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Making the world healthier

Date

David Ellery

Glenn Keys is managing director of Aspen Medical, a Canberra-based international success story, DAVID ELLERY writes

Making the world a better place is a major fringe benefit of a typical day at the office for Aspen Medical managing director Glenn Keys.

The 49-year-old former Australian Defence Force test flight engineer is the public face of one of Canberra's most dramatic business stories.

It is just under a decade since he and Dr Andrew Walker, an old Newcastle school chum, stepped into the unknown and tendered for a contract as part of the British Blair government's first round of major National Health Service reforms.

Last week the company they founded, which now has operations employing hundreds of people across the globe, won a contract worth hundreds of millions of dollars to provide medical services at all of Australia's Defence bases.

Business journalists accustomed to referring to the company as an SME - a small to medium business enterprise - may have to think again.

Keys, who also trained and worked in logistics with the Australian Army, said one of the elements underpinning the company's success had been the application of what he had learnt in Defence to some of the major medical and humanitarian challenges of modern times. ''Logistics is the art of getting the right stuff to the right place at the right time. Logistics, planning and coordination of operations are some of the key features we've taken from Defence and been able to apply to the health sector. It's been a big part of what we've been able to do.''

Aspen Medical had its genesis in a visit Keys made to Britain about a decade ago. ''I was over there visiting a mutual friend of Andrew and mine's, Damian Griffin,'' he said. ''We were chatting about what Blair was going to do with the National Health Service and how he was going to completely change it. Part of the problem was that nobody in England really understood the change because they all worked for the NHS - they were going to need people from outside the country.''

The British NHS was, at this point, one of the largest and most monolithic bureaucratic structures on the face of the planet with a staggering 1.3 million employees, making it the third-largest employer in the world behind the Chinese army and the Indian railways.

When Keys spoke to Walker about having a shot his friend was initially doubtful, saying ''I understand about the medical field, I understand clinics but I don't understand the tendering process or project management - I don't get that''. Keys said that was the easy part: ''That's what I do every day [in my current role],'' he said.

The first contract, to review the way orthopaedic services were delivered under the NHS, was much more a learning curve than a major money-maker. ''It was only a few hundred thousand dollars but it gave me a reason to sit on the other side of the table. When you are selling to a customer you're over this side of the desk trying to convince them. With a consultancy I could sit next to them and talk through concepts of operation and really start to flesh out some different ways of operating.''

This experience led directly to a contract to reduce the NHS's massive waiting list for orthopaedic surgery in the north of England. The next challenge, picking up the pieces after the Solomon Islands became a failed state, was on a whole new level again.

''There we were providing everything,'' Keys said. ''The buildings, the equipment, the people, the pharmaceuticals, the consumables, the ambulances, the aeromedical evacuation service - the lot. There had been a collapse of government and the Australians came in as part of a multinational force to help establish law and order and help maintain the peace and, most importantly, to grow the machinery of government again.''

He said that while the operation had never achieved the media profile of other Australian interventions in East Timor and Afghanistan, people could - and should - be proud of what successive Coalition and Labor governments had done.

''It was pretty rough [in the Solomons],'' he said. ''There had been a breakdown in services, a breakdown in law and order and governance and commercial activity was essentially impossible.'' People were unable to access basic services such as going to the doctor or to a pharmacist to have a prescription filled. ''Basic necessities of life were not available; if I think of what the Solomons are like now compared to what they were like when we went up there the development that has occurred is unbelievable.''

The Solomons contract came at a sad time for the Keys family. ''My mother, Lorna, died just as we were rolling out the contract. The mobile surgery we have up there is named in her honour. It is quite interesting in that a member of staff will refer to it and call it Lorna without knowing why.''

Lorna Keys and Glenn's father, Ray, were small-business people and much of what he has learnt from them stuck - even though the Aspen Medical operation is now many times larger than the two-store operation they had in Newcastle. ''I was just saying to my wife the other day that I thought mum would be very, very happy to know where we were [in a business sense], what we were doing and would probably have 100 questions about the business, how we were dealing with risk and all sorts of stuff. Of course the micro business lessons I learnt from my parents are applicable to Aspen - we didn't just end up here; we started as a brand-new business … a micro business. I was working out of our dining room in Chapman for the first year because we didn't have an office.''

The company was established in Canberra because that is where he was living at the time. That said, the location has worked out well given the high level of involvement between Aspen Medical and federal government departments and agencies. ''We've lived here for 17 years and our kids go to school here,'' he said. ''I'm five minutes from the Department of Health and from the Department of Defence. I don't believed the business has been disadvantaged from being in Canberra in any way. Canberra is a great environment to live in with a family and we are certainly looking at being here for quite a while longer yet.''

Keys said East Timor, another country where the company has put down deep roots, was also an example of Australians doing a good job and helping others in the region. A number of Aspen Medical staff members were personally honoured by the president, Jose Ramos-Horta, for the work they did in saving his life after the 2008 assassination attempt. The president was medically evacuated to Australia aboard an Aspen Medical plane.

That episode was a very public example of the type of work the company's teams perform on a daily basis around the world. ''One of the things I love about this job is that people are better off because we are here,'' Keys said. ''People are alive today because of what we've done; there are people who can walk properly and see properly because of what we've been able to do.''

Asked if he had deliberately set out to make the world a better place, Keys said he believed everybody did - but that he had been more fortunate than most. ''This [Aspen Medical] is a very, very clear way that allows us to deliver health care in an environment where it is difficult to deliver or in high demand that also has some financial benefit to it because we are a business.''

Keys believes in the value of giving back - both in a corporate sense and as an individual. The company has its own foundation which uses a percentage of the profits to attack a major health issue. Its current target is trachoma, the eye infection once better known as sandy blight that has been eliminated in every Western country but Australia where it remains a common cause of blindness in outback Aboriginal populations.

A member of the Canberra Business Council, Keys and his wife Mel are also active in a number of organisations that work to maximise opportunities for people with disabilities. This has come about because of their own experience as the parents of an 18-year-old with Down syndrome. Keys is the chairman of Special Olympics ACT.

David Ellery is Defence Reporter.

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