Tendring: Primary Care puts its heart into caring

TWELVE years ago care workers Michelle Duggan and Natalie Emmerson decided to start their own business caring for vulnerable people in their own homes. Next month they will move their expanding operation, which now employs 140 people and turns over �1.8million into new head quarters. SHELINE CLARKE went to meet them.

Michelle Duggan and Natalie Emmerson are both life long carers and were colleagues working for Essex County Council when they decided to start their own business.

It was never about making huge profits, more about providing a great service and making a difference to people’s lives.

Back then Michelle had been involved in trying to find a support provider for a young man with learning difficulties who wanted to go horse riding and do his own shopping. There was simply nothing available and the two decided the system was letting him down.

“His needs were simply not being met and we thought there was an opportunity to do better,” said Natalie.

They decided to take the plunge and try to create a dependable community support service, run and staffed by people who really cared about caring. Their service would be flexible, provide exactly what each individual needed and delivered in a way that suited each client. Primary Care UK was born.

Michelle was the first to quit her job to devote her time to the new business. Natalie reduced her hours and split her wages 50/50 with Michelle.

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“We both had mortgages and partners with their own businesses so it was a big step for us. We thought we’d be OK so long as we had a compass and a ruler,” laughs Michelle.

In fact the pair took a small office in an enterprise centre in Clacton, often arriving early in the morning and leaving after dark. They borrowed a computer and got hold of the Yellow Pages and started to ring other organisations to what they were doing and how much they were charging.

“Looking back I suppose you’d call that research, but we didn’t realise it at the time,” she said.

“And there were no windows in the office,” adds Natalie, “so we bought some fish.”

The business partners each borrowed �250 from their families to get them going and while resources were a little sparse, their enthusiasm, passion and determination drove them forward.

In those early days both were able to cover shifts in the evening to earn more money for the business ‘pot’.

Natalie who was only 23 at the time of starting the business said it wasn’t a reckless move. “I did think about the consequences if it went wrong but actually if it had gone wrong it was just about getting another job.”

But it didn’t go wrong, in fact the opposite it true.

As Primary Care started to develop so Natalie too gave up her day job to devote more time to the business and before long the couple realised they would need more staff.

“That’s when we had to start learning about employment contracts, payroll, training, inductions, insurance and everything else associated with running a business,” said Natalie.

The pair’s enthusiasm for the business was matched by their thirst for knowledge and they embarked on a steep learning curve. Michelle went on every course available and learned everything she could about policy writing, procedures, systems, recruitment, auditing and financial recording processes, to mention just a few. She also attended college part time and with the help of Business Link and other mentors she and Natalie received the all important Care Quality Commission registration.

In a neat twist of fate, and just as Natalie was having her first baby, winning an Essex County Council contract gave Primary Care the confidence to build up the office team and start to expand.

To make things even more complicated, Michelle and her family moved to Spain in 2002 and so began a five-year weekly commute from Tarragona to Clacton-on-Sea.

“It was at the time when Ryanair started doing cheap flights and we just had to make it work,” said Michelle. “Natalie had two children in the time I was in Spain but we were both as committed to the business as each other and we made it work, with a lot of support from our families. We were very lucky but often joke that if you want to age yourself ten years – do exactly what we did!”

Twelve years on and the business is continuing to expand. Originally it was set up to support people with learning difficulties but now Primary Care offers a much broader service including care and support for the elderly, those with mild mental health issues, sensory and physical impairment.

At the moment Primary Care looks after 140 people across the Tendring District and receives enquiries all the time as their services and scope of care offered evolves. Michelle and Natalie have recently, for example, found a new opportunity in the Personal Budget system whereby people assessed to have caring needs are given an allowance to spend as they see fit.

Whereas before care might mean three half-hour visits a day, now clients can commission their own care and perhaps opt for longer visits or help with other day to day activities, such as the shopping.

Plans are also afoot to launch a new homework service whereby Primary Care can source gardeners or handymen to help out around the house, to put a shelf up or clean the carpet. They will mow the lawn or perhaps accompany the client on a trip to the garden centre. The beauty of the system is that all staff will have been put through Primary’s stringent recruitment policy which means they are all checked and registered.

And then there is The Grove, Primary Care’s Day Centre for people with learning difficulties in Holland-On-Sea which is open seven days a week with flexible hours to suit all needs. Another example of how Michelle and Natalie deliver care to suits specific needs rather than opting for a one size fits all approach.

“It all goes back to why we originally started this and that was to provide appropriate care and support for people who need it and that remains really important to us,” said Natalie.

To deliver their vision, Michelle and Natalie have built a team of carers and managers who all subscribe to the company’s principles and culture.

Said Natalie: “Every organisation has a culture and we thought it was important to work with the team to engage everyone in the vision and get their feedback. It encompasses areas like commitment to excellence, teamwork and its effect, responsibility for others, respect, integrity, work/life balance and anything that our team tell us is important. We listen and see if we feel it can be incorporated. Similarly we listen if the feedback isn’t positive. We are not perfect but we have stayed connected and we listen to all of our staff. If they have a problem then it is up to us to listen and see if we can help, whether it’s a training issue or something cultural.

“Our way isn’t right for everyone looking to work in the care industry,” said Michelle, “and we are very open about the level of service we want to deliver and the quality of care we want to achieve and people coming into the recruitment process are given the opportunity to walk away early on rather than go through all the training and later find that Primary Care isn’t for them. “It is a challenging environment and the work can be hard and demanding, but it is also rewarding and it’s people like that we are looking for and that’s how we will build the business.”