One Big Happy Family

Click to view in E-Magazine | Click to view Brochure

-By John Boley

With a portfolio of aged care facilities in Queensland and Victoria, and a 25-year track record of successful operation, Embracia sounds like a solid option for anyone contemplating their post-retirement options. For Peter and Dawn MacKenzie, co-founders of Embracia, it’s a little bit more than that. It’s the result of their “passion to make a difference.”

Both were unhappy with their respective jobs when, those 25 years ago, they began their search for something better and more rewarding. “We built our foundations on our family values, namely respect for other people, valuing people and allowing people choices in their lives.” On that strong foundation they learned quickly. “If you are passionate about what you want – and in this case we are extraordinarily passionate – it makes a difference. I guess it is almost in our DNA that we totally enjoy people.”

Embracia is dedicated to the provision of quality villas and aged care homes at affordable prices for people of advancing years. This quickly emerged as a chosen course, driven partly by the family situation. “Both of us lost parents when we were a lot younger and our children only had one grandparent when we went into business. So our kids were great when we started our first home because they adopted every resident as their grandparent and the residents adopted our kids as part of their family.”

If you go into business just to make money, Peter and Dawn agree, you are probably going to go broke. “But if you go into business to be the best you can be, and you understand what you are doing, then you can probably balance the books. Clearly that is what we have demonstrated over the years. Our accountant has said to us in many ways that there are other operators out there that generate a better return, but ours is the place that they would want to be. If he had to put his mum or his dad in aged care he would choose one of our homes because we are not dollar driven, we are people driven.”

That’s not to say that the aged care industry is excessively cost conscious and dollar driven. “But these days one has to be cost conscious because you can only do what you do, based on being able to satisfy your financier. If you can’t deliver for your financier and the bank then you don’t survive.” Over the years, with the increasing need for people to move into aged care, the industry has moved from a situation where (particularly in Victoria) 30 beds was the size of an average nursing home. “Now you struggle to do anything much under 120 beds.” A lot of the mum and pop operators that were out there running one home cannot continue to do so because of the pressures, both financial and in business.”

The industry’s commitment to excellence in the provision of care, they say, can no longer be delivered by the one-man-band as it was previously. “You find that people are either getting bigger or they get out,” says Dawn. “I think we have to be a little smarter. Peter and I have been told many times we are a good combination, because I’m a nurse and have the hands-on experience, and Peter is a businessman. He looks after the business side and I tend to oversee the people side. Now from my perspective, if we provide really good food and good care, motivation for people to be independent in our homes, and give them a life worth living, then they are going to stay with us longer.”

The company offers two options to its prospective residents – retirement villages and aged care (the latter for people who are assessed as having a physical requirement). In both cases, key to Embracia’s appeal is a very simple concept: “people come to our homes to live, not to die.” Traditionally, a nursing home was a hospital by another name, says Dawn. “They had wards and patients and matrons and were very clinically based. Ours is an environment where people come to live, underpinned by the highest level of clinical care – but the clinical care is the servant, not the master.”

As people get older and consider the things they deem to be important for themselves, says Dawn, they don’t want to live in a hospital. “Our General Manager in Queensland often says that the direct hands-on clinical care only takes about three hours a day for each resident and the rest of the 24 hours is about lifestyle, spiritual care, holistic care, meal times and socialising with visitors. So if you really look at clinical care it is so important but it doesn’t drive us. The real challenge is to make the most of the other needs.

“The industry has come a long way and there are excellent, beautiful homes out there. It’s just that we at Embracia see the home as a nice place to live, certainly, but it is what we do inside the home that is important.”

It is vital to get to know the residents, finding a way to communicate and understanding what their personal history is and what their needs and interests are. “By understanding their family situation, their friends, what sort of work they did and their personal preferences, then we can meet their needs. We can understand their personality, we can understand to what extent they have a sense of humour, and we can understand their need for personal space. So I guess it is how well you get to know your resident as a person rather than as a ‘patient’.”

Certain words do not enter the Embracia vocabulary – and ‘dementia’ is one of them. “We don’t have ‘dementia units’. We have people with memory loss, so we call it a ‘memory support environment’ because that is our role. Staff do not ‘label’ and are encouraged to think of those in their care as if it is their mum or dad or grandparents there. I hate it when people say they’ve ‘done’ Mrs Smith. It’s about understanding that person as a whole rather than just saying ‘oh, she’s got dementia’.”

Embracia is expanding. The company acquired three homes in 2011, and is about to build three brand new homes, taking the total to 12 homes across Victoria and Queensland. Plus Embracia has two retirement villages in Queensland. This will take total aged care accommodation to around 1,100 beds and Peter and Dawn envisage growth in the next five years to 1,500, “and then past that to perhaps 2,000. We find it invigorating.”

Given that the operation is very labour-intensive, is staffing a problem? “We choose people on their attitude and spend a lot of time training and educating our staff. We value them, help them and support them. That way, we have good staff and they feel good about what they do – and that is not hard to understand.”

Despite everything that one hears about poor remuneration in the healthcare and welfare sectors, Embracia has no great problem finding good staff and turnover is unusually low. Indeed, some staff members have been with the company for just about the whole 25 year span. One of Peter and Dawn’s daughters, Sarah, often says that although qualifications are inevitably important, “the next step is attitude. It is attitude every time, because if people want to do their job properly and care about what they do, then we can put the training in place to supplement whatever they are doing currently or what they need to do.”

What about the future? How much longer will Peter and Dawn stay at the helm? “That is a very good question given that we now have seven grandchildren. It is something that is in our blood, so I dare say we will do it for as long as we draw breath. But I guess having said that we also have family and staff that have been able to take the reins.” One of the cornerstones of Embracia is that operational staff and management are able to operate the business and the facilities not only in a way that residents appreciate, but also in the way that they would like their own home to be run. “We will still want to know how everything is going and what is actually happening. However we do empower our managers and our team.”

“Our family [daughters Jo, Kate and Sarah are integral members of the team] are involved already and there is talk about the grandchildren joining in when they get older, so there will always be an element of family.” As Peter says, people tend to stay with Embracia, so they are considered an extension of the family. “We not only have our blood family, we have our Embracia family too. There is no reason why that should not continue.”

Making Sense of Management

Management is the art, or science, of getting things done through people. Sounds fairly straightforward – except for the fact that people are not robots waiting to do our bidding. People have their own minds, motivations, and goals. So how do managers keep operations – and the people behind them – running as planned?

December 19, 2018, 9:24 AM AEDT