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Johann van Zyl, CEO of Cornerstone Healthcare and one of health and social care’s ‘Power 50’, shares his journey from mining exploration to the specialist care sector and discusses the inspiration, challenges, and strategies behind the company’s exceptional growth.
What do you do at Cornerstone?
As the CEO, I oversee the strategic direction of the organisation, so my role is balancing sustainable growth with the incredible care we provide for our residents. We run specialist nursing homes for people with challenging behaviours associated with complex neurodegenerative and mental health needs. It’s a demanding but fulfilling sector to work in.
From the beginning we identified this type of specialist care as a growth area. There are currently only 5,000 beds in England with an estimated need of three times that number. I think the growth we’ve seen is, in a large part, down to our ability to attract and keep high-calibre staff at a time when much of the care sector has been crippled by an unprecedented recruitment crisis.
What was the inspiration behind your business?
During the 80s in a turbulent South Africa the winds of change were blowing, and I found myself involved in the transition of the informal business sector into the mainstream economy. Those experiences built my knowledge across various sectors and gave me a deep understanding of business dynamics. But it was during my time working with a neurological care provider in the UK that I truly found my calling. The work we did for vulnerable individuals with progressive neurological conditions was unlike anything I had experienced before. It was profoundly rewarding and inspired me to think about starting my own care company.
Who do you admire?
It would have to be Warren Buffett. The man has been a leader in his field for decades but what I love about him is how he never deviates away from his plan. He stands strong and maintains his morals and ethics even in adversity. This emphasis on long-term thinking and resisting short-term market fluctuations is a wise and disciplined approach.
Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?
The beauty of hindsight! There are always lessons to be learned and decisions that, in retrospect, could have been made differently. But you know what they say, every experience shapes us and helps us grow. The challenges we faced, the mistakes we made—they have all contributed to our journey and brought us to where we are today. So, I choose to embrace those experiences and use them to guide me as we continue to make a positive impact in the care sector.
The important thing is that when there was the need to change the direction of our strategies, we did it quickly and effectively. If you see a strategy failing, make sure it fails fast, change tack and move forward. We have also found powerful partners in our equity fund, Ignite Growth Investment, that never stopped supporting us, which makes it easier to make those decisions.
Also, I wish I’d joined healthcare sooner as it is the most rewarding sector I’ve ever worked in.
What defines your way of doing business?
Doing things differently, that’s what defines my way of doing business. We strive for excellence in everything we do, but we also embrace compassion and empathy. We’re not just a care provider; we’re a team of people, supporting each other and working together to create a nurturing environment for our residents. It’s about going above and beyond, not because it’s expected, but because it’s the right thing to do.
What advice would you give to someone starting out?
My advice would be to follow your passion and believe in yourself. Trust your instincts and don’t be afraid to think outside the box. The path to success is rarely a straight line, so embrace the twists and turns, and be open to learning from every experience. Surround yourself with a strong team who share your vision and values. And above all, never forget the reason why you started in the first place. Let that passion fuel your drive and keep pushing forward.
As Cornerstone continues to grow and make a positive impact in the lives of their residents, one thing is clear—Johann’s commitment to his vision remain unwavering.