The boss who’s changing the lives of people with cancer
PUBLISHED: 06:00 12 June 2019 | UPDATED: 15:35 12 June 2019
He is the CEO of one of the region’s most important charities, Big C, and his decisions are literally changing people’s lives. Caroline Culot spoke to Dr Chris Bushby.
Dr Chris Bushby wanted to be a gamekeeper. Essex-born, he was adopted by a professor of music at the Royal College of London and his piano tutor wife. They moved to the Suffolk countryside to run a small farm when Chris was seven and there, he enjoyed a fabulous childhood surrounded by chickens and pigs and developed a real love of the outdoors.
"I loved going ferreting," he explained with a grin. "I occasionally took my ferrets to school, in fact I took them to my oral English exam and got 20 out of 20 - probably because I passed one over the desk to the examiner who couldn't write anything bad about me."
That's Chris; full of surprises. After being deterred from becoming a gamekeeper, he studied at Otley and Easton Colleges in agricultural management and science. "I did love farming," he said. "But then I thought I would try something different so I spent three years in the Coldstream Guards from the age of 18-21. I trained at Pirbright (a tough army training centre), it was quite a shock for a boy who had grown up on a farm but it made me. My work was always in on time, I learned how to iron my shirts and look after myself, I learned discipline."
In fact, one of his best army mates ended up marrying his sister (he has two sisters, also both adopted, and a brother.) Chris came out of the army and continued his studies at college in Lincoln where he was the top student of his year in 1984. After this newspaper did an article on him, he received several job offers.
"I was a semi-foreman on a farm growing camomile, parsley and chives and I did a bit of harvest work and then a job came up as a showground manager for the Suffolk Agricultural Association. I had a French girlfriend, (who went on to become his first wife) I was out in France so my mother thought I was having too much fun so she she applied for the job for me."
"I had to come back from France, I am quite compliant when it comes to the matriarch of the family," he smiled.
Chris got the job. "I did it for 10 years but when I was eight years in, I was quite ambitious, so I said: 'what do I have to do to get the CEO job?' I was about 28. They said I was quite young but the association funded me to go and do a post-graduate business studies course and an MBA - they said they would invest in me." He beat nearly 300 applicants to get the job, aged 31, and stayed in that role for 20 years.
"I was organising the county show, also I was involved in purchasing land, equipment and conference facilities. I was getting access to people who normally, at that age, you wouldn't, I was learning very fast. But once I'd got 20 years in to that role, I thought I would end up being the caretaker so they agreed a way for me to go."
It's almost exactly four years now since Chris, who lives in Ipswich, became CEO of Big C. Divorced with three daughters who live in France, he is about to get married again to his partner of 17 years.
"I was very embedded in the farming community, but also working in charities, so I decided to move on and do something else with my career so when this job came up, and I wasn't looking, I thought this is a job that is working for a real charity, you are making a difference to people every day."
Interestingly, Chris likes to take time out of the office. "I need time to actually think which is very important, to make time in your day to do that. A criticism of CEOs is they don't give themselves or their team enough time to think, I pride myself in trying to take time, some days I will fill it back to back with meetings, other days I won't have a meeting at all.
"But chief exec jobs can be quite lonely so it's important to meet with similar people from all sectors and share ideas. Sometimes I will walk over to the university or around the Sainsbury Centre, meet with senior academic people and float an idea."
And the proof of his methods working is that Chris has helped to almost double Big C's turnover from £1.6m to just under £3m last year.
"I did a lot of swotting up on cancer, and then understanding what was going on regionally, the services and treatments, then I thought if I'm building a business, what sort of strategy do I need to deliver? Those principles have served me very well.
"I looked back at Big C's five years of published accounts, all the income and all the expenditure and did a compound analysis. I did this before I wrote a word but thought they must have a good reputation because they wouldn't be receiving all the legacies and donations, that told me so much. "It also told me where there needed to be improvements. One of the first things I said was they should move out of the city centre, to the Norwich Research Park (Chris is based at the spectacular Centrum building.) "There was no opposition. You can be quite anonymous in Norwich, if we really wanted to influence the agenda around cancer research, we needed to be more visible and at the centre of it - it's easier to bring people in and show people we are making serious commitments to providing better services and looking after families but we're also looking at ways of improving cancer treatments by investing in research."
Chris also looked at Big C's retail operation, increasing the number of charity shops from nine to 15, looked at the profit margins and geographical spread. "You get your name out by being in the high street and it brings volunteers and donations."
Chris also added in education to the Big C's operation strategy. "The survival rate in Norfolk for breast cancer is 97% for stage one-two but you need to catch it early, that's why it's important we have an education programme so people can understand more about what is going on in their own body. Cancer is a disease of age, the longer we live, the more chance you have of getting cancer, more of the challenge is how people can live their life with cancer."
But does working with cancer ever get Chris down, particularly as there is still no cure? "It doesn't, actually," he said. "Most of the time I am not on the front line like the nurses, it's important in my role I keep a strategic vision and don't get caught up in that side of things because sometimes you have to make tough decisions and your empathy has to be for the organisation. So far I haven't had to take any because Big C is growing and very successful but businesses go round in cycles, so we have to plan for if things go wrong.
"The biggest reward is I didn't know taking on a role like this would mean that you could really make a difference to people's lives. Also, the passion for the organisation and commitment from volunteers and fundraisers is very humbling.
"Next year is the 40th anniversary of Big C and one of the biggest responsibilities you have as a CEO is making sure there is a foundation for the future and knowing when to step down. I believe I am creating a firm foundation for the next 40 years but I am not stepping down any time soon."
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