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A Success Story for the Ages

18 January 2016 at 9:00 am
Xavier Smerdon
In just a few short years Sue Thomson has transformed her organisation, a Not for Profit aged care provider, from being on the brink of closure to one that is winning a slew of awards. Thomson is this week’s Changemaker. She spoke to Xavier Smerdon.

Xavier Smerdon | 18 January 2016 at 9:00 am


A Success Story for the Ages
18 January 2016 at 9:00 am

In just a few short years Sue Thomson has transformed her organisation, a Not for Profit aged care provider, from being on the brink of closure to one that is winning a slew of awards. Thomson is this week’s Changemaker. She spoke to Xavier Smerdon.

Sue Thomson is the CEO of McLean Care, an aged care provider that cares for around 1,000 people every day.

Based in the small Northern NSW town of Inverell, the organisation is tasked with covering an intimidatingly large area.

Just a few years ago it seemed that McLean Care was done. Financial challenges meant that it was struggling to stay afloat.

Today it employs around 300 people and Thomson and her team have been recognised as the NSW Aged and Community Services Organisation of the Year in 2015.

In this week’s Changemaker column, Thomson shares her views on what it takes to survive in an ever changing and challenging climate.

Tell me a bit about what McLean Care does.

Mclean Care is a Not for Profit aged care provider. We provide residential services, community care services and independent retirement living services. We cover a distance of about 105,000sq km in the New England and South West areas of NSW. It’s a really large operating area which has huge challenges.

What are some of those challenges?

Some of the challenges are travel distances and transport. That’s really key to some of the issues that confront us in our community and home care service delivery. What we find now, particularly with the CDC [consumer directed care] operations is people that live outside town limits, on rural properties for example, receive a lot less services under a CDC budget that those living within townships or metropolitan areas receive, which is really quite sad given that it’s supposed to be an equitable service. Clearly it isn’t when travel takes away from the client services. Obviously receiving really good pricing for our goods and services is another challenge.

Staff workforce is a huge, huge challenge, particularly when you’re dealing with service delivery models in small villages of around 300 people where you might not be able to get a staff member, and if you do you don’t necessarily have them long term because clearly they’re looking for some kind of stable employment and guaranteed hours, which you can’t necessarily give them if you’re only servicing one client in a village of 300 people. We have quite a transient workforce in some of our more remote areas.

We also compete with seasonal work like pecan nut picking or the cotton season out west. People can literally earn as much in six months working in those seasonal industries as they can working for us for 12 months. It’s not hard to make a choice there is it?

I understand a few years ago it looked like McLean Care would need to close down. How serious was the situation?

A couple of years ago we were confronted with many challenges, of which financial challenges were some of them. We had to move very swiftly to counteract that so that we would remain sustainable and viable for the future. Having said that, it has probably become almost a daily review now. I think, as a stand alone organisation, we have to, on a continual basis, review our status and not wait until the end of the financial year. It’s a continual review and a continual forecast every time we’re looking at a particular occupancy issue for example. It’s important that we sit down and look at what’s happening and what’s the root cause so that we truly understand our own business.

Your organisation has gone from that situation to being named the Aged and Community Services Organisation of the Year in 2015. How did you manage that turn around?

Resilience. We like to call ourselves resilient, that’s one of our values, and what we do to actually enact that is if we’re confronted with a problem, a situation, a change in legislation or a change in government policy, we don’t bemoan the fact and worry about what it’s going to do to our business, we say “ok, where’s the opportunity for us in this”. If we think along those lines and look for opportunity in every single thing that comes across our tables, then we have an attitude of being successful ingrained in our minds and we realise that success is there, we’ve just got to find where it is. Whereas if you’re looking at it from a point of questioning how you will be able to sustain changes, then that conjures up a negative perception immediately and you’re setting yourself up to fail almost. It’s about having a resilient attitude with a positive and opportunistic thought.

What advice would you give to other organisations that are facing the same kinds of threats?

I would say don’t give in at the outset thinking “we’re never going to make it”. It’s a lot like leadership, personal mastery is the most important thing in leadership. You can have the skills and all the knowledge but if you don’t have personal mastery, if you don’t know yourself, then you won’t make it. The same goes for your organisation. You have to really know your organisation, you have to know where your strengths are, where your weaknesses are and, if you see your weaknesses, you have to be able to eliminate it or build on it to turn it into a strength. And if you see a strength, you have to be able to capitalise on those strengths and leverage from that point to make your organisation grow. Looking at every single point of your organisation, looking at your own market, looking at what it is that you can capitalise on, before you even think about putting your hands up and saying “we can’t do it”.

For us, if we hadn’t really looked inwards first and fixed things from that personal organisational perspective, it would have been easier to hand over the keys and give up. For us it’s about looking for opportunities. If all organisations took that resilient approach they would be able to see themselves a little bit better and manage their destinations.

What is it that made you want to work in this field?

Specifically with the aged care sector, I have a passion for this industry and that passion grew over time. I got into aged care in the beginning because I could see that I had something to offer as a healthcare professional and I could see that I could make a difference immediately with some of the strengths that I had.

Over time that grew into having a passion for the industry itself. I wanted to see what I could actually contribute to the industry, not only from a knowledge perspective but from a change perspective to try and influence change. That’s another passion that’s developed over time where I wanted to see if I could make it better for everyone in terms of who can I talk to to make a change or what group can I belong to to try and influence change.

It’s a passion that has continued but the point I’m at now is different from my entry point. My focus has changed considerably. The never ending passion for aged care has always been the same but what I actually do with that passion has changed over time.

If you would like to nominate someone to be featured in our Changemaker column, please email

Xavier Smerdon  |  Journalist  |  @XavierSmerdon

Xavier Smerdon is a journalist specialising in the Not for Profit sector. He writes breaking and investigative news articles.

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