Physiotherapy: Tristan White

Tristan White never dreamed that one day he would be appointed one of Australia's next generation of business leaders by SmartCompany.

Helping seniors stay safe, mobile and happy

Tristan White (BPhysio 2002) always thought his career would take him to private practice; a busy suburban sports practice with a steady stream of AFL clients was what he had in mind.

He never dreamed that one day he would be appointed ‘one of Australia’s next generation of business leaders’ by SmartCompany, nor that the company he founded, The Physio Co, would be named No. 1 in BRW’s list of Australia’s 50 Best Places to Work in 2014.

The Physio Co cares for elderly clients in aged care settings and was founded on the professional satisfaction White discovered in his work with older clients. “I enjoy working with the elderly because the impact of physiotherapy has such a significant effect on their quality of life,” he explains.

“I could also see there was an opportunity to work in aged care. It’s been the ugly duckling of the health world for a long time, but I loved doing it.”

In February 2004 White got his first subcontracting job—12 hours a week with thirty elderly people in a nursing home in Preston. Demand for his services quickly escalated and within a year he founded ‘The Physio Co’, a company that now employs around 100 staff and will deliver more than 200,000 physiotherapy consultations to Australian aged-care residents this year.

White readily admits that his personal journey from physiotherapist to company manager has been slightly less than smooth:

“After five years of The Physio Co I had 20 physios working for me, all at different aged care facilities. From the outside that looks like a very successful practice, which it was, but personally, I was not fulfilled.

“I'd moved from being a physiotherapist doing what I loved—helping elderly people—to having 20 people report to me. I'd become a supervisor and administrator but I hadn't empowered people to be able to make their own work decisions and be independent in their jobs. My phone rang all day and all night with ordinary requests from a client or a client's family, or a nursing home calling back to check with me on everything.

“That was not the type of business that I had set out to build. I wanted my work to be with people that were inspiring but instead I felt dragged down by the weight of the organisation I had created.”

After a period of international travel analysing other business models in similar industries, White adopted the concept of a ‘values-based’ business model for The Physio Co. To focus on the culture of his organisation he set four core values, devolved the decision-making, built mentoring teams, and empowered all team members and leaders to take responsibility for their role in The Physio Co.

The Physio Co’s core purpose is very clear: The Physio Co exists to help seniors stay mobile and happy.  Its four core values are: Respect Everyone, Be Memorable, Find a Better Way, and Think Big, Act Small. White is convinced The Physio Co’s clear purpose and values are key to its success, the proof of which is the external recognition the company has received: every year since 2009 The Physio Co has been rated as one of the best places to work in Australia.

“In my mind, having a strong culture is about having an aligned organisation. You have a whole lot of people all lined up like a school of fish moving in the same direction achieving something together. If we're all flying off in different directions then it's not really going to work,” says White.

‘‘It took us five years to develop a clear, core purpose for The Physio Co but we’ve stuck to it and it has guided the business through thick and thin. It also helps attract the right staff.  Having colleagues who are more autonomous in their jobs has allowed me to focus on growing the business and given me back my time with my young family,’’ he says.

White maintains that happiness is the most significant part of his core purpose and business success.

“The ‘mobile’ and ‘safe’ parts are physical and physio-specific but the ‘happiness’ part of our core purpose is hard to define. It's so personal. No one knows what makes another person happy unless you ask and spend time together and really care for that person.”

It follows then that a large part of The Physio Co’s initial training program for new staff members is listening skills.

“There's the physical part of aged physio but there's also the friend and listener part. Success and career satisfaction in this industry is all about human interaction and being the best communicator you can possibly be. I don't think you can be a good practitioner if you are not a good communicator.”

This principal extends to White’s advice for new physio graduates.

“Being a good communicator starts with listening closely. I would encourage students and new graduates to practice really listening to people. When you're listening closely then you can respond in an appropriate way. Something as simple as listening is the key to becoming a valuable contributor to your career and your profession,” he says.

As well as nursing homes, The Physio Co now operates in retirement villages providing services to the individual residents. The company has a strategic partnership with the Aveo Group that manages 76 retirement villages all over the country, and remains on track to reach its ten-year goal of 2 million consultations.