Profile: David Rowley, founding partner, Open Health

Open Health's founding partner talks to Nikki Wicks about defecting from Huntsworth to Chime and the appeal of creating new businesses.

New venture: Founding partner of Open Health David Rowley
New venture: Founding partner of Open Health David Rowley

David Rowley likes to take a step back every once in a while and check his life is on track. This might go some way towards explaining why, after eight years as CEO of Huntsworth Health, he resigned in September 2009 without a job to go to.

After 12 months on gardening leave, Rowley, 48, returned to the fray last month with a new agency, Open Health, a joint venture with Huntsworth's direct rival Chime Communications.

Despite naming Huntsworth CEO Lord Chadlington as his biggest mentor, Rowley's new venture must have ruffled a few feathers with his former employer. The move is made no less intriguing by the fact Open Health launched with three other former senior employees of the group.

'It's important to take a step back in your career and look at where you want to be,' says Rowley. And leading a 500-man healthcare practice with a revenue of around £50m was not where he wanted to be.

'As the CEO of such a large company, things start becoming relatively numbers-focused. You end up becoming a bit of a corporate animal,' he says. 'I really wanted to go back and start my own practice.'

While Rowley's CV on business networking site LinkedIn should not be taken literally - to account for his 12-month gardening leave period, his profile says he was formerly CCO of David Rowley Gardening Ltd - broadly speaking, he does like to grow things.

'My strength is much more about building and growing businesses and building acquisitions, rather than being a numbers guy. Part of that is the thrill of winning new clients and I love pitching.'

Open Health is Rowley's second start-up company. In 1995 he founded Pharmaceutical Brand Consultancy (PBC), a comms and market research agency that would later become Lord Chadlington's first acquisition, in 2001, to the Huntsworth Group.

It was the foundation for Huntsworth Health, which grew from 30 to 500 staff during Rowley's tenure.

Rowley believes Open Health is a new concept in healthcare comms, describing it as the 'first channeland discipline-neutral agency' in the sector. This means, generally, that rather than pushing PR or lobbying on to a client, the client will bring a challenge to the table and the agency will find a solution from the entire marketing mix.

The company has brought together handpicked senior experts from several disciplines including medical comms, public relations and brand development, to head up core practices.

Rowley knows these experts might raise some eyebrows. Joining him as founding partners are Sandy Royden, former head of Europe, Huntsworth Health; Marcus Perry, president of Nitrogen North America, also a Huntsworth Health firm; and Roger Selman, former chief finance director at Huntsworth Health Global.

With a further four partners confirmed and to be announced in the coming months, Rowley claims his cautious attitude in working with the right team and people he can trust never falters.

'Everyone who is joining us I know well. Watch this space as to where the next four come from,' he says with a grin.

Setting up a new healthcare practice in the midst of the biggest changes to hit the UK healthcare landscape in recent years could be considered a brave move, but Rowley is taking the changes in his stride.

'I don't think the NHS reforms will significantly change how the healthcare comms business works,' he says.

Rowley's expectations are realistic for the first year of business, with a 'break even' model for the first 12 months, including four or five clients and one or two acquisitions by the end of the year.

Chime Communications chairman Lord Bell, whose company holds a majority stake in Open Health, is confident Rowley and his partners can deliver.

'Health is one of the fast-growing sectors in comms, and we have been very impressed with the management team's track record, but more importantly their insight into how together we can build a market-leading business,' says Bell.

Rowley's relaxed attitude to business is admirable. He says he is often asked where he is going with his new ventures, to which he casually replies: 'Some people have a clear mountain that they're heading for. I have a direction I'm broadly heading in and I tend to aim for the next hill. When I get there, I'll survey what's in front of me and move forward.'

Whichever direction he is going in, he seems to have no trouble convincing others to follow.


2011 Founding partner, Open Health
2009 On gardening leave from Huntsworth Health
2001 CEO, Huntsworth Health
1995 Founder, PBC
1991 Cardiovascular business manager, Sandoz (now Novartis)
1990 Senior product manager, Wyeth Laboratories (now Pfizer)
1989 Account director, Publitek
1984 Product manager, Searle Pharmaceuticals


David Rowley's turning points

What was your biggest career break?

My promotion from being a medical rep into marketing. I'd been doing a selling job with 300-400 reps and a couple of marketing posts came up. To switch from working out in the field into the head office was the big break.

Have you had a notable mentor?

The one that really springs to mind is Lord Chadlington. I joined him in 2001 and learned a huge amount in the nine years I worked with him. We went from a 30-man practice to a 500-man practice and he was there as a mentor all the way through. He was good at delegating responsibility and he taught me about patience.

What advice would you give someone climbing the career ladder?

Step back in your career and really look at where you want to be. Sometimes people find themselves going down a route at the age of 30 that isn't exactly where they want to be.

What do you prize in new recruits?

The skill I prize most in people is emotional intelligence and perception. To have that skill in a business where we sit opposite clients and are trying to understand whether they are happy, or interested, or bored is the thing I value most.

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