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Dena Blackman & Danielle Robertson - Dial An Angel

05 September 2011

It began with an advertisement in the local newspaper in 1967 for “100 angels”. The traits, carefully described in the ad by trained pharmacist and mother of three at the time, Dena Blackman, garnered a lot of reader attention. Even before Dena had a chance to find her first angels – let alone interview them to check their credentials and suitability – she’d received calls from 22 women wanting ‘one of what she was having’, and happy to go on a waiting list until they were available.

Now Australia’s leading agency in home and family care and the only one of its kind in the country, Dial-An-Angel has 10 national offices incorporating a franchising division, employs 75 office staff and countless casual ‘Angels’ who carry out the work of the business.

Throughout its almost 45-year history, a few things remain constant: services such as Dial-An-Angel can increase productivity by freeing up the labour market; reduce government spending on care and, the demand for them always outstrips supply.

“From Day One, it’s been about finding the skills. Recruitment is our major issue,” says Danielle Robertson, Dial-An-Angel’s CEO and Dena’s youngest daughter.

Dena says, with hindsight, the newspaper ad was a naïve start but that she had to begin somewhere. She even has the original books documenting every phone call around what clients were after and whether her service could answer their needs.

“Of course, that sort of stuff is all IT’d [on a database] now,” explains Dena, cutting across the recruitment conversation to provide historical context.

Sitting in Danielle’s office in the company’s Edgecliff headquarters, the mother and daughter’s easy business symbiosis is occasionally unsettled by small disagreements over company history details. Dial-An-Angel is a family business and the interplay between Dena and Danielle provides an insight into that unique business structure.
Danielle admits one of her key stepping stones for getting where she is now, was to understand her mother, listen and learn the ropes: “My mother mentored me and believed in me. For many years, I was under the impression I needed an MBA or similar to run a business, but with 25 years’ experience behind me, I know that’s not what it takes. No one can do everything. It’s why I make it a rule to employ people smarter than myself.”

Rules are meant to be broken
Both Danielle and Dena describe their management styles as hands-on and in touch.
“Losing touch can do damage to the business,” says Danielle.

“At one stage,” she continues, by way of explanation, “I took myself out of the process of recruiting office team members. What I noticed was new employees had the skills and looked good on paper, but they’d start and I’d meet them and think: what are they doing here? They didn’t fit the culture, which is very family oriented. In the end, I stepped back into the final decision-making process and it’s made a big difference to the culture of the organisation.”

Dena points out (almost in the same breath) that the very singular nature of the business means: “It’s never been our scene to sit in a room with a closed door having the information fed through to us. It just wouldn’t be appropriate. This is a people industry, an industry inside people’s families and homes. Understanding what is going on with staff, customers, clients, is critical. Not to mention the fact the business must meet the stringent requirements placed on it by the law as well as those placed upon it by our different stakeholders.”

Three in One
“There are other agencies doing parts of what we do,” Danielle chips in. “But we’re the only one-stop shop. We do it all: clean, care for children and the aged. We meet multi-generational needs. It’s like running three different businesses beneath one umbrella and to do that successfully we have to be across all the issues in those businesses.”

Issues, which Danielle and Dena are quick to point out together, differ from state to state, territory to territory, as well as industry to industry.

“Part of our strategic plan is to set up our own training,” Danielle continues. “The return on investment will be picking the best for Dial-An-Angel, which has grown organically over the years. Since becoming CEO, I’ve taken a more clinical look at the business and planning ahead. We are now formalising ‘where we are’ and ‘where we are heading’. We’ve introduced professional business structures without ‘corporatising’ the business, setting up systems and streamlining processes.”

And all this is being done with the view in mind of meeting the growing needs of the community. In a recent Radio National program, Danielle joined with a number of commentators, including Hugh MacKay, to speak on trends in outsourcing, which figures show is worth billions of dollars as an industry and which are on the rise. In light of that growth and its potential, Danielle has formulated a clear vision for where she sees the business in five and 10 years’ time.

IT almighty
“System implementation has been very important, particularly over the past two years. We are now on our third database roll out (which is always difficult because it requires change and people dislike change).

“We are also about to revolutionise the industry with the introduction of electronic time sheets, reducing paper, wasted time and administration costs. Our Angels can press in a pin on the client’s phone and then the same when they leave. We’re also investing in a GPS module, which serves to tell us Angels have arrived safely. Inbuilt in this is security for our staff. They can pin a third time to SMS they’re home safely, after a late shift for example.”

One of the growing areas of the business is the greater and greater demand from corporates, which understand that to retain their best work force they need to be able to offer emergency care services when necessary, as well as incentives and bonuses for employees working above and beyond the usual.

“We have a number of corporate clients who use our services if there is an emergency and an employee’s usual family care plans fall through. Paying the cost to know the employee can be on the job and stress free is important. We also find corporates are providing domestic duties packages to employees as a ‘thank you’,” says Danielle.
(Dena points out this is not a new area: the Australian Navy has used Dial-An-Angel in a similar way, often in remote areas, for many years.)

Do these two powerhouse women have a shared bugbear?
Certainly both Dena and Danielle believe that to run a successful business you employ for the skills you don’t have but do need as well as for the skills you might have but don’t always have the time to exercise. Running a family is a very similar process and the quicker government realizes this, think Dena and Danielle, the better.

On International Women’s Day this year, Dial-An-Angel formed and launched an alliance called to lobby government for a system that will allow families and by default the whole workforce the chance to “run better”: “We are not Government Funded and would like to see the 50 percent childcare rebate (for childcare centres/family day care) become applicable to all in-home care (childcare and eldercare nursing).

Registered Childcare (which is what we come under) means the client can only receive a maximum of 58c per hour rebate (a lot of paperwork for not much rebate). It’s totally inequitable. Additionally, we would like to see some sort of tax deduction or rebate applicable to those people paying for eldercare or nursing or disability care in their own homes. There is currently no incentive for people to remain in their own homes.”

Using various surveys, Family Business Australia, the peak body for family owned and private businesses in Australia, has compiled some key industry statistics that provide a great snapshot about where Dial-An-Angel fits in the scheme.
o    Family businesses account for around 70% of all businesses in Australia
o    The average number of employees is 37
o    $4.3 trillion is the estimated wealth of the sector
o    81% of owners intend to retire in the next 10 years generating a wealth transfer of  $3.5 trillion
o    41% intend to pass the business to family members
o    61% of family business owners would seriously consider selling if approached
o    44% of family business owners are planning to sell their business
o    11% of all family business owners are female
o    89% of family business owners are male
o    7% of daughters are actively involved in the business compared with 35% of sons
o    Sons are five times more likely to succeed the current CEO than daughters.