In sync

Bringing back compassion

Just over a decade ago, husband and wife duo, Sarah and Martin Warner MAICD decided to open a small aged care business aimed at giving Australian seniors freedom to choose how their ageing needs were met. Today, that business, Home Instead Senior Care (Home Instead) has 33 franchise agreements and 23 offices across Australia, dedicated to servicing the growing needs and demands of the nation’s ageing population.

Founded in Brisbane in 2005, the establishment of Home Instead Senior Care was driven by the Warner’s personal experience of caring for their own ageing parents. They quickly realised that in Australia there was a lack of suitable home service options offering quality, non-medical care that would enable seniors to continue to live independently at home.

At that time, the sector was dominated by government, with 98 per cent of aged care services reliant on government funding through a largely tender-based business model that saw funds directed straight to providers with no choice, freedom or flexibility offered to many senior residents. The Home Instead franchise model changed that.

“We decided to set up the business to be completely independent of government support and funding and that is why we are unique,” says Martin. “We didn’t want to be beholden to government and we also wanted to deliver care in a way which we believed worked for those involved. So we built our business based on providing clients with choice and flexibility so they could choose when and where they wanted the services.”

Initially the Warners received negative press from people who believed that government should provide aged care, but as the weight of the ageing population continued to challenge government coffers, it became clear that such funding is unsustainable in the long term. “We are all living so much longer and governments cannot take the strain,” adds Sarah.

Building business

Neither Martin nor Sarah had experience in the aged care sector before establishing Home Instead Senior Care, but their success in setting up the franchise business demonstrates the importance of transferable skills. Sarah was a corporate librarian before establishing her own consultancy business offering support to start-up technology companies. Martin’s background is in the hospitality sector working for high profile firms including Pepsi and Pizza Hut.

The pivotal turning point in their careers came when they had both been caring for their elderly parents for quite some time. Spotting an advert in the Australian Financial Review calling for applicants to set up a Home Instead franchise in Australia, Martin and Sarah seized the opportunity to make a change and headed to the US, where the organisation was founded in 1994, to learn more about the model and how it could work in Australia.

“We engaged with the business so well because it shared our beliefs,” says Martin. “It was a values-driven organisation that focused on the client – it was all about senior people, their needs and how to make a difference in their lives. We are both compassionate people and have personal experience looking after our parents, so it absolutely resonated with us.”

The following February, the Warners opened their first office and tailored the US model to the Australian market, offering a range of services including home help; personal care and companionship; dementia care; and transition and palliative care.

Continuing development

As the business evolved, they invested heavily in the development of a training program, which provides a pathway for all caregivers to obtain a Certificate III in Individual Support (Home and Community Care), a formal, nationally accredited training qualification. There are also free educational guides on its website. “Education is key for us, both in terms of the services we provide, but also in terms of educating the public and local and national governments about the changing face of aged care.

“It’s about raising awareness so the elderly and their families know they have choices, and that they need to start planning and thinking about the future earlier. One of the many challenges for family members is having the conversation about elderly parents; no one ever has the conversation until it has reached crisis point. What we are trying to do is encourage people to start having those conversations before it becomes a problem,” Sarah says.

While most married couples might recoil at the idea of working with each other, the Warners have taken it all in their stride. “When we started the business, we didn’t sit down and decide who was doing what,” says Martin. “Instead we gravitated to our roles because of our differing skills. We’re respectful of each other’s personalities – I’m much more of an introvert and far more high level and strategic, whereas Sarah is much more of an extrovert and is operationally focused.”

“We don’t always agree,” says Sarah. “But working with Martin has taught me that I wear my heart on my sleeve. I am very reactionary and Martin is more pragmatic and takes his time deliberating over matters, which can frustrate me, but he’s usually correct. The balance works well.”

The growth of the franchise is testament to their strong working relationship and their passion for changing the landscape of aged care in Australia. They have active relationships with the global aged care community and regularly visit the US and the UK, where choice in the aged care sector has been prevalent for well over a decade.

Both Martin and Sarah have also been actively involved with government at local and federal level, advocating for change and the need for greater transparency and flexibility. “When we started out, we did everything in our power to meet every aged care minister to tell our story, and slowly, over time, the tide has started to turn. Larger aged care players and associations are becoming more vocal about the unsustainability of the current model,” says Martin.

Key to this change was the Productivity Commission’s inquiry into the sector in 2011, which effectively said the system was broken. Subsequently, the government has implemented a number of changes, due to take effect on 1 March 2017, that will open up the market so that every senior entitled to funding in Australia has greater choice of services. “We’re absolutely delighted with the way it has turned out,” says Martin.

While it has taken a long time for the market in Australia to open up, the growth of the sector is likely to continue over the next decade.

“Choice is definitely the number one driver for the growth of the business. Choice and flexibility,” says Sarah. “But it is also about having properly trained and supervised care workers providing quality care; you can give people choice but if the carers are not turning up, or don’t have the skills required, then having options becomes redundant.”

“The lifecycle of this industry peaks in 2050,” says Martin. “This means there’s still a big mountain to climb and a lot of people to care for. We have to continue to focus on the quality of care and services – this is the number one issue. Dealing with people at a very vulnerable time in their life is a privilege. There is still a long way to go.”