At a glance
As a commercially trained accountant, Chris Mamarelis FCPA had not anticipated one of his career highlights to be helping a man to tie his shoelaces.
Yet that is the reality for the CEO of Whiddon, an industry-leading, not-for‑profit aged-care organisation. Whiddon cares for about 3000 people through residential aged care, community care and retirement living options.
During the pandemic, Mamarelis and his team piloted a pain management program called Exercise 4 Life in three of the organisation’s aged-care homes. With a focus on “reablement”, the aim of Exercise 4 Life is to give elderly residents more independence and a better quality of life.
“One gentleman just wanted to be able to tie his shoelaces on his own,” Mamarelis recalls. “Through the reablement program, exercise physiology and ongoing assistance, he was able to achieve that goal.”
Exercise 4 Life was recognised in the 2022 innovAGEING Awards for its efforts to increase access to care and services. The program also complements a range of in‑house projects that are designed to support staff.
For Mamarelis, such initiatives reflect Whiddon’s dual commitment to residents and its dedicated team of more than 2500 employees.
“We want to positively impact the lives of our residents, clients and the people who are providing that care,” he says. “That’s where our focus is now and where it will continue to be.”
Dedicated to the aged-care sector
Mamarelis has more than 25 years of financial and managerial experience across aged care, travel, hospitality, sports administration and retail.
He has also held several board appointments and currently sits on the New South Wales Member Advisory Committee for the Aged & Community Care Providers Association (ACCPA).
The aged-care sector has endured significant challenges – and criticism – as a result of the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety in 2018.
More recently, the sector has been affected by pandemic‑related pressures. Whiddon has been an outlier, receiving praise for its level of care and services.
The company caters to about 1600 residential aged-care places in more than 20 locations across New South Wales and Queensland.
Mamarelis is grateful that he can apply his commercial sector experience to the not‑for‑profit space. After a long stint as Whiddon’s CFO, Mamarelis took the reins as CEO in 2015 and has overseen several wellbeing programs centred on both employees and residents.
Whiddon is known for initiatives such as Hen Power, an animal‑therapy program that engages participants in hen keeping, to reduce loneliness and promote health and wellbeing.
It also led the charge with innovative point‑of‑care COVID-19 testing initiatives for aged-care employees and residents during the pandemic.
This included the overhaul of the centralised kitchen model at its homes, replacing them with home-style kitchens.
“Commercially, it makes sense to have a centralised kitchen, particularly if you have four or five homes on the one campus,” Mamarelis says.
“However, if you’re a resident and you are consuming that food, it is often cold and mass produced, even though it is cooked on site.
“We listened to our residents, who wanted a change. The positive consumer feedback we now receive regarding our food is around the 90 per cent mark, which, in aged care, is kind of crazy. We’re very proud of it.”
Good PR is good for business
Another element that sets Whiddon apart from many aged-care providers is its embrace of public relations and marketing.
In an industry that has often been “burnt” by the media, Mamarelis believes that the wider public and communities need to hear positive messages about aged care.
“It’s about changing perceptions and focusing on the good work that people are doing in aged care,” he says.
Mamarelis’s standing and experience within the sector led to him providing expert evidence at two Royal Commission hearings, one on relationship‑based care and another on aged‑care funding. With the former, he had a chance to explain how Whiddon has been able to provide the sort of high-quality care that has eluded some competitors.
“With relationship-based care, it’s a very simple concept,” he says. “For us, it’s about ensuring that the same people are rostered on to look after the same residents. You are encouraging and supporting the relationship to deliver better outcomes.”
Under questioning from the commissioners, Mamarelis admitted that a lack of funding and resources can make aged care a tough sector in which to operate. How can this be overcome? “I said to them, ‘Well, you have to find a way if you’re going to be true to what you’re doing as an organisation’.”
One key for Whiddon, in addition to meeting the needs of residents, is to bring employees along for the journey, too.
“We focus on two things as an organisation. First, it’s about having a positive impact on our residents and clients and improving their lives. Second, in the past five years, we’ve also ensured that our people are squarely in the centre of that equation as well.”
Whiddon created the concept of an Aged Care Employee Day in 2018. This celebrates the work of cooks, leisure officers, nurses, cleaners and laundry employees, plus many more who are instrumental in providing care for aged-care residents.
Mamarelis says copious research indicates that employees are driven by the purpose of the organisation for which they work. Workplace fulfilment typically sits above factors such as remuneration and career progression for many people.
“It’s important to stay true to your purpose and to give your employees line of sight to that purpose and your business outcomes.
“I don’t come up with all the ideas. I’ve got a great team of people around me who know they have licence to innovate and focus on our purpose as an organisation. That helps us, and it helps them, too,” he says.
ROI through a new lens
Whiddon has won a string of industry awards under Mamarelis’s leadership, and the company’s annual revenues are now approaching A$200 million.
Headwinds loom, however, in an aged‑care sector that is facing both funding and reputational issues.
Mamarelis has applied some of the lessons from his time in the commercial sector to the for-purpose space. He notes that, as a student accountant, the focus was on elements such as returns on investment (ROI) and internal rates of return.
"When you work for a for-purpose organisation, you have to reimagine your approach. There’s no ROI on a music and dementia program that might cost $500,000.
“The ROI is seeing residents with dementia come to life and smile after they have listened to a playlist that you’ve co-designed with family based on music that played a major part of their lives.”
As an FCPA who also has an MBA from Macquarie University, Mamarelis has no doubt that having relevant commercial and accounting skills is crucial in the not‑for‑profit sector. “That’s certainly been invaluable in my role.”
He will continue to use such skills in the years to come as Whiddon helps put aged care in the spotlight for all the right reasons.
“It’s a good industry,” he says. “It’s a caring industry. The outcomes that we’re able to generate are quite incredible. I think the first step is about perceptions. We still have a lot of work to do with changing perceptions.”
As Mamarelis contemplates a new era for the aged-care sector, he hopes government and other investors will up the ante with funding, capital grants and workforce initiatives to promote the sector.
Other changes could involve initiatives such as allowing greater co-contributions from residents who can afford to pay.
“Those sorts of things are going to make aged care viable again. That’s when investment will flourish.”
One piece of career advice
“Ensure your personal values are aligned with your organisation of choice, so you can make a difference while also enjoying your career.”