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CareTech CFO on social care in age of coronavirus

Christopher Dickinson swapped investment banking for running finance in a firm applying new techniques in running adult and child care homes

When Christopher Dickinson decided on a change of career, moving from investment banking to becoming finance chief of a listed social care business, he was aware of many of the challenges in the sector. But the onset of coronavirus has brought a whole new level of problem-solving.

Nevertheless, Dickinson – who is CFO of CareTech, a £500m market cap operator of specialised care homes for adults and specialist education and homes for children across the UK – says that helping run a firm that “looks after the vulnerable and challenged in society, is incredibly rewarding.”

He says: “One of the attractions of moving was getting a little more of a warm feeling when you go home at night and you’ve done something really good for people that need help.”

Dickinson switched from being the UK MD of investment banking firm Jefferies after he got to know CareTech advising the  firm on its takeover of rival Cambian, a specialist children’s residential and educational services provider “in need of turnaround”.

He says that coming into the sector he was aware of the risks, but insists that better practices have been rolled out at the former Cambian homes – the subject of an ITV investigation in 2017 – as a result of coming under new ownership of CareTech the following year.

“We have the control systems and robustness to ensure that sites are monitored and any bad practice is dealt with appropriately. “There are certainly improvements from integrating Cambian into CareTech, with improving quality ratings already,” he says.

One thing Dickinson fully recognises is how much more high profile working in a public firm is, especially in such a critical sector.  “You’re more in the limelight as opposed to investment banking but that doesn’t particularly faze me,” he says.

Banking background

Dickinson’s route into investment banking was through undertaking a degree in computer and management science at University of Warwick before joining Arthur Andersen and then crossing over to rival Big Five accountancy firm Deloitte when Andersens collapsed in the wake of the Enron scandal in 2001.

He joined US bulge bracket bank JP Morgan working primarily in M&A as well as debt and equity capital markets “at exactly the right time, in a massive bull market”. Coming at a time when JP Morgan undertook a joint venture with leading London Cazenove meant they were “wonderful years in terms of my learning exposure and experiences,” he says.

At JP Morgan Dickinson says he “worked on pretty much anything if there was a UK angle- on the buy side or sell side, as well as cross-border deals. It meant “modelling, valuing companies, structuring transactions, putting pitch books together, and then presenting to boards and giving advice, becoming a very trusted adviser to them,” he says.

From an M&A bonanza, the course of Dickinson’s work changed once the global financial crisis (GFC) started in 2008. Given that JP Morgan was one of the few big investment banks to prosper during the GFC, he stayed busy advising on rescue rights issues, and advising companies to buy others who were on a better financial footing.

After 14 years at the bulge bracket bank he moved on to Jefferies, “to help build out their mid-market franchise”, but after not much more than a year he advised on CareTech’s acquisition of Cambian. When CareTech CFO Michael Hills announced he was due to retire, Dickinson threw his hat in the ring and was given the role.

Given he had never been a CFO before, it made sense for Dickinson to familiarise himself with the role of finance leader of Cambian for a year before taking on the group CFO position. “That worked really well as I was heavily involved in the integration of Cambian,” he says.

The reasoning behind the move from banking to CFO was straightforward for Dickinson. “It was a natural next step in my career, about where did I want to see myself in the next 10-15-20 years”.

“It was very much about being part of the decision-making body. In a corporate you own the decision, you make the decision and you live through the decision, whereas in investment banking you give trusted advice and you act with integrity, but ultimately you don’t have to deliver the decision,” he says.

Forward thinking

From the position of Cambian CFO, Dickinson was able to assess not just finance but all the systems, processes that the group has as a result of the transformational takeover. “It was taking the best practices of CareTech and Cambian and making decisions about what would be best for the enlarged group. That’s been the journey over the last 18 months,” he informs.

Cambian was put on the same financial accounting system and currently migrating payrolls, but in effect much of the integration of the enlarged group’s finance had been completed.

Dickinson was also able to develop his focus on the operational side. “I get involved in a lot of the decisions around how we track estates, maintenance and repairs, compliance and IT. I’m also looking at what we’re signing off on from a contracts perspective on all aspects of the business,” he says.

The result has been impressive so far. CareTech was able to deliver underlyimg profit before tax that increased 25 percent to £25.9m in the six months to March 31 on revenues that rose from £192.5m to £208.5m over the same period.

But soon after he became group CFO in March coronavirus struck, impacting operations. But despite the complexities of managing the homes under lockdown, over 60 percent of service users are children and the rest adult-focused, the issue is not nearly as acute as the impact on elderly care.

“While service users have a variety of different complex needs, that can be autism, Asperger’s, behavourial and emotional issues, they’re not necessarily susceptible from a coronavirus perspective, and therefore all our operations have stayed open.

“Key workers come in and out of homes to look after service users, so we’ve had to adapt and monitor. With a risk assessment tool we’ve been able do that on a daily basis, to track and make sure we are doing everything safe, safe for our service users and safe for our employees.

“The portal that we built is giving us real time and accurate data on any coronavirus symptoms of service users and employees, numbers of people self-isolating, PPE supplies and whether there was a shortage, or whether there would be a shortage in a certain time frame, and as a consequence of that we were able to cope and meet demand,” he says.

Dickinson says being in close contact with staff under great pressure as a result of the pandemic, has been a humbling experience. “I think it’s a remarkable job what our care workers do, for the most vulnerable in society, how hard they work addressing complex needs,” he says.

Looking ahead, Dickinson says the group’s model is to expand its offer both in the UK and internationally, to gain economies of scale through organic growth, buying sites and getting registrations. CareTech struck a deal in the UAE in February. “There’s still consolidation opportunities in the UK, but in addition, we’re well placed to take the CareTech brand internationally, and certainly the Gulf market represents an opportunity.”

“Social care doesn’t really exist in these markets. Where there has typically been a stigma attached to complex needs conditions, I think those markets are starting to adapt and change for the better. As a leader in our field, we can play a key part in that market, as it starts to develop,” he says.

Dickinson is also keen to harness technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) as a disrupting force in the sector. “Its KPI benchmarking in order to make strategic decisions with data, but it’s also technology playing a part in what we offer to service users, to help them develop and achieve better outcomes,” he says.

“We’re looking at diagnosis and monitoring tools that help service users with far more reliable data rather than the paper-based model which documents the number of care workers and support service users need. We’re looking at how technology can play a more meaningful part in social care, but also a more meaningful part in service users’ lives,” says Dickinson.

The fusing of data across operations with a more agile finance function is still a work in progress, says Dickinson. “We’re not there yet because we can always improve, but the lion’s share of alignment of systems we’re now using to give us readily available information, is there. It will not only give us financial information for reporting and accounts purposes, but also data to enhance decision-making and strategic assessment,” he says.

For Dickinson the CFO role at CareTech has allowed him to apply skills across finance, technology and deal-making, reflecting the changing nature of his position. “The CFO role has changed. It’s now much broader with procurement, legal coming under my banner, whilst being part of the executive team, making decisions that are hopefully value creative from a shareholder perspective,” he adds.

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