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Summary:

Welcome to The Business of Allied Health – where we dig deep into what’s involved in running a successful allied health business in Australia today. In episode 2, host Michael Dermansky catches up with physiotherapy and business owner Antony Hirst, founder of Beleura Health Solutions about his fascinating journey that culminated in three thriving practices on the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria.

Antony shares what motivated him to go into business in the first place; his biggest thrill he gets as an owner; the importance of looking after your people (which extends to helping them achieve their own business goals); and his toughest challenges.

To your success!

Topics discussed in this episode:

  • The most rewarding parts of being a business owner.
  • The importance of a stable staff base – and how to achieve it.
  • The key to a long and successful business partnership.
  • Knowing when it’s time to sell, and the importance of not looking back.

Key takeaways:

  • The positioning of the business was strategic. Antony looked at where there were doctor’s clinics, where the population was growing and where there was a lack of supply for physiotherapy. As a result, the first clinic grew very fast. 
  • Staffing was never a problem because Antony had a very consistent and well-structured student program. This meant that new potential staff members were constantly exposed to the clinic. 
  • The thing Antony loved most about being in business was seeing the business (and the concepts of the business) grow and seeing the staff develop. This was one of the most rewarding parts of being in business. 
  • Antony knew it was time to sell when the business was reaching it’s peak and complacency was starting to set in. There was still fuel in the tank, but it was a great time to pass the business onto someone else to take it further. Once the decision was made, he never looked back – only forward. 
  • The key to success in a business partnership of 20 years is to listen to each other. Take time to reflect on each other’s opinions and then discuss, compromise and move forward. If you were reaching for the shareholder agreement to decide, it means the communication has broken down and it’s about to get ugly. Luckily, we knew that, and all disagreements were discussed before it ever got to that stage, including when it was time to depart.

 

For practical articles to help you build a better allied health business, go to MDhealth.com.au/articles.

Do you have any questions?

  • Call us on (03) 9857 0644 or (07) 3505 1494 (Paddington)
  • Email us at admin@mdhealth.com.au
  • Check out our other blog posts here

Our clinical staff would be happy to have chat if you have any questions.

Click on the Dash icon below to see the entire show transcript

Episode 2: Full Transcript

Michael Dermansky

Hi everyone, and welcome to the show that explores what allied health business owners and managers, what’s important about being in the allied health business today. My name is Michael Demansky, I’m the managing director of MD Health. And I’ve got a special guest today, Antony Hirst. Welcome to the show, Antony.

Antony Hirst

Thank you, thanks for having me, I appreciate it Michael.

Michael Dermansky

No worries at all. Well, we’ve known each other for quite a long time, but the listeners don’t know you, don’t always know you as well, but just a little bit about your physio background.

Antony Hirst

So briefly, I originally did a Phys Ed degree or a human movement degree back in the late 80s. And then my final placement as part of the human movement degree was at a place called Victoria House, which was a Malvern Sports Medicine Center in Melbourne, and I quite enjoyed it. So I decided after that to go back and do physiotherapy. So I graduated in 1992. I never worked in the public system. I went into the private sector straight away and after a couple of years of working for other people, started the clinic and that grew. And then we started a second one and that grew. So we started the third one and that grew and we started the fourth one and that grew. And 20 years later, we decided to sell to a group on the Australian Stock Exchange.

Michael Dermansky

Right. Well, let’s get, let’s go back a few steps to that. Cause it’s a very long journey in a very short space of time. So you, you did your physics degree when did some, uh, some, some placements at all the sports medicine center and love, love that and decided to go back to physio. So how long did you work somewhere, somewhere else?

Antony Hirst

I was an employee for probably about three years in various clinics around Melbourne. And I was a mature age student when I did physiotherapy. So by the time I’d done about three years of various experience, I was probably 28 or 29 years of age. And I had been running a private, a personal training company in the fitness industry throughout my study years. So I had, I had some sort of, I’ll call it some private enterprise background and decided that I think I should start my own thing.

Michael Dermansky

Well, so why did you start your own thing? What made, what was the reason why you said, you know what, I’ll start my own thing?

Antony Hirst

Yeah, no, it’s a good question, Michael. I often get asked it. I did come from a background where both my parents were pharmacists, retail pharmacy, as in having a local pharmacy. So the discussion around small business was something that was around the dinner table every night. So I never felt threatened by or saw the downsides to having, I just thought it was a natural progression. Why would I want to be an employee when I could be an employer?

But it was probably a bit more than that. I did want to, I realised that the lifestyle that I wanted to lead and what I wanted to potentially give my children in the future would require an income that I couldn’t get as an employee. I wanted the challenges. I enjoyed the clinical aspect of physiotherapy, but I enjoyed the non-clinical aspect, the sort of the customer service and the commercialisation aspect of it as much as the clinical aspects.

So, being the clinic owner was certainly a way to meet all of those sort of needs I had, I suppose. And I also wanted, in the long term, I wanted to have an asset I could sell towards the end of my career. So it was a fairly easy decision. And I found the transition, despite people sort of saying, you need more experience, I thought, well, there’s no better place to get experience than actually in the trenches, so to speak. So I started to practice, yeah.

Michael Dermansky

Right. Okay. So, you know, uh, although you were a Mormon student three years out, you started to open up your practice. So what, what did you, where did you decide to, to open up your practice and how was it going to look compared to every other practice?

Antony Hirst

Good question. So back in those, when I say back in those days, in those days, there was the Melways, which was like a hard copy of a map of Melbourne. And I basically photocopied the entire region of Melbourne and put it up on a wall in the house I was living in, which was huge. And I put a red pin for a medical centre, a yellow pin for a physiotherapy clinic. And I just started putting them all across the entire South Eastern seaboard almost.

And it was pretty obvious that the Mornington Peninsula was grossly underserviced. And it was a part of Melbourne that I quite, I always thought was a beautiful part of Melbourne if you wanted to live in it. So we found a place with a friend of mine from my, who was a year above me, we found a very cheap place to rent in Mornington. It wasn’t anything fancy. I can tell you it was pretty basic and we hung up a sign so to speak and went from there. So it was, I really just went to an area where I thought there was gonna be a population growth and it was underserviced. And ironically now in Mornington, I think there’s about 12 clinics, 11 or 12 clinics. And when we started, there was one. So it’s changed, yeah.

Michael Dermansky

It’s changed, but I mean, you didn’t, it sounds like when you did that too, it wasn’t a random decision. You actually made a very strategic choice. And then, you know, you, you didn’t just, you know, here’s my shingle, here’s my name. People will come. You, you looked at where the demand was and where there was under supply and made a very clever strategic decision about where you would have been. I mean, that was the time that now, yes, the demographics have changed, but at the time that was a clever decision for them.

Antony Hirst

Yeah, I had some good mentors when I, a couple of the sort of people who went through physio through the 70s and early 80s were some of my mentors. And I remember catching up with one in particular and saying, you know, what do you think this is what I’m thinking about doing? And he said to me, you know, he said, if you can go to a region where there’s a growing population that’s underserviced and your practice, if you look after the patients to the best of your ability, and treat them as if your family and your friends bearing in mind you should never treat your family and friends. He said the practice will grow. And it and it did it. It didn’t just grow it probably grew too quickly in hindsight. To the point where it was hard to sort of it was hard to keep up with the growth because you’re looking constantly for more staff all the time and then constantly for a bigger place.

So it was exciting. It was exciting times. It was a lot of fun.

Michael Dermansky

So what was your biggest thrill of being in business and what made you want to open your doors up every day when you get up?

Antony Hirst

I genuinely enjoyed helping people. So I never felt like going to the clinic was like going to work. I never did. I’m very lucky. I know that sounds cliche-ish, but it never felt like work. Fundamentally, I really enjoyed seeing the practice grow. And that doesn’t mean just grow in terms of the sheer size. It would be in terms of growing, in terms of the reputation of the place or what we could offer. But also seeing the team develop. So a lot of the time we would have less experienced or graduates come to our clinic and watching them develop over time, both professionally and personally, was really rewarding.

And to see a team, to see a clinic when you walked in was just what I call buzzing with harmony. In other words, everything was just working really, really well. From the time the patient walked in to the time the receptionist interacted with them to the flow into the care of the physiotherapist, to the administrative side. When it was just all really on, it was really rewarding. It is probably no different to a football coach watching a soccer team play well. When everyone is really performing their role, it is very satisfying. Put it that way, yes.

Michael Dermansky

Yeah, no, I do. And that’s what you mean. Like, you know, you know that everyone knows has their role. They know what they’re doing and you can just see that flow through the customer experience. So, you know, that customer that come in the door, the patients come in the door as well, you know, they, they come in for an injury or a problem or whatever they come in for, but you know, every step is there to make that journey for them as smooth, as simple as possible. And that’s, that is, it is quite poetic to see that kind of stuff as well. I’m not, I do know what you’re talking about.

Antony Hirst

And it’s very subjective. It’s very hard to try and quantify that. You just, and when I’ve speak to some of the mentors of mine who’ve run various businesses, they could say, they could just walk into their office block or they walk into the factory floor or walk into the production line or the staff room. And they just know that the place is going really well. It’s that intangible intuitive type feel that you get when you’ve done something for a long period of time and you don’t need a textbook to tell you or a P&L to tell you, although it helps. It just has that intent. You’ve been around long enough to know what are the signs to look for, if that makes sense.

Michael Dermansky

So let’s flip aside, what was your biggest challenge?

Antony Hirst

To a certain extent, I often think there’s a lot of what I call minor distractions, which I’ll call them the one percenters. Sometimes they can be people who are critical of what you’re doing because they’re probably a bit jealous or we live in a bit of a tall poppy syndrome in Australia. So if you’re doing something different, you’ll attract criticism from within your own profession. So not getting distracted or put off by them, but sticking to what you do, what you wanna achieve and why you wanna do it and not getting sidetracked, either from a time perspective in terms of getting sidetracked, or I call it an emotional and psychological investment in getting sidetracked and taking your eye off the ball. So that’s probably the biggest challenge because we did have phenomenal growth. And I started, we were getting some attention back around 2005, 2006 in our profession and we’re having articles written about us in the business sections of newspapers and some of our profession didn’t think that was a good idea.

And so I think keeping your eye on the ball was, is probably the biggest challenge. And not being afraid to realise that you’ve done, not being afraid to realise that you might’ve made a mistake or taken the wrong turn; go back and remedy it, because you’re only really going to learn, in my experience, through a lot of the mistakes you made. And I think, too, when the team members realise that the person in charge is owning up to a mistake they’ve made, but they want to try and correct it, I think in terms of, I’ll call it the buy-in that they have within the team, just goes through the roof. They realise that the person in charge is not perfect, that in many ways, they’re not a whole lot different to the other members of the team. They’ve just got a different responsibility. So, um, yeah, just, just not taking your after ball would be the biggest challenge. Um, I never really found the staffing a major issue. It was more not getting sidetracked by the, uh, the little fires each day. I call them all the little detractors. Yes.

Michael Dermansky

And I mean, you great example where, you know, when something doesn’t go right. And, you know, it’s admitting when you make a mistake and, and then change your direction and being honest with your staff about we didn’t do, we didn’t do this right way. We, we need to change direction. Can you give us an example of that?

Antony Hirst

Yeah, I think we in the early parts, the systems that we had in place and the programs that we had in place, sometimes from a PD perspective, or a promotions perspective in terms of educating the public in our region and the doctor about what we were doing. As we got busier, we tended to let that sort of thing slip by the wayside a little bit. So our PD program might have just been sort of put on the back burner because we thought we were too busy to do it. Yet it was the PD program that made us be busy in the first place. Or we would stop having, instead of having the speakers come to the clinic every couple of months, they might just be coming twice a year because we’re all too busy. But the reason we had those speakers probably led us to becoming a busy, successful practice. So going back and realising that we ran the risk of becoming a bit complacent, that the patients would always ring up and there’d be plenty of work. And I think you just sort of had to keep a bit of a self-analysis sometimes to realize, hang about. PD is important. We need to do it. No, we can’t. Don’t try and weasel our way out of it to say we’re too busy. So that’s an example of where we think we were at the risk a few times of getting a bit complacent and a bit ahead of ourselves. To the detriment of the clinic, I think probably potentially sometimes to the detriment of those receiving care. So that’s there’s one example I can think of off the top of my head. Yeah.

Michael Dermansky

I mean, the other interesting that you say that to too, is that as a business owner, you have the opportunity to realise you’re going in the right direction on these things and fix it. I mean, that is one of the things you do have as an owner and as a manager, you do have the ability to say, you know what, I wanna change this. I’m not happy about this, which you don’t always have as an employee or a lower level staff member. You can’t just say, you know what, we’ll give you this better. I mean, you may have a degree of leverage, but it is a bit easier zone. It’s like, you know what, we’re going the wrong way with this. We’ve got to fix this and change it up.

Antony Hirst

Yeah, I did have an advantage. I often see a lot of sole owners, sole business owners that don’t really get the idea to bounce ideas around because they haven’t got a business partner. And I did. Lisa was my partner in the clinic for, we were partners for 20 odd years in the physiotherapy practice. So we had the benefit to bounce ideas between the two of us to think. And if we’re on the same page, it was great. Sometimes I’d put something up for discussion and at least it would have a different point of view or a different perspective, which I hadn’t considered, and vice versa. And I think that was probably a benefit to the success that we had at Ballura. So those individual practice owners that don’t have the ability to bounce an idea off their practice partner are really a beneficiaries of some of the, you know, the sort of the chat groups out there or the networks out there of practice owners where they can bounce an idea in a confidential way of someone else who owns a practice just to get a different perspective. I think that’s a great asset if they can do that and it’s great value to them, I think.

Michael Dermansky

It is, I mean, being, you know, it’s very, it’s very easy to open up a thing and be by yourself, but that networking and talking to other people, and particularly people more experienced or even just other business owners in the same boat. It is so valuable. You get ideas. We ran it when networking group. Still do now on Wednesday, Wednesday mornings and about 11 o’clock and we ran that during Covid and you know, that one weekly meeting that we had with other business owners during that time really allowed us to, to bounce. Like news was coming in from, you know, you know, you didn’t know when we were going to shut down. You had news and like, okay, let’s get together, have a chat amongst us. We would bounce ideas of each other as well. By the time we walked away at the end of that hour, we all know how we’re going to go back to our clinics and figure out what, how we’re going to get through the next day, week, month. And you know, that was one of the major parts of getting through that period is where of uncertainty, having the ability to bounce ideas of other professionals or in a similar boat. It’s a really big deal. It can’t be underestimated the importance of having peers to discuss questions with. You don’t have to get an answer, but it allows you to even to think about those things and hearing a different perspective. Can shift your world very fast in a much shorter time than you trying to figure it out yourself.

Michael Dermansky

With you and Lisa as well, are you similar or different personality types? What are you guys like?

Antony Hirst

I think we were very similar in a lot of ways. We took different responsibilities within the practice, even though it’s not formally written down, if that makes sense. Over time, if you work with someone long enough, you know where each person’s strengths and weaknesses are and you work towards those. All partnerships have pros and cons and we were very lucky we had a very successful one. And often people ask me, how did you have a successful one for 22 years? I think it was.

And the answer is sometimes I don’t know why it was successful. Probably a little bit of luck, good management. I think we often, we had compromise on both sides often. Some really good advice we had from a lawyer one day was about a partnership agreement. He said, I can draw you up the best partnership agreement in the world, but you’re not gonna wanna look at it. Cause as soon as you do, you’re gonna have to get hold of me. He said, just sort out your differences, you know? Put yourself in each other’s shoes, look at it from their perspective, work out a way forward and move on. So there was a few times when we probably had differences of opinion on that might be the direction of the practice or a particular thing we were doing. We would listen to each other’s point of views, percolate I call it, just ponder it for a few days, come back and work out a way forward and off we went again.

Michael Dermansky

I think what you just said, there is a massive key there that you would listen to each other’s opinions and ponder it as well. You didn’t try to, you know, force your idea down someone’s throats. You would listen to least of opinions, you listen to yours. You would ponder it over time when you’re not in the moment. And as you said, and I’ve been told this before as well, we’ve got to write up this lovely shareholders agreement so that we can put it in the drawer and ideally never look at it again. Because if that’s, if we’re looking at that stuff, that means we’re in an adversarial position as well. And that’s going to get quite expensive very, very fast.

Antony Hirst

Yeah, one of my old mentors, when we, he used to say to me, you know, it’s not just about the owners of the clinic. He said, the reality is whether you like it or not, people are relying upon you for their employment. So you need to make sure that you put, if you’ve got partnership, sort of differences of opinion, to some extent, you put them to side because you have responsibility to yourself and your business partner, you have responsibility to the patients to make sure they’ve got a continuing service they can access, but you’ve got a responsibility to those people who are relying upon you for a job and to pay their mortgage, bearing in mind some of our administrators were probably over the age of 50, and if they lost their job with us, we might struggle to find something else. So, that always sort of just gave you a bit of a reality check that, you know, pull your head in, get your ego in check and look at the bigger picture. Yeah.

Michael Dermansky

That’s that’s extremely sage and mature advice. Anthony, I think sometimes they can get in the way as a business owner that you have a think about what your responsibility is. It’s a big deal. It’s not just about you. It’s also about, about the people around you too.

Antony Hirst

Yeah. And if you do the, you know, if you do a really good job, ideally one day, you’re going to hand the practice over to someone else and you want to hand it over to them in the best possible shape. Like a farmer handing over the farm to the next person, you want to have the pastures well fertilized, the fences all good, the stock good, the breeding good. You want everything really going well. So the next person then can take it on and look after it even better than you did and hand it on to the next person.

Michael Dermansky

And that’s the legacy pay sometimes you want to have a good profitable business, but you also want to pass on a great legacy to the two. And, uh, you want to have a good legacy passing on, uh, well, that’s, that’s maybe not everyone, but you know, that’s, that’s a great thing to do, but a good business and a good legacy passing on as well. Two more important questions as well. How did you go about finding and keeping the right staff? Cause that’s such a big deal in the healthcare sector.

Antony Hirst

Yeah, look, we never really had a major problem with it. And I wonder if we took, when I look at other parts of the industry, I think there were two things we might have done differently to the, I’ll call it the norm. One, we took a lot of students, a lot, and we had a graduate program, which we developed and refined over the years. And I think it was, when I say graduate program, it was probably a graduate into the first two to three years.

So there’s a lot of mentoring, personally, professionally, clinically, commercially. So there was a lot of that. We had a very good, fairly strong social program within the clinics. So in terms of, we knew that a lot of that, we weren’t employing as many people at some of the hospitals, but we could have a social program, which might be drinks on a Friday night or a mid-year dinner, an end of year dinner. We’d have things for birthdays. If people were leaving the practice to go overseas and work, we’d have functions to farewell them. So quite a strong social program, if that makes sense. And the other one was I was always of the view that they are health professionals and they have tremendous professional, legal, ethical and moral responsibilities and they should be paid appropriately to reflect that. So we, I think if by memory, we used to pay our staff very well by industry standards, which was a way of acknowledging what they were doing in terms of their value to the clinic, not just commercially, but in terms of being able to offer the highest level of care, but to reflect the fact that what they did within the community. So they were well paid.

And I think that combination between the mentoring program, the social aspect, being well paid financially, although money is not everything. It’s not, but it’s a way of rewarding and acknowledging what they do and what they provide, was a way we could really get staff annual average, I should say, average years of staying at the practice sort of north of seven.

So that led to great stability within the workplace, which was great from a patient perspective. It was great from a referral networks perspective because physios were staying longer. Many went on to do their own practices and I encouraged it. I said to them, if they want to do it, I will help you to the best of my ability because why would I want to stand in the way of them having the same opportunities and success that I did? Nothing would give me more pleasure than seeing someone who worked for us for a number of years go and start their own clinic, seeing it grow, putting in the same programs and procedures and policies that we probably had. I thought it was very rewarding as an owner to see that happen.

Michael Dermansky

And there’s that legacy piece we talked about earlier as well. Like handing over the practice, hanging over the knowledge to the next generation as well. Um, One, one last question as well. When did you know it was time for you to finish?

Antony Hirst

That’s a good question. I honestly thought I’d keep the practice for a lot longer than what we did. And I did feel, I felt like our energy, our energy levels were just on the fade sometimes in terms of, we started just going through, I’ll call it just going through the motion a little bit. And then I caught up with an old mentor of mine. And I’ve spoken to you about this, Michael, but he said to me, as you know, he said to me, and Antony, what is the key to a great party on Saturday night? And I said to him, thanking the host. And he said, wrong answer. And I said to him, the food and wine, no. The people, no. The ambience, the location, no, no. He said, go away and think about it, which I did. And I remember catching up a few weeks later. And he said, have you worked it out? And I’ve said, I think I’ve got the answer.

And the answer was that the key to a great party on Saturday night is knowing when to leave. That you don’t want to leave the party at quarter to 12, as it’s just about to hit its peak, but you certainly don’t want to leave the party at three o’clock in the morning when people are going to do things they’re going to regret. And he asked me, what time did I think it was at our party at work? And I remember saying to him, I reckon it’s about 10 past one. And he said to me, time to go. Go at the peak or just off the peak.

And once we made the decision, you sort of knew in your gut, so to speak, that it was the right time. So quite an easy decision in the end. We were also lucky that there was a corporate group out there with that was interested in purchasing the group. That also made it a lot easier. I was really delighted to have the opportunity to be able to sell the large group at a time when, fairly generally speaking, at a time of their choosing. But yeah, there you go.

Michael Dermansky

Yeah, I mean, there’s, there’s many businesses as well that, uh, that, um, that have made a lot of money when they sell just before they think they can, I could have done better. But, uh, you know, that’s, that is the perfect time. There’s many, there’s many, many businesses and much bigger than says like, Oh, I could have done more, but they, they made a lot of money by selling just the right time and not the peak time just before that too. It’s, uh, it sounds like a very, actually a story I’ve heard before.

Antony Hirst

Yeah, so we were very lucky, we were. And I think too, my mentor, he’d say, once you sell it, don’t look back. You know, you can’t look back. It’s a bit like finishing an exam paper. You don’t look at the exam questions once you get home. You don’t. Never change the C to a D. Never. Ever. You move forward and if you’re lucky, you’ve got really good memories and good friendships and good relationships with people. And if that happens, then really you’re very fortunate. So I feel, I do, I feel really fortunate, I do.

Michael Dermansky

Any last thoughts you want to tell the listeners?

Antony Hirst

I just think I’d encourage people to have a go at something. If there’s a new part to their business they wanna try, you know, you’re not gonna know if you don’t have a try at it. If you really wanna do something, you’re gonna find a reason to do it. And if you really don’t wanna, you’ll find an excuse not to. But just follow your instinct and don’t hesitate to bounce ideas off older, wiser mentors. They can be within your industry or from outside your industry. There’s a reason why boards of companies that are run well generally probably have people over the age of 50 on the board because they’ve got the benefit of experience and hindsight and they look at things a bit differently. So, you know, you can always catch up with someone for a cup of coffee or a chat on the phone these days or FaceTime and most of these wise people more than happy to help and point you in the right direction and give you something to contemplate.

So absolutely go for it. I think in the health industry at the moment, the allied health economy is strong. There’s lots of people investing in it. It’s a growth area. It’s pretty safe and secure. Have a crack at it. Yeah.

Michael Dermansky

Well, there’s some really good words today, Antony. I think there’s some, there is a multitude of advice that you’ve given today. There’s been great listen to. And, um, I think the last point you’re saying is a really big one as well. I’ve reached out and spoken to so many people over the years. And the only thing I really have to do is pick up the phone to ask. It’s some will say no, but a vast majority of say yes. And the pearls of wisdom you can learn off other people’s experience is enormous and it will save you so much extra time and money and heartache that other people already gone through that they want to pass on the that legacy piece to you.

Antony Hirst

Yeah, very true.

Michael Dermansky

Thank you very much for your time, it’s been great interviewing you today and I hope the listeners have learnt some real pearls of wisdom from you. Thank you very much Antony.

Antony Hirst

Thanks for having me, Michael.

 

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