Benetas CEO Sandra Hills has been on the corporate frontline. She has had her hands dirty. She knows what it takes to deliver the best care to those who need it most. Sandra is putting the ‘human’ back into human services. 

In 2009, the Benetas brand was under pressure. The organisation was caught up in controversy stemming from a series of deaths related to suspected salmonella poisoning at one of its aged care homes.

Sandra Hill was up to the challenge

It was the challenge of turning this around that first attracted Sandra to the role. “When I joined the company, I had to prepare for a coronial inquest,” Sandra remembers. “The business was losing $8 million a year. As a result, we had difficulty attracting and retaining quality staff. We were forced to look at our clinical practices. As you can imagine, we had a demoralised staff. For me, it was about finding out where the pressure point was and working out what the priorities were.” 

With a background in nursing, Sandra is no stranger to the triage process. She understands that swift and direct action is required when haemorrhaging occurs. This was the situation she was faced with when taking over the helm at Benetas. “We had to start stemming the flow of this haemorrhaging, particularly in the financial areas,” Sandra says.

Sandra Hills, CEO of Benetas
Sandra Hills, CEO of Benetas

“It was only then that we could regain the confidence of the Board and actually move forward. For us, it was about looking at where the low-hanging fruit was. We developed what we called ‘business improvement projects’. We started looking at the use of agency staff as well as attracting and retaining staff. We really looked at all the drivers of our business.”  

Moving Benetas forward

It was only after some hard reflection that Sandra started to move the company forward. The dark clouds of the past were starting to dissipate and it was time for Sandra and her team to capitalise on their hard work, all the while maintaining their mandate of human care. “At the time, the organisation did not have a strategic plan; we had to identify what our immediate business issues were. There were questions that needed to be asked: Where are we heading? What’s our vision?”

To answer these, she went about establishing her executive team. “It has never been a one-person show,” Sandra notes. “It was a matter of making sure we had the right people and that they knew what they had to do, that they had the skills and I had the support. From a business point of view, we needed to earn the confidence of the Board. Obviously, we needed to involve them and get their feedback.”

It has never been a one-person show. It was a matter of making sure we had the right people and that they knew what they had to do, that they had the skills and I had the support.

With the foundations of a strategic plan having been laid, it was time for Sandra to acknowledge the shifting sands of the aged care landscape and navigate government reforms. And she was no stranger to the political world, having worked at both local and state government levels. With a renewed focus on branding, Sandra had to apply her experience to deal with the might of the federal government, forced to interpret the ambiguity of Treasury to secure vital funding.

“The federal government provides us with about 70% of our funding. Understanding what it is like on the other side of the desk helped. There are stakeholders that you must think about. Having managed several human service areas from the other side, I would say I am a bit more sympathetic, but you can’t help but think of the best way to present information to a politician to advocate your cause,” Sandra explains. 

The Benetas credo: ‘Quality, Systems, People and Brand’

It is Sandra’s empathic stance that has been a point of difference in her approach to business. Her staff are expected to adhere to the Benetas credo of ‘Quality, Systems, People and Brand’ and are trained to demonstrate a caring nature and build rapport with clients; the business is about relationships rather than the bottom line. This is a mission that Sandra is not afraid to model personally.

“I miss the client interaction,” she says. “What I do is get out and about. I have a program for the whole year where I try to visit every site at least twice. We have 47 around Victoria, with just under half of those in rural areas. I don’t just do the CEO hand wave. I’ll help out in the kitchen, I’ll help out with an activity, I’ll go to the staff meeting; that’s what’s really important.”

I have a program for the whole year where I try to visit every site at least twice.

It is this emphasis on the practical that led Sandra and her team to implement a Customer Relationship Management System that allows Benetas to track calls from frontline operators, whether it is a social worker at a hospital or a cold caller looking for assistance.

“We now have the ability to send information and document how that information is used. We can call a customer back a week later and ask them if they have what they need. We have an adviser line, where the staff are trained and give real-time advice to people. We would never have had that a couple of years ago. You may think that isn’t amazing, but it is for this sector.”

A groundbreaking model of residential care

In fact, innovation is the hallmark of Sandra’s leadership of Benetas. Its groundbreaking model of residential care has created a nurturing environment, free from the traditional stigma of such facilities as impersonal and sterile, thus reflecting Sandra’s own ethic of care.

“It can be really uncomfortable for many people to visit those facilities when it’s too large; it’s confronting. Families feel more comfortable about visiting when there’s quite a lot of privacy. We’ve got just a small group of staff working with those residents. They can form more personal relationships. We’re encouraging that.”

The human face of Sandra’s mission is the 4,000 residents benefitting from her residential services model. As a reflection of this, Benetas was recently presented with the Leading Age Services Australia (LASA) ‘Excellence in People and Culture Award’ in 2017. Meanwhile, Sandra herself was recognised with an Order of Australia Medal in the General Division in this year’s Queens Birthday Honours List. 

The company, under its CEO’s direction, is evidently breaking down the walls of the idea that the ageing process equates to isolation from the community – and if the clients are the face, then Sandra is the heart.