The woman at the top of a Midland charity has set about improving its fortunes with business-like efficiency and, having taken on one of the UK’s most prominent business magnates, is not afraid of a challenge. She speaks to Cillian O’Brien
An entreprenuer who clashed with The Apprentice star Alan Sugar over sexual discrimination and unfair dismissal claims has been chief executive of the biggest air ambulance in England and Wales since 2009.
Hanna Sebright oversees the operation of the Midlands Air Ambulance, which serves six million people with a staff of 78 from modest offices in Brierley Hill and three Midland helicopter bases.
The charity has seen a steady increase in income from around £5.9 million in March 2010 to £6.1 million in 2011 and £6.6 million by this March.
While she uses her business acumen in her current role, it is a far cry from the roles which led her to work for Lord Sugar, one of Britain’s best-known business magnates.
Ms Sebright founded Electronic Health Media in 2005, which sold advertising space on digital screens in hospital waiting rooms and dentist surgeries, before it was taken over by Lord Sugar in 2008 and made into a subsidiary of Amscreen, part of his business empire.
She was made managing director on £70,000 a year but left, claiming Lord Sugar and his son Simon forced her out of the company by undermining her, it was reported.
Ms Sebright was understood to be seeking £140,000 in compensation for sexual discrimination and constructive unfair dismissal before the legal bid was abandoned in 2009 – claims which were vigorously denied by Lord Sugar and his son.
The Midlands Air Ambulance, founded in 1991, celebrates its 21st anniversary this year.
Last year Ms Sebright remodelled the entire organisation, reconstituting it as a charitable company limited by guarantee, introduced a new brand strategy and initiated a £37 million procurement plan for a fleet of helicopters.
She also led negotiations that secured funding for major incidents and increased patient transfers to West Midland trauma centres.
“We needed to extricate the charity out, to reclaim it with new business and fundraising acumen,” she said.
“Taking it out of the public sector, basically, without diminishing the very close relationship with the ambulance trust.
“It is all about maintaining the level of income, getting the clinical end right and very much running it like a business. We have no government funding and no lottery funding. The conditions are very tight.”
Ms Sebright, aged 48, is divorced with two teenage sons. She gained a BA (Hons) in Social Policy and Administration at the University of Kent in 1984 and enjoys the arts, media, current affairs and politics. Her working life began in British Airways as cabin crew, where she stayed for seven years.
She took a break from work to have her children in the early 90s and did some consulting work after that.
She moved into the marketing department of the Wiltshire Capio private hospital and, after two years, was head hunted to join another hospital in the Capio group, where she built up the marketing department and specialist units.
Ms Sebright joined the AEA Technology consultancy in Harwell, Oxfordshire, in 2002, stayed for about 14 months, then worked for Real Creative Solutions in marketing and communications, which was bought by another company.
Ms Sebright secured a management buyout to found her own company, Electronic Health Media, which was then approached about a merger with Amscreen, Lord Sugar’s organisation.
“Capital investment was becoming more challenging, it was absolutely the right decision for the organisation,” she said. “They had all the technology and to have such a focused investor was fantastic for growth. I worked for them for eight months and made a decision that I wanted to make a difference to patient care.
“It was a very positive experience. He (Lord Sugar) is a very formidable businessman.
“The Apprentice is good entertainment. You have to look at the results. Several of the apprentices have gone on to make successful careers.” Ms Sebright would not talk about her legal action against Lord Sugar because she is “locked into a confidentiality agreement”.
The chief executive welcomed the Government’s move to scrap plans to cap tax relief on charitable giving.
“We are in a challenging times and every charity has to work particularly hard in order to survive,” she said.
“I recognise the Government is trying to organise a scene where the NHS has a £20 billion deficit every year.
“There are charities that rely on government grants and grants have been cut and charities have gone to the wall because of it.
“We are having to find a balance between high quality care with increasing funding by very careful strategic planning.”
Ms Sebright hopes to increase the charity coffers by using social networking, increasing brand awareness and staying close to solicitors to ensure legacy details are correct.
“We are so well loved, it is a privilege to work with volunteers who have been loyal supporters for up to 15 years.
“We are very mindful that we use more than 85 per cent of donations on clinical and operational delivery. You have to run it like a business because, if you do not, it goes wrong.
“Fuel costs have gone up.
“We have invested in our clinical care and refurbished two airbases that have not been touched in 20 years.
“People who come into the charity sector have a passionate belief that they want to give something back.
“I want to be able to see that I made a difference in patient care.”
Ms Sebright had experience of the air ambulance when one of her teenage sons was airlifted to hospital in Wiltshire after a rugby game after suffering a neck injury.
He is fine and the air ambulance “were fantastic”.
Ms Sebright is still based in Wiltshire and stays in hotels or with friends when in the Midlands.
“I believe at the beginning (starting in work) it is more challenging for women,” she said.
“Sometimes we have to work harder to prove it. I used to think it was difficult getting the home/work balance right. It has changed.
“There are some very successful women in business who are very well recognised and they have confirmed that you do not have to turn into an ogre and you can keep your values.”
* Fact File
Midlands Air Ambulance celebrates its 21st anniversary this year.
It is the biggest air ambulance service in the UK, serving a population of around six million people in Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Shropshire, Staffordshire, Worcestershire and the West Midlands.
Midlands Air Ambulance runs three state-of-the-art Eurocopter EC135 helicopters, covering an area of over 5,000 square miles.
Each aircraft is called out on a mission on average four or five times a day.
The organisation employs 78 staff with offices in Brierley Hill and three air bases in Tatenhill and Cosford in Staffordshire and Strensham in Worcestershire.
The charity has seen an increase in income from around £5.9 million in March 2010 to £6.1 million in 2011 and £6.6 million by March 2012.
In 2011 the organisation was reconstituted as a charitable company limited by guarantee.