Sunday 18 March 2018

Remembering that lightbulb moment

Frank Dolphin tells Sean Gallagher how he went from psychologist and lecturer to successful entrepreneur with two outsourcing businesses

Sean Gallagher with Frank Dolphin of Rigney Dolphin group Photo: Dylan Vaughan
Sean Gallagher with Frank Dolphin of Rigney Dolphin group Photo: Dylan Vaughan

When meeting entrepreneurs, it is always fascinating to discover what it was that prompted them to swap the safety of their paid employment for the more precarious world of self-employment. What becomes clear from getting to know these business leaders is that many can trace their decision to one specific moment in time when they consciously decided to stop dreaming about being an entrepreneur and actually become one.

This week's entrepreneur has travelled a path that has seen him go from clinical psychologist and university lecturer to successful international business builder. In his case, it was a simple comment from one of his then university students, that ultimately led to him finally taking the plunge.

Frank Dolphin and his wife Adrienne set up Rigney Dolphin in 1990. Now more than 25 years later, this and their second company, Relate Care (which they founded in 2013, along with Conor Byrne) now employ 570 staff and, between them, generate more than €20m in annual revenues.

"Our two businesses are related yet different," explains Frank as he takes me around his HQ in the IDA Business Park in Waterford city.

"Rigney Dolphin provides business process outsourcing (the modern term for what used to be called a call centre) solutions to large scale organisations in the public and private sectors, meaning we look after everything from sales, customer service and support helplines, to admin and back office-type functions on behalf of our clients," explains Frank.

Now one of the largest such firms in the country, it operates across a wide range of sectors that includes utilities, healthcare, financial services, telecoms, manufacturing and automotive. Around the walls of the office are the logos of client companies, among them some of Ireland's best-known brands.

In a separate part of the building, Frank introduces me to members of his second company, Relate Care. "This company specialises in international healthcare outsourcing and consultancy," explains Frank enthusiastically. "Put simply, we work with large hospital groups in the US where we look after such things as scheduling appointments and following up with patients after they have been discharged from hospital.

"It's a different system to here in Ireland. In the US, hospitals get fined if a patient has to be readmitted. To reduce the likelihood of this happening, resources are targeted at making sure they stick to the recovery programme they have been given. Many patients can feel distracted when being discharged from hospital, with thoughts of getting home or who is coming to collect them - and they often do not fully absorb the instructions they are given. Our job is to contact them after a few days, once they have settled back into the comfort of their homes, for example to remind them to take their meds or change dressings," he adds.

The company also provides a nurse-on-call service, where patients in the US who phone a hospital to speak to a nurse get through to one of Relate Care's US registered nurses who are based in either Cleveland or Waterford.

"In the US, patients usually choose to go to a particular hospital rather than be referred by their GP, as is mostly the case here," explains Frank. "Therefore, for hospitals, it's not just about making sure that procedures are carried out correctly - it's about ensuring that the whole customer experience is a positive one, otherwise patients will vote with their feet and go elsewhere, impacting the hospital's bottom line," he adds.

At home, the company works with the HSE where it provides support service for those wishing to give up smoking. More recently too, they began working in Abu Dhabi and the UAE.

Frank Dolphin grew up in Birr in Offaly. After school, he went to UCD where he graduated with a PhD in psychology. It was here that he met his future wife, Adrienne - a computer science student from Carndonagh, Donegal.

Frank's first job was as a clinic research psychologist with Temple Street Hospital where he worked with young children with speech disorders. Later he took up a position as lecturer in psychology in Trinity College, Dublin before moving to Waterford Institute of Technology where he set up the Institute's psychology department.

"We all have lightbulb moments in our lives and one of mine came about quite by chance," explains Frank. "I was teaching a class of students on the topic of organisational psychology when we began to debate the importance of leadership. I remember saying to the students how important I thought leadership was - and how we all needed to step forward if we wanted to make an impact in the world. One student asked: 'If it's so important to be a leader, then why are you talking about it rather than actually becoming one?' And I had no answer," admits Frank.

Reflecting on the question later, he realised that it was time to heed the voice in his head telling him to go out and create something new.

"Thankfully, Adrienne was hugely supportive of the idea, even though it meant me leaving my permanent pensionable job - not easy, considering we had two young children and another on the way," adds Frank.

He started initially by offering training, psychometric testing and employee profiling to companies who were recruiting - something that led him to recognise the trend towards outsourced services and contract staff. Shortly afterwards, he set up Rigney Dolphin, a small call centre, named after his own and his mother's surnames.

"It was scary at the time but once we landed Vodafone as our first client we knew we were on the right road," explains Frank. "We're still working with them, all these years later," he adds.

He didn't have a well-thought-out strategic plan but took opportunities as they presented themselves. "Some worked. Others didn't," he adds with a laugh.

And while he did have plenty of opportunities, he also had challenges - particularly the lack of start-up capital.

"There wasn't much cash around in the early 1990s. The banks considered a psychologist trying to make it in business a very high risk. To keep overheads down, we started the business in our front room and eventually re-mortgaged the house to fund growth. So yes, there were many sleepless nights in the early years," Frank admits honestly.

As business grew, they built up a strong customer base among telecoms companies. While positive, Frank recognised that it left him overly reliant on one sector. Deciding to diversify, he turned to his previous experience in health and began investigating opportunities in that area. With huge international potential, he felt the health sector might also allow him reduce his over-dependence on the Irish market.

At an Enterprise Ireland event in Dublin, he had a chance meeting with the CEO of Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, in the US - a well-known heart surgeon who was in Ireland to receive an honorary doctorate from the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland.

"He said he was looking for someone to help him restructure his call centre operation in Cleveland. With over 43,000 staff, Cleveland Clinic was among the top hospital groups in the US. It sounded like the perfect expansion opportunity for us - if we could deliver," explains Frank.

And deliver he did. Building on the experience with the Cleveland Group, he then rolled the service out to other leading hospital groups across the US. The business grew from there.

What about the future?

"The world is a fast-changing place," Frank explains. "We are embracing new technologies - like cloud-based solutions that allow customers communicate with us by email, web chat, SMS and social media. To use the common parlance, we're now multi-channel, multi-modal," he adds.

He also plans to open a second US call centre. He is insistent that he recognises his team and in particular Conor O'Byrne, who heads up the RelateCare's business.

Obviously a man with lots of energy and a desire to give back, Frank has been chairman of the HSE as well as Temple Street Children's Hospital and the review group for the new children's hospital. He is also chairman of the Dublin Midland Hospital Group. How does he do it all?

"Because I love it," is his response.

Frank Dolphin may not have started out with a grandiose strategic plan -but nonetheless, his journey from psychologist and lecturer to international entrepreneur is an inspiration. If he were to meet his former student now, he would surely have a word of thanks for the motivation that such a simple question generated.

Frank Dolphin must now be satisfied that he has not only become a successful business owner but also the sort of leader he once lectured his students about all those years ago.

See and

Frank's advice for other businesses

1. Diversity spreads risk

"Seek to diversify both your product or service offering as well as your markets and geography. This spreads your risk and reduces your over-dependence on any one sector or market."

2. Have fun

"As the saying goes, all work and no play... You have to enjoy what you are doing otherwise you will never sustain the effort required in the long term. When the fun goes out of it, reinvent, refocus, renew."

3. Trust your gut instinct

"Good advisors are important but at the end of the day, your gut instinct is what got you to where you are now. Others can help and advise - but ultimately you have to have faith in your own judgement."

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