping an eye on developments but I am not sure how many people would actually use this service,” she says.
Whatever the future plans, brokers can be reassured BUPA wants them on side. Gooding adds the corporate side, and areas such as occupational health, are a major focus, and well suited to intermediary sales.
“We are trying to make employers see this is not just a question of being benevolent but it also benefits the bottom line,” she says. Improvements to service now include nurses based at the Salford Quays office giving employees advice on the phone on any health-related issue.”
Gooding is enjoying her job. BUPA’s people – whether customers or staff – clearly make it worthwhile. “At BA, when we won an award people almost felt, `here’s another one’. Here it means a lot more,” she says. BUPA was recently recognised for call centre excellence and Gooding says there is a real sense of achievement felt throughout the company when a big account is won. “Job success for me is based on seeing people succeed,” she says.
There is a lot going on at BUPA and Val Gooding clearly believes in the company and its staff. Her enthusiasm for the business is obvious. So much so that questions about whether she is interested in gardens, golf or jam making do not seem very relevant at all.