Today's emergency services play a critical role in our communities. Whether the ambulance service, fire brigade or the coastguard, these organisations act as the first responders in all manner of accidents and emergencies.
If you were ever to look inside one of their vehicles, you would see that they come complete with a range of important consumables. From stretchers and bandages to oxygen and defibrillators, these products are the essential tools required by emergency personnel. It is crucial, therefore, that such supplies are available at all times.
Last week, I visited Critical Healthcare, Ireland's market leader in the supply of such emergency medical products and services.
Established in 2000 by Anne Cusack and Seamus Reilly and located in Kilbeggan, Co Westmeath, the company employs 22 staff and has an annual turnover of €5m.
"Our business can largely be divided into two main areas," explains Anne. "Firstly, we supply a comprehensive range of medial products required by a paramedic or first responder to diagnose, resuscitate and stabilise a patient.
"The most common items include stretchers, disposable medical linen, oxygen masks, vacuum mattresses, head immobilisers and a variety of bandages, dressings and syringes.
"And we also provide 'first responders' bags. Like giant-sized first aid kits, these contain everything a paramedic will require when attending a roadside or other emergency situation."
The company recently launched its own range of branded patient-care consumables under the brand name Duramedic.
One of its most successful items is Mediquilt - a patented reusable ambulance quilt. Complete with disposable covers, these quilts are specially designed to keep patients warm while on ambulance stretchers or trolleys.
"The second part of our business," said Anne, "involves the development of our own bespoke software. Called Medlogistix, this on-line and web-based service gives emergency service personnel greater control over the procurement, delivery and management of their consumable stock.
"For example, in the past, staff had to order a full box of a particular product, maybe 24 units, even though they really only required four or five individual items, because that's what came in one box.
"With our system, they can select the exact quantities of each product they require and have it delivered to their base 'just in time', thereby eliminating costly overstocking while making sure that the product they require is available when needed."
The company's target market includes the ambulance services, fire services, Coast Guard and Red Cross, as well as 'voluntaries', such as the Order of Malta, the Civil Defence and the Saint John's Ambulance Service. While having traditionally focused on the Irish market, the company's recent entry into the UK has seen overseas sales rise to almost 35pc of revenues.
Anne Cusack grew up in Sutton, Co Dublin. Her father became an entrepreneur late in life, having bought the chain of Winston Departments Stores in Dublin, Bray and Kilkenny, where he worked.
Even though she grew up around business, Anne's primary interest was really in the sciences. After school, she did Science in UCD and took a PhD in Trinity College. She went to work in the pharmaceutical industry, with Pfizer in the UK, where she worked primarily in the area of cancer research.
It was here that she met her future life and business partner Seamus Reilly. With a background in international healthcare sales, he was involved in selling stretchers into the emergency services market.
Six years later and still living in the UK, Anne began working for a Dublin pharma start-up called Biotrin International, which specialised in the production of liver-function testing kits.
"It was such a contrast to working in big pharma," explains Anne. "While you had large budgets and huge staff numbers, it was difficult to make your mark individually and change was often slow and tedious.
"A start-up is very different, faster moving and much more hands-on - something that gave me the appetite to run my own business."
Two year later, in 2000, Anne and Seamus decided to move back to Ireland. It was time to launch their own start-up. Having explored a number of health-related ideas, their research into the provision of consumable products to the emergency services presented them with their opportunity.
"Those in the sector told us of their dissatisfaction with the level of service they were receiving from suppliers. Customer service was poor and suppliers often ran out of vital stocks," explains Anne.
"With our knowledge of healthcare and our commitment to good customer care, we believed we could offer a better service."
Like most start-ups, progress was slow at first as they worked hard to win new business and to differentiate themselves from the already established competition. And if that wasn't enough of a challenge, Seamus became incapacitated shortly afterwards, following a serious horse-riding accident.
Having suffered considerable spinal cord damage that necessitated a spell in intensive care, he would spend the next seven months in the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dun Laoghaire, learning how to walk again.
"The next few years were tough both personally and professionally," admits Anne. "But support from our customers and staff helped get us through."
Seamus's return to the business two years later prompted them to look at the business differently. They decided to become more innovative, which led to the launch of their own range of branded medical consumables and their new reusable medical quilt.
Their big break came in 2009, when they won the contract to supply the Dublin Fire Brigade Service. This gave them the financial lifeline they desperately needed, as well as the opportunity to showcase what they were capable of.
Two years later, they launched their software platform, Medlogistix. A pilot test with the HSE proved that using their system provided savings of up to 40pc per year for emergency service organisations in their annual procurement budgets.
The result saw them win the contract for the first-ever fully managed web-based system for the supply of patient-care consumables for the Irish National Ambulance Service. Since then, they have won further tenders from the likes of the Dublin Fire Brigade, Dublin City Council and the Coast Guard.
Anne has great praise for her team. "We simply would not be where we are without their ongoing commitment. The women's enterprise programme, 'Going for Growth' also helped me to build both my skill set and confidence as an entrepreneur."
What's next? I ask.
"We have grown 20pc year on year for the past three years. We want to continue that level of growth, as well as expanding our export sales. We are currently targeting the NHS Ambulance Trusts in the UK, as well as developing into other European market, such as Spain and the Netherlands.
"And we are working with a specialist software-development company to make our web-based procurement platform even more efficient, more automated and thereby more scalable."
Anne and Seamus love what they do. From the very beginning, they have shown a gutsy determination, a strategic focus and an overall emphasis on customer care. They originally set out to bring about change in their industry - and that is exactly what they are doing.
For further information: www.criticalhealthcare.com
1 Trust yourself
As an entrepreneur, it's ultimately up to you to make the important decisions. While it's good to gather advice and inputs from others, it's you that has to make the call on important issues. To do that, you need to learn to feel comfortable about trusting your own instincts.
2 Be ready to work
If you're thinking about starting a business, you need to realise that it is full-time and full-on. If you have a family, then it also becomes a family affair, with everyone being involved or affected in some way. To make it work, you have to be prepared for that.
3 Find a support network
Running you own business can often be lonely. Therefore, it's important to find a network of like-minded people facing the same issues and challenges as you. These networks offer great support and can serve as a safe sounding board where you can get advice and guidance.