Transforming aged care in an era of budget cuts

Samantha Drury CPA, CFO Bethanie. Photo by Richard Hatherly

High-powered roles in the UK and Australia have enabled Samantha Drury CPA to bring a wide range of skills to the not-for-profit area of aged care and social housing.

Fact File

Joined Bethanie: February 2016
Based: Perth, Western Australia
Qualifications: CPA; GAICD, Australian Institute of Company Directors; Bachelor of Commerce, University of Western Australia; MBA, International Relations, Charles Sturt University
Formerly: Head of finance –  Western Region, Laing O’Rourke; CFO and company secretary, VDM Group; head of business finance, London Underground; auditor, PwC; Coopers & Lybrand; Jones Lang LaSalle; Worley ABB Joint Venture
Bethanie: One of Western Australia’s most recognised and largest not-for-profit (NFP) aged-care and retirement village providers, founded by the Churches of Christ in 1954 
Team: 45 staff in the finance/ICT procurement team
Annual revenue: About A$150 million

1. Game changers: "Baptism of fire"

When I first arrived back in Australia from the UK, I took on a fixed-term contract as CFO and company secretary at a small listed company called VDM Group. They were going through a tumultuous time. They had been kicked off one of their construction sites at the same time as they were in the process of bringing in a Chinese investor. 

There were trading halts, going-concern challenges, supplementary prospectuses and prospectuses to raise funds; the challenges of the mining company calling in bonds and whether the Chinese investor would stay or go.  

It was an intense nine months, selling businesses, negotiating, working with ASIC, and dealing with the consultants and lawyers from the Chinese investor. 

The managing director who appointed me finished up not long after I started, and the chair took an acting managing director role while they were transitioning with the Chinese investor. I did a lot of hands-on work with the directors. 

Professional Development: Thinking like a CFO: Making financial decisions – learn how a CFO perspective is applied to many of the activities and financial decisions you make on a daily basis.

I dealt with all the suppliers around payment terms; then there was the unexpected termination from the site, with the commercial litigation around that. 

It was a pressured environment and very, very tough on the family, but the experience I gained was amazing – stuff you might normally only get to do once or twice in five years. It really did set me up to be looked at seriously in my next roles.

2. The role: "Fit for purpose"

At Bethanie, we’ve got a big initiative in aged care. We’re going through that transformation journey, making sure we’re fit for the changing aged population – from the war generation to baby boomers – as well as being fit for purpose in the face of funding constraints imposed on the sector by the government. There have been a lot of challenges around funding cuts by the federal government. The impact in one year on our bottom line was more than A$2 million. That’s tough to absorb when you’ve got your normal wages growth and skinny margins in the operational area. 

As CFO, I look after all the ICT (information and communications technology) procurement and finance. 

We have five executives at Bethanie, including CEO Chris How. I get the opportunity to step up and manage the ship, so to speak, when he goes on leave. I’ve also taken on a board role at PowerHousing Australia, an advocacy group that aims to improve social housing across Australia. 

The variability of care in our sector is a challenge. There is a difference between the for-profits and the not-for-profits (NFPs) around the ethos of how you provide care for people. Although the respective Acts are pretty prescriptive and we all comply, there’s a difference when you look at it through a humanitarian lens compared to a straight shareholder lens, especially around levels of care provided.

3. Challenge: "Profit is not a bad word"

Bethanie has transitioned from its 1950s NFP origins to being a commercially sustainable entity. We’re still a Church of Christ member organisation, with a board of trustees that acts on behalf of the members, but there has been a step change since Chris was appointed as CEO in 2014 [he was formerly Bethanie’s chief operating officer]. 

Our executive management team has become more skills-based, with more commercial-minded people; 70 to 80 per cent of my team comes from outside the aged-care sector. That makes us unique compared to some of the other aged-care NFPs, which tend to recruit from within. 

The impact of our new system, and the organisational restructure I initiated, refreshed the team and brought in different ways of looking at how we do things. That’s been consistent across the organisation, enabling us to diversify our way of thought, challenge how things are done, and be more effective and efficient with what we produce.

More recently, as government funding cuts and CPI increases have affected us, a lot of our profit has been driven by our property development arm, which has subsidised our day-to-day operational areas. 

The conversations have been around “profit is not a bad word” – which, in a not-for-profit, it often actually is! However we openly discuss profit now, which we wouldn’t have been able to do five years ago – there would have been that sense of “but it’s just the right thing to do, and it shouldn’t matter what it costs”. It actually does matter what it costs. Yes, we’ve got to get the balance right, but we also need to ensure we have that long-term financial sustainability around our organisation. Attaining that degree of commercialisation has been a real change for the business, but we’re well on the way now. 

Lessons learned and best advice

Take your opportunities
Be open to take an opportunity when it’s presented, even if you’re not 100 per cent sure you can do it. You really develop an ability to learn through such opportunities.

Don’t pigeonhole yourself. Be flexible around the industry or role that you look at. I had that debate about going into London Underground; it was going to be quite a change – a government organisation. Would it be too different? Would it be challenging enough? However, the finance director gave me a lot of project work and eventually I became one of the younger general managers.

Get to know the business 
I’ve done probably 10 shifts out and around Bethanie, from helping out in the kitchen for a day, to accompanying people on a social outing, or going with one of our home-care workers to visit clients. The more you get to know the business, the more you can interpret that financial data, and ensure that what you’re providing actually meets the needs of the client and the business.

Get the work-life balance right
At Bethanie, everyone has lunch together, from the CEO down. We’re in an open-plan office; I don’t have my own office. Everyone chats, has a bit of a laugh and relaxes. We have a lot of people who came from the mining industry and took a pay cut to be here, but even when the job market improves, it’s debatable whether they will want to move on. The work-life balance here more than compensates [for the pay cut], and they’re still getting the professional challenges. In a survey last year, 91 per cent of our people said they were really proud to work for Bethanie. 

Read next: Ridiculously overcomplicated: Aged care in Australia


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February 2018
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