Having growth figures that would make a Fortune 500 company envious, while successfully caring for some of the most vulnerable members of society, is worthy of admiration on many levels.
Cardiff-based group, Orbis Education and Care has increased its turnover from £6 million in 2014 to more than £30 million five years later.
Just 15 years young and employing more than 700 staff, Orbis is the largest independent schools group in Wales for children with special educational needs.
Orbis operates 17 facilities, providing placements for children, young people and adults with complex needs associated with autism and learning disabilities, aged eight upwards.
These include specialist day schools and residential services for children and young adults, homes for small groups of adults, as well as innovative work skills day centres offering real-life working environments, called Orbs.
It is now exporting its service model to England, opening its first school in Tewkesbury. In 2017 alone, the group opened three schools and acquired Bangeston Autism Care Services in Pembrokeshire.
It’s clear from talking with Orbis Chief Executive Mike Currier and Financial Director Andy Brown that financial performance is not at the top of their priorities. Orbis achieves business success as a by-product of meeting a vital societal need.
“We are first and foremost an education and care provider,” says Mike, who joined Orbis in 2009, before becoming Chief Executive in 2014. The company was founded in 2005 by Andrew McCarthy, who built it into a 370-strong team operating seven facilities.
Andrew eventually sold Orbis to August Equity in 2016, leaving firm foundations and its existing management team in place.
When asked about the modus operandi for the business, Andy says: “Our business model is, like any good business, in meeting demand that isn’t being met anywhere else.”
“It’s a happy consequence of providing very good education and care that the business is thriving behind it,” adds Mike.
The world of Orbis is more about achieving good outcomes for children and young adults under their care. The group’s stated aim is ‘to provide a safe and secure environment that encourages individuality, confidence, self-esteem and lifelong learning’.
For a placement with Orbis, a referral can be made by social workers, carers and health professionals, local authority family services and commissioners.
“We have proved through the outcomes that we deliver a good value placement, helping the children and adults we look after to thrive and take part in education and have as normal a life as possible,” says Mike.
“Most of the people that we look after are either coming from home where it is not working, or from other placements which are just not specialist enough for what they need.”
The company’s style of organic growth can be seen in its recent expansion into residential services for adults. Residents will now be able to stay within the Orbis family throughout their lives, as opposed to exiting the system when they leave school.
“It’s a testament to the outcomes that we are achieving with the children as they grow up, that local authority commissioners and parents are pushing for children to stay with us through adulthood,” says Mike.
“We don’t skimp when it comes to people; hire and retain the best you can at all levels – staff are the most important part of what we do,” Mike adds.
“We are unusual in that we are a relatively small head office. There are only 25 of us who work here. With most companies who employ 700 people there would be quite a few tiers of management, whereas most of our people are out there working in the homes and schools.”
“We have grown quickly so we still have an informal style. I still know those who reside with us and come to school with us and like to think we are approachable as a team. We are trying to retain as much of that culture as possible as we grow.”
Speaking of the group’s move into England with the purchase of the Abbey Rose School in Gloucestershire, Andy says: “In terms of growth, we’ve realised the one thing that can’t be controlled is timing. Three months before that, if you’d have said ‘are you looking to buy a school in England?’ we would have said yes, at some point in the future, but it became available and we had to move quickly,” he adds.
“For our strategy, it was absolutely the right thing to do. Was the timing perfect for us? Were we thinking about it? No, but would we have regretted not doing it? Yes! We currently have 140 residents in our care, with staff levels of 700. This gives you a feel for the complexity of the cases and the level of the staffing need.”
“For every one-to-one basic placement, we need four staff. With some placements we might need 10 staff members to support one individual as a lot of the care is around the clock. In setting up a new facility, you have to adapt and react really quickly if that placement comes up; suddenly you are looking to recruitment/HR saying we are going to need an extra 10 people.”
Asked about the group’s long-term vision, Mike says: “It will be to keep growing the model where demand takes us in terms of the children’s services and the adult move-on homes around it. Where there is a demand we will grow.”
“It makes sense to keep growing the English side of the business. We know that plenty of commissioners would love to have placements in-county to keep people as close to their local community as possible.”
And what about their hunger for future acquisitions? “We are always open. If there are good quality businesses out there, we are always interested,” says Mike. “The sector is fragmented with small operators whereas we have quickly achieved a significant scale.”
The Thomas Carroll Connection
Speaking about their relationship as a client of Thomas Carroll, Andy Brown says: “Mike came into contact with Thomas Carroll initially as a private wealth management client and since then we have enjoyed the full suite of business services, including commercial insurance and employee benefits. We are a pragmatic and fast-paced business. Whenever there is a development, I can pick up the phone to Thomas Carroll for advice.”
“The acquisition of our school in Gloucestershire was a case in point. The project moved very quickly and when there are banks and investors involved, everything needs to be lined up – insurance was a key element. It’s reassuring to know our benefits and risk management are taken care of on a day-to-day basis.”
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