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 three, host Michael Dermansky interviews physiotherapist, business owner and serial entrepreneur Henry Wajswelner, owner of allied health businesses in Bright and Myrtleford in northeast Victoria, and a restaurant at Mt Hotham.
In the episode, Henry expands on his incredible business journey, including how he became a restauranter during Covid lockdowns. He discusses the challenges of building businesses in regional areas, and how he finds the time for his varied business interests and his passion for teaching. Henry also reveals the keys to his success, including finding and nurturing good people, letting go, and pursuing your passions.
Topics discussed in this episode:
- The most important component of business success.
- Seizing opportunities when they present themselves, and not being afraid to take on new challenges.
- The biggest challenges when establishing a business in rural and regional areas.
- The importance of pursuing your passions, and knowing when to hand over the reins
- Henry has always been entrepreneurial. Even when working at the AIS in Canberra or teaching at the University of Melbourne, running a physiotherapy business on the side has been a consistent part of his working life.
- When the opportunity presented itself to take over a contracting business in Bright from retiring owners, Henry saw the opportunity to grow the business. This involved extending the product lines to include Clinical Pilates and providing a more consistent experience at Mt Hotham.
- The big challenge of running a rural or regional practice is staffing. Henry was very lucky to have consistent staff for quite a few years, having a core group who would join the practice yearly; however, people move on and the challenge remains attracting staff to regional areas. Another challenge facing regional practices is accessing resources in the area. Materials and supplies are often harder to get and more expensive to source.
- With a population shift to the country during COVID, a new challenge facing regional areas is accessing accommodation for staff. There is a smaller number of rental properties available, or rental properties have been converted to AirBNB’s; therefore finding accommodation for staff has become a bottleneck for attracting staff.
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Episode 3: Full Transcript
Hi everyone and welcome to the show that explores with owners and managers what’s important about being an allied health business today. Today I’ve got a physio with us who has multiple business, different positions in business as well. I’ve known Henry Wajswelner for about 25 years now. And we worked together for a little bit a long time ago, probably like 25 years ago.
Yeah, it was a long… it was a small business that we ran together for a short time.
And yeah, I just can’t believe I’m saying it’s 25 years ago. So it’s quite a while. Well, welcome to the show. Thank you for your input. We’ve got a very interesting scenario that you had. So to start, tell us about your physio journey because it’s quite an extensive one, and what businesses you’ve been involved in over the years.
Thank you for asking me. Business wise, even right from as a new graduate, I always had a private business sort of on the side. After graduating I worked at the Royal Melbourne Hospital for a couple of years. I was doing some sports private practice on the side and then I was offered a position at one of the original sports medicine practices in Melbourne, Melbourne Sports Medicine Centre.
From there I was very fortunate to get a position at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra but even as I was working there and learning my trade as a sports physio there was a private practice, a limited private practice there that I ran. I was in Canberra for a number of years and got that sort of training under my belt. Then when I returned to Melbourne I joined Olympic Park Sports Medicine.
I got involved in teaching which is where I think we first met at Melbourne University as your lecturer in your course. But the whole time I sort of had, which is probably something you might advise against Michael which is sort of part-time business approach to it was always something I did on the side. Until the point where I established or re-established a business at Bright up in northeastern Victoria. I took over something that was very small and built it up and from there I got the opportunity to open a business out at Mount Hotham during the ski season for all the snow sports injuries.
Well, let’s go back a few steps from there as well. So, um, you mean you, you’d, you’d been involved in bigger business like Olympic park before. Um, and, and how did you find that? Cause that was a big business, a lot of business partners, you know, a lot of voices there too.
Yeah. A lot of voices there, I was one piece of the puzzle I guess and tried to contribute the best way that I knew but I learnt by working alongside some very experienced sports medicine practitioners and other physiotherapists who are already operating the business at a very high level. So I picked up a lot of tips from them; a lot of the socialisation aspects of running a private business and how to keep your clientele, work your business in a way that you can have growth and keep continuity with your clients.
And, um, right. That I mean, that’s not, you know, there’s Melbourne that you’ve been, have been, been both Canberra and Melbourne as well. Then you decided to go to Bright.
Yeah, Bright was a hobby, one of my hobbies, a little bit gone crazy. We sort of used to holiday in that area and at one year I decided I’ll do a locum for the Ovens Valley Physiotherapy which was a business up there in Bright and Myrtleford and Mount Hotham as it happened. And from there they wanted to retire and they offered me the business at a very, you know, entry was very low. I guess the business was contracting at that point, winding back as the previous owners were looking to retire. So I took that on and just slowly built it. What helped me the most was acquiring a couple of really fantastic local business partners and the three of us built it into what it is now. It’s three locations, Ovens Valley Physio and Pilates, and we moved into larger locations, established the clinical Pilates studio alongside, which was a big boost to the businesses and we sort of went from there.
The Mount Hotham really was a spin off from that because the doctors that we were associated in Bright also ran the medical clinic at Mount Hotham during the winter. I was offered to run that as the previous people had stopped operating that and I sort of took that on.
What’s the biggest challenge there? Cause I mean, that’s a seasonal business. I mean, Bright is consistent. It’s got the customer base is relatively stable, I suspect, but the Mount Houghton can be up and down like a yo-yo.
Of course. Well, it’s literally open and shut. So during the winter, it can be very full on. We’ll talk about the impact of COVID in a minute, I guess, but that’s a sort of a more of a random event, but it’s certainly that sort of business. You do have to be prepared for the reality though, that even though your expenses run 12 months of the year, you really only have a three, maybe three and a half month window to actually earn your income.
So you need to be prepared for that and that’s probably the biggest challenge. There are a number of challenges on different levels. Everything is more expensive, you’re in a remote location, it’s more difficult to get things. There’s some sort of itinerant workforce that they come in and out. So I was lucky to have consistency of staff to help me for many years but then since I lost one member of staff who had been there for 7 or 8 years in a row and after that I’ve had different people every single season. So that’s one of the challenges. The seasonal client base is the second thing. So your clients are really only there for a week or perhaps a few days or two weeks at the most.
So you’ve got to try to help them as best you can in that short period. And it’s always about, you know, they’re there to ski or to snowboard. An injury might be creating a barrier for that and you’ve got to try to negotiate, work your way through that barrier so that they can enjoy their ski holiday. So that’s sometimes you need to, you know, you need to support them in whatever way you can so they can achieve that goal; bracing, taping, you’ve got to really use your imagination. So there’s that. The other clients that we have on Hotham are the staff. You can imagine in that environment there’s quite a high injury toll to the staff that work on the mountain. There’s icy conditions and there’s lots of accidents, lots of back, neck and shoulder problems as well as all the actual ski and snowboard related injuries as well. So keeping the staff going is one of the things that keeps us busy during the season as well.
Yeah. I mean, I guess that’s the biggest key. A lot of times, a lot of businesses and you know, if it’s, if it’s physio being a restaurant business, it doesn’t matter what it is, um, you know, consistency of some consistent client base is, is the thing that keeps the business going, um, you know, you’ve got your seasonal stuff, but then if you can have some regulars, it gives you some degree of even a small amount of certainty of income that way too.
Well some of the mountain staff who have got persistent injury, we see them, of course we see them year after year and they become our long term loyal clients and in some ways they help advocate for our business up there. So a lot of it, as everywhere, it’s word of mouth. Hotham is very, if you’re familiar with it, it’s quite underdeveloped in a commercial sense, unlike Falls Creek and unlike Mount Buller. There’s not much commercial development and our facility, we’re challenged in terms of the facility that we can operate out of. Originally we operated out of a tiny, tiny room in the medical centre and that went on for decades.
It just eventually became unsustainable and we had to try to find another space. We tried in one of the larger accommodation venues but that really didn’t work because of lack of visibility.
And at the end I acquired a space in a closed down restaurant which is probably the next thing we want to talk about. So without really a plan I moved the physio business into this restaurant space. So this was in the end of 2019. And then Covid hit as everyone remembers in the beginning of 2020 and that created a cascade of events for me where I ended up actually running a restaurant and bar alongside the physiotherapy service in the same building. So I became a licensee and a restaurateur and a owner of a bar and cafe and restaurant all in one hit which was quite really a huge learning curve for me but a enjoyable and unique experience but I had a lot of hard work.
Well, let’s go back a step from there. You have a physio business. So when did you move to Bright? When, how long, when, when did you type in?
I never really moved permanently until 2020 so I was there pretty much full time. Bright, Harrodville, Mount Hotham. I had a base at Harrodville which is in between the two which is a nice little quiet little town. Or as Bright is now a very busy town and Hotham as we were discussing is on and off, not too much going on up there. So in 2020, with the impact of COVID, everything else, I was already living there, so I just decided to stay there full time.
I mean, you know, that’s physio. So when did you first start take over the physio practice in Bright?
That was probably 15, 16 years ago. So there was a slow evolution of growing that from a two or three person operation, just operating out of a room in a house and operating out of a room in a medical centre to its own purpose. We found some other spaces and renovated them and put Pilates studios in them.
So that’s a process that evolved about 14 or 15 years ago. And then about 12 years ago, we took over the physio service on Mount Hotham.
Yeah. Okay. Fair enough. And then, so that was for about, so that was about 15, 15 years ago. So 10 years into that too, you, you move into a rest empty restaurant space in Mount Hotham as well.
Yeah, so there was, we’re looking for space at Mount Hotham and there just wasn’t any because of the, as I mentioned, there’s just no development there, commercial development there for decades. And the only space really available and that made any kind of sense at all was this closed down restaurant and bar. And it was quite big. It had a fully equipped commercial kitchen downstairs and three sort of spaces upstairs. So I took one of those spaces and turned that into the physio clinic and reopened the restaurant and established a cafe. It was never open during the day, it had always been a restaurant just at night.
So I put a coffee machine in there and made it into a cafe during the day as well. It was sort of a diversification of income as COVID hit, as we all felt the impact of one or two or other of our businesses retracting, we all had to find other ways. So it was diversifying the income stream while we were all sort of biding our time and not knowing how long this would all take. So I’d always been interested in the whole hospitality scene and the cookery stuff. And as a teenager, I’d worked in hospitality a little bit. So it was an amalgamation of some of the skills I’d had under my belt a long time previously.
So you started up, you’re going to make this into a cafe or into a restaurant. How did it go from a space to open your physio clinic to I’m going to open a restaurant, a bar as well.
Well, the physio, so if you remember 2020, the ski season actually started and we just, we started the physio clinic but after four days the season was shut down. So everything was still there, all the restaurant equipment, everything in the kitchen was downstairs was still there.
So as the season ended and the lifts stopped turning, there were still a couple of hundred people living on Hotham who decided to stay there and work and most of them were working from home obviously. All the other hospitality venues shut and I remained open and I sort of became the provider of all things for that like a tiny little community of a couple of hundred. So we started serving the coffee, setting some meals, if you remember we were also restricted in travel like we couldn’t travel more than five kilometers remember that rule except that as a as a as a restaurant I could go and get supplies from bright and so I was permitted to do that.
And so I sort of had a food ordering process going there as well so people could order bread and all kinds of things. So I was even selling at one point selling newspapers at the place. So it just kind of it just rolled along and evolved and then 2020 went like that; visitors and the season actually stayed open. So we had more customers and more work to do. Took some more stuff on and we opened the, you know, we expanded the menu and just got things going to another level.
And then 2022 was a semi-normal season, still suffering a little bit from restriction. And then this year was a really… 22 was reasonable, and this year was something close to a normal season, although the snow conditions were poor this year, so the season’s quite short.
What about the staffing side? Because I mean, you know, physio, so it’s hard enough to get, I mean, you know, how did you find both staff from a regional perspective and then, you know, staffing a restaurant is very different to staffing a physio clinic as well.
It is, and then you have the other layer of complexity of it being seasonal and a third impact which is the lack of staff accommodation and that is everywhere but in particular any sort of tourism destinations now there’s a big crunch on staff accommodation because what happened in COVID is people moved out of the cities and they bought property in all regional areas and they are trying to get return on their investment. So a lot of those properties have been converted to Airbnb. So a lot of the accommodation space on Hotham on the mountain has changed hands and become visitor accommodation rather than staff accommodation.
So there’s less and less and less staff accommodation available and literally hardly any so then it became the position for me that I really couldn’t have a business unless I supplied staff accommodation, so I had to buy another apartment so I could even have staff so I could even have a business So it’s another, you know, a layer of difficulty not just at Hotham but in those sort of tourism destinations and I think we’ve all heard about that. And that’s not a problem that’s going to go away quickly because that needs a lot of infrastructure and a whole rethink of where staff can stay, where staff can live to be able to work in these regional areas.
So I’m very lucky because I’ve retained staff over the last four years. I’ve had a core who’ve come, you know, I’ve had a core of two or three who’ve come back every year and they’ve had friends and also in ski resorts you have this itinerant workforce who go to work in Japan or somewhere during our summer because they love the snow and they come and work at Hotham during our winter.
And they’ll go to where they can get their accommodation or where they get their better offer of part-time work but they’re there to ski and the work sort of thing is on the side, so sometimes the work ethic is not ideal, and I’ve had some difficult – most of my people have been fantastic but I have had some difficulties with some staff who’s worth their ethic has fallen short and I’ve had that experience where I’ve had to let people go over the last few years. So that’s something you’ve got, it’s very difficult but you’ve got to learn, move on from that so you can make your business stronger.
I mean, it’s, we’re sort of a first service based business in our health where you’re your product, your service is the people there. And it’s, it’s hard enough to be very, you have to be very selective about who you choose, because they represent your brand and your service and what the customers say or feel. And hospitality, even more transient. And as you said, they’re there for one purpose, skiing, and then they have to do some work on the side. It’s not exactly what they’re there for. But they’re still there providing the service that represents your company and your brand.
Yeah, well like I said I’ve had some terrific people at the core, but one person in the team can make it who’s not a good team player and pulling for the team makes it very difficult for everyone so I’ve had that experience a couple of times.
On the physio side though, even though I’ve had different individuals from one season to the next, I’ve also been very lucky with the people that I’ve been able to acquire and they’ve been fantastic. But they’ve moved on and I can’t get them again, back again the year after and sort of have to source somebody new. So that’s the same thing’s gonna happen this season coming. I’m gonna have to source somebody new. But we’ll see, you know, we’ll see how we go. I’ve been pretty lucky so far.
Is it worth it? Was it worth it? Would you do it again?
It was worth it. I think hospitality is a very, very physically demanding. I mean the hours are incredibly long. There’s so much. It’s not just the hours of the food service, but the hours in preparation and preparation is the key.
So you can run a food service efficiently and smoothly. And then there’s all the cleaning and sanitization requirements afterwards that are getting, as you can imagine, they’re getting more and more demanding. There’s hours and hours afterwards. And even though as I said my team’s terrific, there’s sometimes a lack of attention to detail and you find yourself redoing things that haven’t been done properly the first time around so there’s a lot to the hospitality game.
And the second part of the question is would I do it again? I think I’ve probably passed the age. I think it’s definitely a young person’s game and even though I feel, you know, I felt young and I had the energy to do it all, I can’t actually believe I did it at the age that I am. So I’m looking to wind back. Definitely the restaurant and cafe business is being sold. And I’ll just see how I go continuing the physio business up there. I’ve still got commitments in Melbourne, I’m doing quite a lot of teaching in Melbourne at Swinburne, as you know, there’s an exciting, growing physio program there that I’m a part of. And as you know, I’ve always been involved in teaching, it’s something I really love, so I’m going to refocus my efforts back on that.
You know, COVID shot a huge hole in a lot of people’s lives and made them sort of move and re-evaluate what they’re doing. I think I’ve had my fun over this sort of four-year period and learnt a hell of a lot. A lot of spin-offs happened from it. I’ve become acutely aware of the environment. I love the mountain environment and some of the impacts on it and something I’m really passionate about is the impact of the feral deer, the deer population up there that do a lot of damage to the alpine environment. So I started serving a lot of wild venison in the restaurant to try and literally eat the problem.
So kill literally kill two birds with one stone and that’s something I’ve been continuing to do and I’ve sort of Developed an interest in what to do about what to do about the feral animal problem in the Alpine Northeast So that’s something I’m really passionate about and if you go to the Carlton farmers market or the Alphington Farmers market you’ll find me there selling wild venison bratwurst on a weekend.
Wow. So where do you find time to do teaching selling venison in a farmer’s market on a Sunday, still running a physiotherapy practice and it sounds like you still got the restaurant bar at some stage in the background too?
Well, it is in the background. It’s closed at the moment The teaching is part-time three or four days a week. So and then yeah, I guess At some point I’m gonna have to slow down and let go one or two of those things, but at the moment that’s what I’m doing. Somehow the time comes from somewhere. No days off.
I’ll ask that final question. You’ve ran a physio practice for quite a long time and then the restaurant bar came into it too. How did you split your time? Because I mean, as you said, it’s not just the service time, it’s the preparation beforehand, the service, and then the cleaning afterwards. And then you still got a physio business in three locations at the same time.
Yeah, well a lot of that was having other people alongside me and the confidence to delegate, finding people that you’re confident to delegate to work to and getting the right sort of help. So that’s, and you would understand this as well as you can’t be in five places at once.
So finding the right people, spending the time training them on what to do and just giving them the feedback as they need it and keeping them on track. But at some point, definitely letting go and letting them put their enthusiasm and their expertise into effect. So what I have done at the business in Bright and Myrtleford, I’ve now sold my share of that to my two business partners. They’re doing fantastic job with it and I couldn’t split my time efficiently like that. So at some point you do have to make that decision of where you’re going to focus your time. And I think I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve had people that I’ve been able to delegate to in the past, hand over the reins to and then pursue my other passions going forward.
Any final thoughts as we wrap up for today?
I think if there’s something you’re passionate about, it’s a little bit of a cliche, but if there’s something that’s inspiring you and burning you inside in terms of your passion, have a go at it. Like pursue it, go as far as you can for as long as you can with that. But if it’s something that is starting to tie you out, then don’t be afraid to move on. Hand over the reins to somebody else and move on and try something else.
So what’s happening you’ll be sort of understanding what I’m about to say that I’m nearing the age of retirement but retirement nowadays just means that you’re now focusing on something different doing something different to what you were doing before so don’t be afraid to try new things and follow your passions that way as far as it can take you.
Great, fantastic. Well, that’s some really good insights. It’s just, it’s amazing story. I mean, you know, what you’ve been able to do in your life and of different things of within the physiotherapy profession, but also the entrepreneurial drive. It sounds like from day one, that drive was always there. I want to do something I’m passionate about as well. You know, within a field that you really loved as well.
Yeah, well I would say the same thing about you Michael, that you know many years ago when we ran that small private practice in one of the luxury hotels in Melbourne I could see that driving you and that was why I was happy to hand that business over to you to see where you could take it.
Well, thanks very much for your time. It’s been a great interview as well. I thought there’s been a lot of learnings in that too. Next time we’re going to speak to some other great business people as well about what they’ve learned running in business. Thanks for your time again, Henry.
Amazing, thank you, have a great day.
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