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Any other business

A vision in lilac driving a world-class business

Rupert Steiner meets Bupa chief Val Gooding, one of Britain’s most successful female bosses

20 September 2006

4:48 PM

20 September 2006

4:48 PM

Rupert Steiner meets Bupa chief Val Gooding, one of Britain’s most successful female bosses

A silhouette of a faceless giant hangs on Bupa’s atrium wall. The piece is bisected and has vaguely medical undertones, appropriate for the corporate offices of a private healthcare group. But the parallels do not stop there. Bupa has another almost anonymous giant in Val Gooding, its 56-year-old chief executive. She is Britain’s second most powerful female boss, but with very little of the profile many of her male counterparts court and enjoy.

Over the past ten years Gooding has turned Bupa around, grown its market share, produced record results and built the business into a rare world brand. Bupa is now the size of a FTSE–100 company, with 44,000 staff and a turnover of £3.8 billion. It runs care homes, private hospitals, children’s nurseries and occupational health and screening centres. What makes these achievements so remarkable is that Bupa does not have the usual driving forces of a public company. It is set up as a provident institution, with no shareholders or conventional profit motive, yet Gooding still manages to harness her management into a strategy that obviously works.

It is a strategy that has global dimensions: later this year Gooding will reveal that Bupa is going to China to explore the demand for private healthcare among the burgeoning middle class there. She is sending a team to Beijing ‘to talk to as many people as possible and see what entry opportunities there could be’.

Despite her success, Gooding has always shunned publicity. This is only her second interview in ten years and she has sacrificed just half an hour to race through her career history with me. The clock ticking, I find myself in an anteroom to her ninth-floor Bloomsbury office: an immaculate vision in lilac, she is pacing her room, mobile phone clamped to her ear, finishing a conversation. When the call is over, I am ushered to a small round table in a pastel-shaded room that would not feel out of place in a Bupa hospital.

A postcard featuring the Prime Minister and his wife sits on a cabinet next to various industry awards. Healthcare being as much about politics as business, Gooding is quick to point out that Bupa is not aligned with any political party. It has had contact with Tony Blair’s team as well as with David Cameron — who has yet to crystallise his views on health. ‘I think we should leave Mr Cameron alone,’ says Gooding. ‘I think we should allow him maximum freedom for as long as possible [to formulate his policies] rather than trapping him into statements that he might subsequently regret. As we know from every government, people change their minds.’

She is also careful to keep to herself her views about Bupa’s chief rival, the National Health Service. But she does have an opinion on the job of NHS chief executive, which became vacant earlier this year. ‘Sometimes some jobs are un-do-able,’ she says. ‘They can only be done to a certain level of success and I think the NHS chief executive position is one of the most challenging jobs in Britain.’

Happier in the corporate world, Gooding has her own set of challenges, not least growing the business without the usual demands and benchmarks of a quoted company. ‘Obviously we set targets and they’re stretching targets,’ she says, before rattling through some prepared facts and figures. ‘People are incentivised to deliver on those targets but we can’t give them shares in the company, because there aren’t any. Financial incentives are just one element and people are driven in part by a feeling that the company is doing the right thing. Their contribution adds health gain to people’s lives and they know they can only do that if they deliver solid financial performance to underpin it. We also have debt in Bupa, so we’ve got to deliver for our bondholders and we can’t just let our performance wither away.’

One major benefit of being a provident is that Gooding is able to invest for the future without pressure from shareholders wanting short-term returns. ‘Yes, I think one of our advantages is that we do have a long-term perspective,’ she says, laying down her crib sheet. ‘But it wouldn’t really be acceptable to say, “Oh well, this year is not a good year but in five years it will be great.” It’s not like that. My challenge is not to sacrifice short-term performance for long-term waffle.’

Performance has never been an issue for Gooding herself. Brought up in rural east Suffolk — where her father was an insurance salesman for the Pru and her mum was a school secretary — she reached her own academic targets and went on from the local grammar school to read French at Warwick University. After graduation she joined BEA before it became British Airways and was privatised. Her former boss at BA, Lord Marshall of Knightsbridge, recalls her as ‘a good strategic thinker and a good marketer’. Another admirer is the former health minister turned headhunter Baroness Bottomley: ‘Val’s leadership at Bupa is evident for all to see. She combines her head with her heart as well as having great commercial acumen.’

She has also managed to juggle her career with raising a family. She delayed having children until she was in a senior position at British Airways, then employed a series of nannies until her husband took early retirement. ‘He didn’t retire early because his wife needed to pursue her career ruthlessly, at the cost of any contribution at home,’ she says. ‘It was more his decision at his stage in life — he’s older than me. Mine wasn’t a planned career path, it just sort of happened. I started at the bottom. The irony was that in the first ten years of my career it was hard to get on, so I tended to make a lot of sideways moves. In hindsight this has been tremendously advantageous, although my people here hate it because it means I know a little about everything.’

The key to her success, she says, has been persistence and determination. ‘Persistence is something so deep inside you, you’ve either got it or you haven’t. I don’t think you set out in life thinking, “I am persistent and today I will persist in everything I do.” It is more that when you look back you can see things which show that you’ve been persistent.’

My time is up. As she escorts me to the exit, I suggest that after a decade at Bupa perhaps she might look for one last high-profile challenge before bowing out. She fixes me with one of her perfect corporate smiles — the kind that has benefited from years of loving care at Bupa Dental — and says, ‘I don’t have any career plans apart from continuing to make Bupa successful.’ Which in translation probably means, ‘Even if I did, I wouldn’t be telling you.’

Rupert Steiner is city editor of the Business.

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