Jakob Riis

CEO of Falck

For 20 years, Jakob spent half his time traveling. Now solidly planted in Denmark, he has swapped hotel gyms for CrossFit, where he gets his pulse up and stress level down at least three times a week. Besides working out, Jakob loves spending time with his family and close friends.

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In dire need of first aid

In Falck, business is not just business. Here, a great deal of the action takes place during fires, in cases of acute sickness or by the roadside. The people who work at Falck do so because they want to make a difference in other people’s lives – in many instances a life-saving difference. “Falck is a company where culture plays a very strong role because we are in a line of business where people invest a lot of themselves in their daily jobs. They never know what the day will bring – sometimes it will be a fantastic experience, but it can also be very tough, with dramatic situations where people may not survive,” says Jakob Riis, CEO of Falck. When Jakob joined Falck in 2017, the company itself was in desperate need of first aid. With the debt reaching critical levels and margins deteriorating rapidly, it was not certain that Falck could at all continue to run its business, explains Jakob. Years of acquisitions had led to international expansion and a fast growth in service lines, but also taken a serious toll on Falck’s financial health.

"There were so many things that we quickly realized had to be instantly changed, simplified and streamlined, because the complexity was killing us.”

Mixing Excel and ambulance duty

From day one, Jakob was presented with two main tasks: To turn around the performance of the business and to rebuild Falck to full strength. A daunting challenge, most will agree, especially in an organization spanning 32,000 colleagues in 32 countries. “When I joined in May 2017, it was with the assignment to turn around the business, so I was fully aware that things needed to change. The question was what, and in what sequence,” says Jakob. “The first thing was of course to get the best understanding of the business as possible, and that was a mix between Excel and taking shifts in the ambulance – getting out to the front line to get a sense of where we were succeeding in delivering the services and getting an overview of where we were leaking value.” Once the overall diagnosis was in place, the leadership team was eager to get moving quickly to start addressing the problems. However, this proved to be easier said than done as they discovered a severely lacking financial transparency in the organization once they started digging.

“As an incoming CEO, the normal questions to ask to get an overview would be: How are we doing in this business? What are the margins? What is the historical growth? What is the outlook? What are the competitive dynamics?” explains Jakob. However, because of the lacking transparency in Falck, answering these questions would require weeks of in-depth investigation by an entire team, and that was way too cumbersome and slow a process. “Luckily, there were so many things that we quickly realized had to be instantly changed, simplified and streamlined, because the complexity was killing us. So, we could start addressing some of the problems even if we did not have the full overview,” says Jakob. This approach has proven to work very well and today, excess complexity has been washed out and major parts of the organization have been re-engineered and built anew.

A two-part equation

For Jakob, the task of turning around performance and replacing the red numbers with green ones has always been just one half of the equation and appeal of joining Falck. “I was equally drawn to the fact that the longer-term perspective was not just to turn around the business, but to build a business that could make a difference in the world,” he says. “The thought of taking Falck to further heights, of taking on new technologies to deliver things we could not deliver in the past and thereby save more lives was the other half of the great attraction,” he explains.

In parallel to reworking the organizational structure, the leadership team has for the past two years also aimed their attention at evolving current services offered by Falck. Because innovation, they believe, is a prerequisite for maintaining the competitive edge. “We introduced innovation early on to signal that we may be in the midst of a crisis; we may have some key priorities to save ourselves from going out of business, but we know we are going to succeed,” says Jakob. “It was not too early to start thinking about how to evolve our services, so that we are not only efficient and financially competitive, but also an attractive partner who offers new solutions and adopts new technologies where it makes sense to our customers.”

One area in which innovation already plays an important part is in Falck’s main business: Ambulances. At present time, Falck is the only global ambulance business in the world, and the possibilities of leveraging scale, building efficiency across countries and taking learnings around the world are immense.

Flying ambulances

Falck’s ambulance business is part of a big healthcare system, which is currently faced by a major challenge, namely that the demand for healthcare is going up and the ability to pay for it is going down. To Falck, this translates into a pressing demand to deliver more healthcare for less money in the near future. How do you solve such an equation? To Jakob and his colleagues, the answer lies in finding new, innovative solutions such as treating patients at home instead of bringing them to the hospital. “We realized that a big proportion of the patients in our ambulances are chronic patients. If we could equip some of our ambulances with more diagnostic tools, we could potentially make a diagnosis accurate enough to start and finish treatment in their homes – of course backed up by discussions and calls with physicians. That is good for the patients as they get the right treatment started right away, and we have one trip less to make. That is one example of rethinking how we can do something to reduce the increasing volume.”

With a big fleet of ambulances comes heavy logistics and a lot of transportation, and Falck has recently stepped into the field of electrical ambulances. The benefits are many: Electrical ambulances are equipped with fuel cells for power generation and a methanol-based heating system, making in-ambulance treatment very comfortable for patients. Also, the driveability of electric vehicles is very well-suited for ambulances, plus 
they are a more environment-friendly alternative.

An additional area of interest for Falck is moving the ambulances from the ground to the air. Medical equipment, samples, tests and fresh blood can be transported by high-speed drones to the sites where they are needed. Currently, Falck is also looking into the potential of deploying bigger drones that can transport people – both paramedics and patients. A solution that may very well not be as far-fetched as it might sound.
“There is an interesting potential in liberating yourself from having to follow the road network, to skip the 
busyness, the heavy traffic, and basically go in a straight line to where you are needed,” says Jakob. “We need solutions that are very robust. It will require some technological developments and some new thinking, but I am convinced that it will be part of the overall future ambulance solution package.”

A new direction

Ambitions are undoubtedly high at Falck, which as an organization is in much better financial shape than it was just one year ago. While events in the past are still not fully redeemed, Jakob and his colleagues are today able to gaze forward and plan for new innovations ahead that will enable Falck to honor its promise of saving and improving lives. “What excites me particularly these days is when we get some encouraging news about things that are beginning to work the way they are intended to. The optimism is growing and that is phenomenal to see. I look forward to more discussions of who we are and where are we heading. Those discussions would not have made any sense a year ago, but they begin to make sense now, and I think that is hugely exciting.”

Falck is present in 32 countries, making it the world’s largest international rescue company. Its main services are within emergency medicine, rehabilitation, firefighting and roadside assistance. Falck was founded by Sophus Falck in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1906.