ER24’s 23rd birthday: 23 Questions with CEO Ben Johnson
To celebrate ER24’s 23rd birthday, we speak to Ben Johnson about the past, present and future of the business, as well as his own remarkable rise from medic to CEO.
ER24 CEO Ben Johnson started his career as a paramedic in 1994. But life had other plans for him –taking him from ambulances in KZN, to working in a pub in London, to CEO of ER24. He tells us about his professional and personal journey and how he is taking the business to new heights.
What made you choose to work in EMS back in 1994?
I was in matric and didn’t really know what the future held. I was uncertain what I wanted to do but ended up at a career day reading through pamphlets from a stand promoting ambulance care. I thought it was cool and decided to try it. I had no previous healthcare aspirations and essentially stumbled across the career. But it suited my personality, and I loved the adrenaline, chaos, and the rescue element of it.
What was it like working on the road in those days?
At that time I was in Natal (now KZN) and there were only provincial EMS response services available. We did more hours back then, and, because there were so few Advanced Life Support (ALS) paramedics, covered a lot more ground. I must have done 300 resuscitations in the first three years. There was also much political upheaval back then and we spent a lot of time with patients who were involved in that conflict with gunshot and panga injuries.
What was your most challenging experience?
During my first year on the road, I was 19 at the time, I was on a scene at a house on Christmas Eve where an elderly man was sitting in a chair near the Christmas tree and had turned a shotgun on himself. This experience will always stick with me. Unfortunately, at that time, there wasn’t really a focus on mental health, but now the importance of mental health is beginning to gain traction in the industry, especially at ER24.
Do any of the lighter moments stand out?
We were once dispatched to a shooting and on our way to the scene I decided to eat my dinner. But it turned out the scene was 3km up the beach, and I had to run that distance on a full stomach!
How did you end up joining ER24?
I qualified in 1996, and from there I served as a lecturer at the provincial training college. I did that for about two-and-a-half years and then worked for Highway Ambulance Services in Pinetown before I went to the UK where I worked at a pub in London. I eventually started working on an ambulance there, before coming back to Richard’s Bay where I worked for International SOS. From there, ER24 bought a company in Durban and was looking for a branch manager. That’s how I joined the company.
How did you go from the road into management?
A regional manager position became available at ER24, and I applied for it successfully. I served in that role for four years, before moving on to a temporary position as National Operations Manager. ER24 then created the Chief Operating Officer (COO) position, which I also successfully applied for. This required me to oversee the Contact Centre, ambulance services and events. ER24 subsequently merged the COO and CEO positions after the late Andrew Boden, who was CEO at the time, moved to an executive position at Mediclinic. This allowed me to take up the CEO position.
Was this a natural progression for you?
It was a completely natural move in terms of the things that interested me. Even as a branch manager, I was always looking at things like efficiency models, business development, and how we could get marketing involved to grow the business.
Do you still have colleagues on the road now who you worked with back in the day?
Not really, actually. In fact, almost everyone I studied with is doing different things now. Some still work in the EMS industry, but not on the road. Others have completely left the industry, like one former colleague who is now a farmer.
What have been some of your achievements since you became CEO of ER24?
There are a couple of important ones. A big one happened six or seven years ago when we decided to make our Contact Centre a key part of the business. Before then it was just a dispatch centre, but we started focusing on turning it into a fully-fledged [medical] service centre with plans to expand beyond South Africa.
What do you feel is the key to the company’s success?
Our people. That sounds like a cliché, but it’s true. We are so client service-oriented that we’re completely dedicated to their needs, going above and beyond what is required. This has clearly worked, because we hardly ever lose clients – and if we do, they come back because of the quality of our service. But you can’t achieve this without the right people, the right philosophy, and consistently achieving excellence.
Has your experience as a paramedic influenced how you run the company as CEO?
Yes, completely. I would be the first to say that we don’t always get it right, but we always try to do our best. With my experience, I understand what goes on and what is required to do this job, and I try to make things comfortable and provide the necessary tools and support. This is a demanding industry, with the shift work and the hours. As CEO, I always like to look at things from the perspective of how I can have a positive effect on the people on the ground.
Do you feel this sets ER24 apart?
I do believe that. But if you look at our entire leadership team, they’re all experienced and have worked in the EMS field in some form.
How do the paramedics react when you do branch visits, knowing you’ve worked on the ground yourself?
They always respond very positively, and I feel like we can sit down and have a chat over coffee. There is a hierarchy in the organisation, but we’re all people and we’re all on the same page. We have different roles, but that doesn’t make me more important than the guys working in the ambulance.
Legend has it you do visits in a flight suit?
That is true. Because I’m engaging in their environment, I feel more connected to them. Instead of coming there as management, I’m there as part of the team. I even used to jump in the ambulance when I got an opportunity. I haven’t done this since the COVID-19 lockdown, though.
What do you do to relax outside of work?
In my early days, I was a party animal but now I’m more introverted. I have a wife and two kids and because life is so busy and I’m in meetings all day, I tone things down a bit on weekends. So, I spend a lot of time with my family when I’m away from the office. We enjoy hiking, mountain biking, camping, and braaiing.
Any other activities you enjoy when you have quiet time?
I’ve really got into macroeconomics and trading and markets. During my off hours, I like to study and learn about this, and I have a few courses I need to complete. I find it fascinating that something can happen, and the rand drops or rises based on that.
With ER24 turning 23 this year, what do you think will be important for the company in the coming 23 years?
It’s about continuing to focus on our patients and customers while being willing to try everything for them. We need to move with the times and keep up with constant change. The way healthcare works and is funded is changing as well. If you cannot evolve along with those changes, your business will die. EMS is also going to evolve, and it’s important to have the right people on the ground who can handle change.
Are there any exciting projects and initiatives coming up for ER24?
The biggest one now is the official move into becoming an international business, and not just a South African one. It’s going to take a lot of time and work, but if we can broaden our horizons as a business, we can in turn broaden those of our staff. Because growing like this brings more opportunities for everyone.
What have been the major challenges for you as CEO?
The world has changed drastically, and it was difficult to find a balance between focusing on the future and staying in the present. With ER24 becoming part of the Mediclinic business, it was initially challenging to merge the two businesses seamlessly. However, there have been more benefits than challenges. We have integrated well, gaining from each other's strengths, which has allowed us and our employees to access a broader range of opportunities.
What inspires you to excel at what you do?
I don’t have to think about this; it’s just a natural thing for me to do the best I can for ER24. I’m always thinking about the best thing I can do for the business, our clients, and in general. When we live our lives, should we not be trying to do our very best for our fellow man and our community? That is who I am and what drives me.
When your time as CEO of ER24 comes to an end, what would you like your legacy to be?
That I had a positive influence on all of my colleagues all the way down the line. The people who work at ER24, from medics to management, are not my employees; they are all my colleagues.
What do you wish you could tell your younger self?
To find balance, be humble and remember it’s not about you. I used to play water polo in high school and represented Natal Schools and U21s. It’s not a major sport, but I was good and, while I wouldn’t change anything that has happened in my life up to now, I wish I’d had more balance in my life to see how far I could have taken my career in the sport.
Tell us something no one knows about you?
That I love to listen to ’60s, ’70s, and classical music.