Lead Interview: Jane Gurney

CEO, Essex and Herts Air Ambulance Trust
Our lead interview in the ALTRUISM issue of Essex Director business magazine is Jane Gurney, CEO of Essex & Herts Air Ambulance
Published in Essex Director magazine Spring | Summer 2022
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Charitable, Selfless and Kind

“Sometimes, I get the chance to meet air-lifted patients and their families, and that is what makes my job so meaningful. When I first started working at the air ambulance, it was in its early days, but there was a huge dream; to always be able to deliver a first-class pre-hospital emergency medical service to those that need it the most.”

Interview: Sue Wilcock / Rachel Sloane
Pictures: Warren Page

Jane Gurney talks to Essex Director

It is surprising what you learn about business leaders when you sit down and chat about their past. Most are at the top of their profession, self-assured and exuding confidence. Yet for some, behind this exterior, they have faced trauma in their private lives; I wonder whether these challenges are part of what makes them so adept at their job?

Jane Gurney is the CEO of the Essex and Herts Air Ambulance Trust, or EHAAT for short. She was awarded the IoD East of England Director of the Year Award in the Public/Third Sector in 2018 and has worked her way up through the charity since joining in 2003.

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“I was born in Chelmsford in 1975 and I’m proud to be an ‘Essex Girl’. My dad worked from 16 until his retirement for Marconi Radar Systems. He was away a lot with his job, which took him all around the world.

“I have an older brother and our parents were very supportive. My childhood was happy and pretty ordinary until I was 11, when my mum was diagnosed with cancer in January and sadly passed away in December. That was a big catalyst for change, as you can appreciate.

“Looking back, my parents gave me the belief that I could really do whatever I dreamed. I always wanted to perform, so for me, dancing, acting, and anything theatrical was my ambition. I wanted to go to stage school but that changed when mum got ill, and I needed to be home.

“My dad’s mum, Gran Doris, took over looking after us when mum passed. Known to all as ‘Doll”, she was a really strong female figure and my role model. She lived in Black Notley, and I remember she would take three buses to come and stay with us for the week. I had a wonderful relationship with her.

“Gran empowered me to still follow my dreams. So, I went to the Quay Theatre in Sudbury on a Sunday to their stage club. I danced from the age of three and performed in various talent shows from the age of nine.  Halstead would have local events in the park, and I would often be one of the acts in the middle of the field; that was perfectly normal to me. I loved to dance and looking back, that was my escapism. It was my passion. I was free and it also gave me a sense of discipline as well as feeling like part of a team. I would perform in front of hundreds of people and Gran would sew sequins onto my costume and off I’d go. People said I was brave, but I was just doing what I loved.

“Lots of people have awful things happen to them but looking back, I think my mum passing away so young gave me resilience in the face of adversity.

“My school was fantastic and the headteacher took me under his wing. Years later, I went back and talked to the students about following your dreams.”

“Anything is possible. You don’t have to be top of the class. I didn’t get to go to university or do anything in the conventional way, but with a lot of hard work, a bit of luck and someone giving you a break, anything is achievable, and this philosophy has carried me through.”

Old fashioned values

“I was brought up by an older generation, so my values are quite old-school. I believe in being prepared, on time, courteous and friendly; I’ve always carried that with me.

“Although it was a tough time, I remember a happy childhood. I loved my school, had a great group of friends, worked hard, and was in all the school shows! I passed eight GCSEs and studied Theatre Studies, English Literature and History at A-level.

“At 17, I wanted to have a job I would find interesting. I remember saying this to the Careers Adviser, but her computer suggested I become a librarian. That’s definitely not me – I talk too much!

“I remember saying, “I can’t just do ‘a job’. I want to do something I’m truly passionate about.” I really wanted to be a performer in some way. Media, TV and radio looked fun, but I knew it was something millions of people wanted to do. Dad would often tell us great stories about where he had been with his job, so I thought perhaps I could work for an airline as I loved the idea of travelling and seeing the wider world.”

So, it seemed a natural step for Jane’s first job to be working for AirUK at Stansted Airport in customer service.

“It was a fabulous experience, with such great training that truly taught me how to deal with the public. I liked the standards set as you were representing their brand.”

However, quickly realising she didn’t enjoy the early shifts so much, Jane also went to work at a department store in Colchester, selling fragrances and cosmetics at weekends.

“My area manager took me under her wing and taught me about building brands. I learnt very quickly that husbands and boyfriends would come in at the very last minute on Christmas Eve and Valentine’s Day, desperate to buy a present. As I was commission-based, I would then upsell other beauty products, making the most of the opportunity.  

“I remember I served a customer who came back the next day, I thought he was returning the item, but he actually wanted to offer me a job! He ran a small marketing agency based just outside Colchester.

“The upshot was that I went to work for them as a junior executive, basically doing anything and everything. They also offered to pay for me to take the CAM Diploma in Communication and Marketing, and that was a real ‘Sliding Doors’ moment when I realised I loved this world of PR and Marketing.

“After a couple of years, I moved on to a larger agency as an account executive.  As an agency with a wider range of key clients, the work was more challenging. I learnt a lot, but it wasn’t easy. I loved the client-facing bit, but I didn’t enjoy all of the administration. However, I learnt the processes and did well in my exam. I realised I’d found something I really enjoyed.

“I knew at this time I was keen to get into the world of media, but I knew I had no relevant qualifications for this, but undeterred, I applied for lots of jobs without any luck. Then, in the late 1990s, I wrote to a new radio station opening in Chelmsford called Chelmer FM and said “I want to be involved and don’t mind what I do… I will empty the bins and make the tea.” I was then contacted by the MD who needed to recruit a PA. It was his first appointment and I had to help him launch the radio station. It was such an amazing experience, and looking back, it was a very special time in my life.

“It was a real community radio station. I got involved in everything, from setting up meetings to selling advertising slots and managing roadshows which were great fun. I loved the front-facing role.

“Money was always tight for the station, so I would get involved in selling sponsorship packages. At the pitches, I would often bump into colleagues from Essex Radio Group, and one day they suggested I should come and work for them.”

Getting into the dance scene

“I accepted a job at Vibe FM, working as their sponsorship and events manager. I started managing ‘Listener Trips’, which were sponsored by brands and publicised as ‘holiday with your DJs and party with the people you hear on the radio’. As well as skiing holidays and Ibiza, we took trips with Sandals and Stena Line. We also ran premium phone line competitions with unbelievable prizes. We introduced segments that are now quite normal, but back then were unique and exciting and pushed the boundaries.“

After three years of living out of a suitcase, Jane was in her late twenties, exhausted and wondering what should come next.

“I have loved every job I have had, and each led me to the next step of my career. But, in 2003, the biggest door opened when I worked with a colleague at the radio station who raised money for the group’s charitable arm. He left to take a senior role at Essex Air Ambulance and told me I should take a look at the charity, as he thought my skills would be very transferable.”

“At the time, Essex Air Ambulance (EAA) was located within part of Broomfield Hospital in Chelmsford. It was all in its infancy, and I remember waiting in reception to have a chat with them, hearing the paramedics talking about this ‘flying ambulance’. I thought it was just absolutely amazing and so inspirational. 

“There wasn’t a job at the time, but I quickly knew this was something I wanted to be a part of. What they desperately needed was income. They had many ideas, but paramedics weren’t the people to create the funding streams. As I was used to talking to clients, managing sponsorship and building brands, I was offered the role of business development manager.

“I knew EAA was very special, and I could see such potential. You couldn’t help but be moved by the work it did. There was a small team of six with a turnover of around £2 million. They had a small lottery, but the numbers were growing. We needed to strengthen our message; that without people supporting us and donating money, we wouldn’t be able to remain operational and keep saving lives.

“Operations Director, Cliff Gale and Pam Withrington, our Director of Fundraising and Marketing, who are both still part of my executive team today, have been with me on this journey. We all fondly remember those very early days.”

“We worked night and day. Everyone had a passion, but it never felt like work as it was so rewarding. It was more about the cause and the work the charity did and how it saved people’s lives.”

“It wasn’t long before I moved into events. We had a brand that people wanted to be associated with through sponsorship, and I wanted to increase these opportunities to gain more revenue. We built amazing contacts, some of whom are still working with us to this day, and the events have grown over the years.

“In 2006, after three years, I took on a more general management role, where I was responsible for the people, income, governance and risk together with the everyday running of the charity.”

The launch of EHAAT

Jane was very much working alongside Cliff and Pam in these early days – a really close-knit team.

“Together, in 2007, we launched fundraising for a dedicated air ambulance for Hertfordshire.  Then we were tasked with raising the profile, and money, to merge the two air ambulances to form Essex and Herts Air Ambulance Trust (EHAAT).

“We had new helicopter bases at Boreham and North Weald, two helicopters each with a doctor on board, and our fundraising supported that. Then the recession hit, impacting all our plans. Fundraising was challenging for all charities, but we were lucky our Lottery at just £1 a week sustained us. It was a tough time.

“In 2010, we came out of recession and that’s when our growth started.  A replacement helicopter was introduced to the fleet. Although it enhanced what our doctors could do and what we could carry on board, we needed to increase support for EHAAT from funding, donations and sponsorship.

“A common misconception is that we are funded by, and are part of the NHS, so there was a media campaign to educate people that we are a charity, funded by donations and goodwill. Pam and I carried out a huge amount of work in the media to bring the community on board. We had a lot of history in Essex, but in Hertfordshire, we were new, and it was immensely challenging.

“In 2011, as well as moving our airbase from Boreham to Earls Colne, we became Care Quality Commission (CQC) regulated. This was important as it meant that we were now an independent health care provider.

“I was appointed CEO in 2009 and now see my role as liaising with the Board of Trustees to establish the strategy for the charity – and then working alongside the executive team to deliver that strategy.

“We have come a long way since our story began, working from a small room attached to Broomfield Hospital. From our bases at Earls Colne and North Weald, we serve the communities of Essex and Hertfordshire. Our state-of-the-art airbase at North Weald was built and completed during the pandemic. We have over 70 employees, over 400 volunteers, eight shops, and a turnover of £17.5m. In 2021, we carried out 2,545 missions, 1,317 by air ambulance and 1,228 via our fleet of rapid response vehicles.”

Jane is now one of the longest-serving CEOs of a UK air ambulance. In a voluntary capacity, she was a Director for the Association of Air Ambulances from 2013 to 2019. From 2016 to 2020, she was a Trustee on AAUK’s Board, which supports 21 air ambulances around the country.

Her job at EHAAT encompasses multiple functions, and for Jane, that’s what makes it so interesting professionally.

“There is the everyday clinical delivery which comes with its own expectations and challenges, and then we have the aviation side, which is also highly regulated. We also have the fundraising which focuses on raising the millions of pounds we need to operate the service.

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“Then you’ve got the everyday business side.  We need to be financially robust and adhere to all relevant regulations.  We want to attract and inspire amazing people to join us, or become one of our community volunteers.”

So, how does Jane strike a work-life balance?

“My work-life balance has improved over the years, and I have learnt the importance of rest and downtime. I’ve realised that if I am going to look after EHAAT, I have to look after myself too.”

“I make lists! I am an early bird, usually awake at 5am and go to sleep at 9pm. There is such a lot to think about, and most challenging is the juggling of priorities. I want to give everything my best, and I have a great assistant, Clare, who helps me stay organised. I write everything down so I am prepped, which is important to me.

“Outside of work, I look after myself with yoga and pilates classes, and I still love to dance when I can. We have a ‘Strictly Air Ambulance’ and I love the positivity of the TV show. My husband Mark is passionate about golf, and I’ve just started having lessons. He is supportive of my work, and I am very grateful to him for his understanding – we are a great team!

“Like other businesspeople, it can be lonely. I do feel the responsibility of what I do. I try hard to be the best leader I can, who sets an example and makes sure the team are looked after; I don’t take any of this lightly. A lot of this role is about managing risk. I can process all this much better than in the early years and share that with great team members. I am also very lucky to have such brilliant people around me, but ultimately, I am accountable.  It’s a real honour to be in this role and lead the charity.  The responsibility is always mine, but there are things I do to mitigate that. I constantly ask, “how can we strive to be better?” Enough is never enough. Medicine changes and technology moves on.  We strive to keep pushing to be the best we can be for our patients and their families.”

The Covid effect

In the introduction to Jane’s interview, we talked about trauma and how all personal experiences might shape you and the way you are.  One of those traumatic experiences took place in 2021 when Jane’s dad passed away from Covid.

“Five years ago, my dad had a serious accident and was paralysed when he fell at home. He was in his early seventies, retired, but fit and healthy. It was a very difficult time, and he was in Stoke Mandeville for over a year. He had amazing rehab and built his life back, which was quite a journey. Reliant on a wheelchair, his independence was taken away.

“I was signposted to a charity called the Spinal Injuries Association (SIA) and it helped support us as a family. People are often carrying out their day-to-day responsibilities when something happens – in a flash, everything changes. I took on a volunteer role talking to other families, telling my story, then spending time answering questions and helping them to access support – I wanted to be able to give something back.

“We’d got Dad back home and were just getting used to the ‘new normal’ when Covid hit, and he was one of the ‘vulnerable people’ we hear about. Somehow he got the virus and we lost him in the first wave in April 2020.

“There had been this long journey to build him back, and then he was taken from us…

“That was the personal impact of Covid, and then there was the impact of Covid on EHAAT.

“We had to adapt quickly what we did clinically, operating a transfer service to get patients to the right hospitals. We adapted our way of working to protect our teams, wearing full PPE over flight suits and helmets. We had to change our fundraising into virtual events and fundraising campaigns.  I immersed myself in EHAAT. Supporting others helped me stay positive, even though it was beyond awful losing dad at this time.

“I’ve seen things through the pandemic I never thought I would see. How kind human beings can be, how special people are, the difference they can make, and how the little things are so important – who would have thought a walk would be the highlight of a day?”

Having done so much, what does Jane think is her greatest achievement and what’s given her the most satisfaction?

“A personal achievement for me, prior to the pandemic, I was contacted by the University of Essex to inform me they were awarding me Honorary Doctorate for my work in pre-hospital care. I am so grateful that dad knew about this before he passed away.  It was a very special moment when I shared the news.

“On a professional level, it’s how we touch so many people’s lives at EHAAT. I am always striving to do more, and I count myself so lucky to have found a job I truly love. When I’m fortunate enough to meet patients and their families, it brings home the real importance of our work.  I’m honoured to be part of something so very special. Our charity serves the heart of the community, touching the lives of thousands of people, bringing the emergency department to those who need it the most.”

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Table of Contents

Every flight changes lives.

Essex & Herts Air Ambulance is not part of the NHS and receives limited Government funding.

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