Frank Collins OBE

9th Jun 23


Through his indi­vid­ual ini­tia­tives and the invest­ments with which he has been asso­ci­at­ed, Frank Collins OBE has, albeit indi­rect­ly, been respon­si­ble for enhanc­ing, indeed sav­ing, many lives. His OBE award­ed a year ago, reflects his con­tri­bu­tion to the health­care sec­tor. Yet it can hard­ly be said that this was a life that he ini­tial­ly pro-active­ly chose to fol­low. It was instead rather clos­er to an accident.

Frank was born and brought up in Coventry, the son of a tool setter and a school secretary. Having passed an exam, he had secured a place at a local independent school. He did so at the age of nine and not the normal entry point of eleven. For his entire time there he was two years younger than his peers which, as he notes, “could be complicated and a challenge on some occasions.”

He had “no real sense of direction” at all as to what he would do afterwards. All he had was a feeling that he liked people and tended to get on with a broad range of personalities. On that basis, he applied for a very junior personnel role at one of the (then many) car companies in the West Midlands area. He enjoyed it but wanted to secure more seniority (and ideally a higher salary). He saw an advert for a personnel position at a local hospital. He had “no vocational draw to work in the sector” and “no awareness of career pathways in healthcare”. He was looking for an opening and this door was ajar.

In 1990 he found himself the Chief Executive of Kettering Hospital, one of the youngest people with such responsibilities in the country.

It turned out to be a profoundly pivotal moment. He was blessed by a very good manager above him who in effect (although the term was not much in vogue at the time) became his mentor and who convinced him that with application and flexibility he could make something of himself in the NHS. He eased out of personnel into more mainstream management leadership. His horizons expanded. He took some part-time qualifications to make his CV more eye-catching. He put in serious hours.

As a result, in 1990 he found himself the Chief Executive of Kettering Hospital, one of the youngest people with such responsibilities in the country. His objective was to prepare his hospital to bid for Trust status. At the time this was a matter of considerable contention. Many within the NHS thought that Trusts were part of a creeping privatisation agenda. At the start of his tenure, the consultants in his charge wrote a public letter opposing any change in status. Despite this, he managed to make the change with little blood spilt on the carpet (indeed the same set of consultants would nominate him for a NHS Leadership Award which he won). His success was noticed, and a new path beckoned.

He was now CEO of two hospitals – Wexham Park in Slough and Heatherwood in Ascot – and sought efficiency savings by bringing some of their services together.

The consequence was a promotion which came with a hot potato as part of the bargain. He was now CEO of two hospitals – Wexham Park in Slough and Heatherwood in Ascot – and sought efficiency savings by bringing some of their services together. That was fine on paper, but Slough and Ascot are very different. A particular bone of contention involved merging two comparatively small maternity units into one much larger one which would be located at Wexham Park. Despite this, Frank “loved” the challenge.

A key reason for this was that his Trust had an exceptional Chair in Sir Brian Smith who was also the Chair of BAA and Cable and Wireless. He not only backed Frank to the hilt, but he also encouraged him to think and look beyond the public sector and consider transferring his skills to the market.

Which is what, with “some trepidation” he did. In 1998, he became the CEO of Stamford Hospital, a private health facility backed by private equity giant Warburg Pincus. He suddenly found himself articulating a new language of “return on investment”, “cash flow” and “performance targets”. He really enjoyed this and clearly had an impact as the business was sold some eighteen months later.

It was a baptism of heat, if not outright fire, but again he managed to make his mark and a lucrative trade sale occurred.

With Sir Brian’s support (and network) he would dive deeper into private equity backed healthcare. He was brought in (at not much notice) to take over as the CEO of Hydron Ltd. This was a contact lens manufacturing business that was technologically impressive but flatlining on the financial fundamentals. Frank had barely set foot in a factory in his life, let alone worked in this sphere. The two owners – Cinven and CVC – empowered him to recalibrate the company. It was a baptism of heat, if not outright fire, but again he managed to make his mark and a lucrative trade sale occurred.

He now had private equity funds soliciting him for his availability. He agreed to assist with the due diligence being undertaken by Graphite Capital on an orthopaedic business called Summit Medical Limited. The acquisition was completed in 2001 and Frank was recruited to become the new CEO. He had a particularly strong working relationship with Graphite and a mandate to expand the company. Revenue escalated swiftly. A secondary buyout on highly appealing terms duly materialised. A new set of owners (an American PE House) wanted him to stay on, which he agreed to do for a limited period only (having served there for a decade). He would either move on or start to “go plural”.

What Chair/NXD positions do you hold?

“At present I am Chair of Vernacare, which is a medical device company in the infection control space, and Chair of Medovate Limited, a technology transfer start-up dealing with operating room equipment. Due to a personal link, I am also a long-serving Chair of Bracebridge Corporate Finance which assists UK SMEs and so is an exception from a portfolio based on life science and healthcare.”

What prompted you to explore Chair/NXD roles?

“If you are seen as an effective chief executive – particularly by private equity – then it is not unusual to receive calls or have conversations about becoming a Chair or NXD. I had worked with some very good Chairs and seen how they could have an impact on a company. I had also been a CEO for more than two decades. It was about the right time to think about the next chapter.”

How did you get your first such role and what attracted you to that organisation?

“I moved up from CEO to Chair at Summit Medical Ltd and then an NXD with them thereafter. That change was attractive as I obviously already knew the business very well. I was also aware that acquiring your first role of this kind can be hard, but it can then be your platform to become plural. This was the best way for me to start this new stage in life and could be the catalyst for more offers.”

In non-exec roles what has been the most useful part of your prior management career?

“Working as a CEO in private equity backed businesses is a major asset. I understand their agenda, methodologies and expectations. I have also learnt a lot from working with my own top-rate Chairs.”

What makes a business appealing to you as a NXD or Chair?

“I need to feel a rapport with the key stakeholders. I want to sense these are ambitious investors. I take a close look at the management team. I want to see a growth story. And increasingly I want to find compelling evidence of a product or service that will have a substantial social impact or value.”

What are the three biggest lessons that you have learnt from being an NXD/Chair?

“First, the importance of strong leadership teams who are not afraid to take some tough decisions. Second, always remember that you are not the real CEO, you are there to advise and assist them. Finally, and this is something where my public sector experience has been influential, there are times when you require formal written assurance on matters. Do not rely on informal reassurance.”

What is the best experience that you have had as a NXD/Chair?

“The big thrill is when people work extremely well together with all the crucial stakeholders united. One case study of this is Vernacare, where I became the Chair in February 2020, shortly after which lockdown imposed huge restrictions on our operating model. Yet we were able to adapt and then to overcome all the inconveniences and provide a truly fantastic service to the NHS which needed it.”

What is the biggest problem that you have faced as an NXD and did you resolve it?

“The principal problem today and pretty much in every economic activity that I encounter is inflation. For the first time in a generation this is a serious factor in decision-making. The surge in costs means that you in turn need to impose sizeable price increases. This is not an easy process.”

What are the biggest challenges that boards will have to deal with in the medium-term?

“First, people and talent. Finding talent. Making the most of talent. Retaining that talent. Second, the knock-on effect of the aforementioned inflation, namely the rising cost of borrowing. Third, being confident about the competence of the data with which you are being confronted.”

What advice would you give anyone starting out on a portfolio career?

“A few suggestions. You need to be sure that this is the right course for you, as it is certainly not best for everyone. Be patient about that first role and be willing to wait for the right fit. Offer to do some consulting for private equity firms to establish a relationship with them. Do not disregard the public sector as it can provide very useful insights even if it is not especially lucrative. Be sector specific and stick closely to your skill sets. Finally, be absolutely honest on your CV. Bluffers will get rumbled."