ACH Group’s Frank Weits: aged care providers need to find niche or develop scale to survive

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The role of an aged care CEO doesn’t seem the logical step-up for a client services professional – but for ACH Group’s Frank Weits, it has been the natural ‘stomping ground’ to put his understanding about clients outcomes into practice – with ‘win-win-win’ results for their customers, staff and organisation.

ACH Group is one of South Australia’s largest Not For Profits with residential care, retirement living and home care. Established in 1952, the Group now employs more than 1,700 staff and supports more than 20,000 older people in South Australia and Victoria.

Frank, who arrived in Australia from the Netherlands with his wife in the early 2000s, took up the role of CEO 18 months ago after being tapped on the shoulder to apply.

The Group had elected to move away from having a CEO with clinical experience to one with a more client-centric focus – and Frank has the perfect background.

Aged care still focusing on ‘doing’ care

After 13 years heading up client services for professional services firm PwC, identifying the real issues facing their clients and how these could be met, he says it is now the same journey aged care needs to go on.

“Aged care and health care offer excellent customer services but care is still being ‘done’ to people, not ‘with’ people,” he says.

“I’m extremely focused on customer outcomes and customer impacts. Ultimately, that mindset that you are as good as your last engagement with your customer comes from an environment that truly understands what customers want.”

“If we really want to make sure our customers are happy, we need to know what are the real issues they are facing and what are the life goals they want to achieve.”

Baby Boomers not prepared to settle for less

Having your organisation fulfil these goals creates loyalty and “brand stickiness”, he adds.

“The professional services industries do this reasonably well and the aged care and health sector will follow down that track,” Frank maintains. “We are already seeing this in the NDIS where if an operator is not providing a good service, people take their services away.”

While the older ‘grateful generations’ as Frank calls them have prevented this from happening so far in aged care, Frank says the new Baby Boomer generation will not be so forgiving.

“If you are not adding any value, there is no room for you anymore,” he said.

More operators looking to fill a niche

To this end, he sees a need for the market to move to a true consumer-directed care model where customers can choose from a number of organisations of different sizes and backgrounds according to their needs.

“Today, everyone in the industry just wants to take care of everyone who needs care. There is no choice because they all feel the same.”

Frank predicts many operators will choose to move into a niche to separate themselves from the pack.

“It will be interesting to see if the sector had that ability to diversify,” he adds.

Boutique, major and listed operators to survive

He also forecasts further consolidation for the sector, saying he regularly receives calls from private providers and community operators in regional areas looking to amalgamate.

He believes residential care providers must have at least 1,000 beds or take on a more boutique model to survive.

“There is always room for the boutique, very specific oriented providers,” he said.

He also singles out major providers with a diverse range of businesses – such as ACH Group  – and the largest operators which usually focus on a single service, such as residential care.

“If you are not clear on where you sit in that value chain and not large enough, I think it’s going to be very hard,” he said.

CEOs should be focused on creating ‘win-win-win’ and culture

The CEO also makes a strong argument for his title to be changed to the CCO – Chief Commercial Officer and Chief Cultural Officer – saying these should be the primary roles of business leaders.

“The role of the CEO is to think commercially – not in the monetary sense – but how to create a win-win-win for their customers, workers and the organisation,” he said.

“I also think the culture of an organisation determines its success. A CCO is out there talking to customers, talking to their workforce, talking to everyone… it’s not the corner office person sitting on the throne making decisions because how can you make a decision when you don’t know what going on with customers?”

A new direction for the Group

It’s a mindset that Frank applied when he took up the role at ACH Group. While there were a number of operational challenges including the Royal Commission happening, Frank dedicated six months to working on a new strategic direction – or what he calls a ‘north star’ – for the Group.

“I had a strong view because of my consulting background that successful organisations are very clear on direction – those that have a clear vision of this is what I’m aiming for – including making that an inspirational vision,” he said.

Backed by data and evidence from research and surveys, Frank led the development of a new strategy around ‘good lives for older people’ and a vision of ‘connected communities’.

Their strategic framework now focuses on what their customers expect of them, whether it’s to stay at home longer, downsize to a more manageable property or have more security and 24/7 care, rather than on funding streams.

Creating a fitter and more accountable business

As CEO, Frank then made some changes to the business to ‘readjust’ the organisation, “killing off” a number of projects.

“I had to make some tough decisions to make the business more commercial and fitter,” he said. “So, stopping projects that were never going to give us an outcome that was good for our customers, our workforce and our business.”

Frank’s second decision was to move towards a more accountable culture where difficult conversations are had upfront – rather than at the end of a project.

“I have noticed in the industry that there is a bit of an avoidance of having these tough conversations,” he said. “But while these can be seen in a negative light, almost everyone said to me ‘these are decisions should have made years ago’.”

From COVID to the ‘new normal’

Then COVID hit.

After two early instances in March of visitors to their aged care homes who failed to disclose that they had returned from overseas or had contact with people with COVID, ACH Group put in additional restrictions on visitors like many providers.

They also saw a drop in new residents and non-essential services home care clients as well as new residents into their retirement living.

However, being SA-based, Frank says they have returned to the ‘new normal’ with 95% of residents and families supporting the measures and communication that was put in place and the business ‘bouncing back’ from the falls.

Scale and diversification key to weathering financial impact

He credits both their scale and diversification as well as their strong focus on customer engagement for avoiding a stronger financial hit.

“We were extremely focused on clinical care, but we also had a separate business continuity stream to make sure we still had lines open to let people into our residential homes and were turning over housing where we could,” he stated.

“If we had kept our eye off the ball – which was very tempting – and just focused on clinical care, the financial impact would have been much greater. Instead, we’ve actually grown in some areas of our business.”

A move to virtual programs and wellness checks

In line with their strategy, ACH Group also looked at what their customers needed when they were not able to freely move around thanks to the pandemic.

For example, their face-to-face choir – which performs a paid concert every year for family and friends at the Adelaide Fringe Festival after nine months of practice – was shifted into a virtual choir, with the new goal of performing in 2021.

ACH Group also made a high number of calls to check in on customers to determine if people were having any issues, such as deconditioning or poor mental health, with staff at all levels of the business – including Frank – on the phones.

Aged care should take on hospitality mindset

Looking to the future, Frank says he is keen to drive a hospitality mindset for ACH Group to complement their clinical care, saying services should be guided by how they make the customer feel.

He uses the example of a restaurant meal a year ago – you may not remember exactly what you ate, but you remember how it made you feel.

“We need to be much more dynamic and agile in responding to changes,” he says. “COVID-19 has certainly forced that… people want to have real experiences. We should not dominate their care and provide real goal-oriented outcomes.”

More partnerships with health care and community

He foresees an increased need for partnerships with the health system, citing the fact ACH Group now has a teaching aged care home at the VITA development in Adelaide with SA Health and Flinders University.

However, he believes these partnerships need to extend to the wider community.

“We provide services but our real job is to provide connectivity,” he said.

“At an altruistic level, we can show older people are real value assets by connecting them with the community and debunking some of that ageism that does play out.”

Focus on providing workforce with career direction

Frank also points to the need to provide more growth and opportunities for the aged care workforce.

“Happy customers can only be achieved by a happy workforce,” he underlined.

“As an industry and an organisation, we need to make sure everyone has a career objective, has goals and we give them the opportunities.”

Reablement central to future models

He also sees technology playing a more important role, with residential care becoming more focused on providing dementia care and palliative care and a greater focus on reablement to return people to live in their homes – which has seen some residents transition back to their home or retirement living.

“I hope we, as an organisation, have a goal-driven engagement where people have real outcomes and I think that is the essence of customer-centricity – you are still a person and my job is to get the best out of you.”

“When it is my time to be looked after, I would certainly want to do it that way.”