Ryman Healthcare’s chief executive officer Simon Challies talks to INsite editor, JUDE BARBACK about how he learned to look beyond Ryman’s growth and make people the main focus.

As I sit down to interview Simon Challies, it occurs to me that despite my involvement with the industry for the past five years, I don’t really know much about its biggest player, Ryman Healthcare.

I have a Google Alert set up for Ryman Healthcare, and I receive almost daily updates about the company’s sharemarket performance or property development activity – but little that gives me a true sense of what drives New Zealand’s largest retirement village operator. Of all the retirement villages I’ve requested to visit over the past five years, Ryman has been the only one to consistently decline. And while Challies has been helpful in providing comment and discussing issues with me over the years, this is the first time we’ve met in person.

Just minutes earlier, I’d joined the delegates of the Retirement Villages Association (RVA) conference in a standing ovation for Challies. The audience had been visibly moved by Challies’ presentation – his first and last to the RVA conference, as he prepares to step down from the role at the end of next week.

Although he isn’t a familiar face at conferences, Challies’ name and reputation is known to everyone in the industry. He will have been with Ryman for 18 years.

In Challies’ job interview for the chief financial officer role in 1999, John Ryder and Kevin Hickman asked the young accountant what his ambition was, to which he responded, “I want your job!” A mere seven years later, he was in the chief executive’s chair.

It was only about a year later that Challies began to experience the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. He received an official diagnosis four years later. He informed senior management at Ryman, but his health issues remained largely a secret until last month.

Challies said while he had no intention of resigning any earlier, he knew that he’d eventually have to step down when he could no longer keep up the high levels of work demanded by the job. Over the last 12 months it gradually became too hard, he says. At times he was struggling with things like brushing his teeth, typing on his keyboard and juggling meds and Challies knew he had to call it a day.

“It has been such a relief to finally be able to talk publicly about my health,” he says.

During his time at the helm Ryman’s growth has been phenomenal.

But with the growth came warning signs.

“We got distracted by the numbers,” says Challies, “We were growing too fast. We got too big for our boots.”

Surveys showed Ryman’s success on the sharemarket was not reflected by the public’s perception of the company. A resident complaint at Malvina Major village did not help matters.

“In order to improve resident experience we had to try some radical things.”

‘Radical’ manifested itself in a series of social media stunts, including resident flash mobs and a resident and staff performance of Pharrell Williams’ hit song, Happy. The resulting ‘80 odd years of happy’ video generated over eight million views on YouTube.

Ryman had begun to reinvent itself.

However, Ryman’s internal ratings still showed lingering staff dissatisfaction. The senior staff – “Rymanians” – believed strongly in the company and took an anti-establishment, unconventional approach to Ryman’s operation. Yet these attitudes didn’t filter down to the 5000 staff across the 31 villages. When increasing pay rates didn’t improve matters it became clear that they needed to think a bit more outside the box.

The uniform was identified as one of the staff’s “biggest frustrations” and so the company decided to engage with designer Annah Stretton to completely overhaul the uniform. Following the success of the new uniform launch at the Evelyn Page village, Ryman went on a roadshow to every village, where caregivers were visibly delighted with their designer uniform, presented to them in beautiful packaging.

Ryman was on a roll and Challies continued to think of “off-the-wall” ideas to keep up the momentum. He drove a “Try a Little Kindness” campaign that recognized the efforts of staff at each village with a winner emerging from each village. The whole thing culminated in a company-wide party with each village connected by teleconference to celebrate the staff.

Challies said the Kindness tour had a profound effect on many: staff, residents and their families, the brothers who toured the villages to make the video, and even senior managers who were initially skeptical about the whole idea.

It strikes me that the Kindness tour could serve as a metaphor for Challies’ transformation during his time at Ryman. It is clear that his experience with Parkinson’s has had a deep impact on his leadership. He has become as aware of Ryman’s humanity as he is of its balance sheets.

“I was transformed from an accountant into someone more human,” he says, “No offence to accountants,” he adds with a grin.

Challies has been blown away by the letters and emails he has received from staff. He says while he expected the ‘thanks and best wishes’ variety, he was unprepared for the mass of letters from Ryman employees expressing their immense gratitude for the difference he has made to their personal and working lives.

He believes the biggest trap for RV operators to fall into, especially in times of growth, is just “being a builder”. Neglecting people at the expense of property development will inevitably see them fail, he says.

He discusses the importance of looking after all sides of the “holy trinity”: residents (and their families), staff, and shareholders. He says operators need to take risks and differentiate themselves.

Challies bristles slightly at the suggestion that Ryman’s size has allowed it to take more risks than other operators.

“That’s just scale. Kevin and John still took risks back in 1999,” he says.

Indeed they did. They charted their own course, and didn’t join the RVA until 2002.

Challies talks about Ryman’s latest big risk, and his last major project for the company: myRyman. The myRyman software will run on tablets in residents’ rooms containing all their information, including health records, medication, likes and dislikes and so on. It is expected to make life easier for staff, and provide more tailored and streamlined care for residents.

Challies is immensely proud of myRyman, having driven it to fruition. The touch-screen approach is important to him; as an effect of Parkinson’s, he has been unable to type. It will launch on 30 June, Challies’ last day with the company.

He has no unfinished business, he says. Although he would have like to have spent more time coaching people within the company, particularly the 350 team leaders, who oversee around 5000 staff.

I sense making a difference in people’s lives has become increasingly important to Challies, and I’m not overly surprised to hear that he is keen to get involved in helping start-up enterprises.

His family has been incredibly supportive, he says.

He was touched – and a little surprised, he adds with a glint – when his 16-year-old son Sam said he would be pleased to have his dad around more.

“Although I think [my wife] Tracey is a bit nervous about me being around the house more,” he jokes.

Despite his health struggles, it is clear Challies is leaving Ryman on a high. When I ask him about what the best bits have been, his response is simple, content, and just a touch wistful:

“The last few years have been phenomenal.”


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here