A meaningful mission

  • Date:01 Dec 2015
  • Type:Company Director Magazine

IRT’s Nieves Murray is focused on creating communities to help seniors and change the face of retirement living and aged care. Tony Featherstone reports.

Nieves Murray MAICD says being the CEO of IRT Group is much more than a job. Leading one of Australia’s largest community-based lifestyle and care organisations is, for Murray, a way of life. And, an opportunity to help thousands of seniors as the population rapidly ages.

Like all great not-for-profit (NFP) leaders, Murray has unmistakable passion for her organisation’s mission, which is to create communities where seniors achieve their optimum quality of life – an escalating challenge as demand for aged care rises.

“I love my job because it inspires me every day,” says Murray. “NFP leaders are passionate about making a positive difference to their community. Most I know don’t stop working for their community when they leave their office. They are volunteering, advocating change, and supporting other NFPs.”

At a time of rising CEO turnover, Murray has led IRT since 2006 and talks about the need for NFP boards to challenge their CEO to remain current and continue to grow. “Being in the role for almost a decade has provided consistency of purpose and culture, but that’s not to say we don’t evolve,” she says.

Murray shows the benefits of NFPs investing in their executive team – an occasionally contentious topic as some NFPs seek to minimise costs at the expense of stronger leadership and organisation growth. Executive education at Harvard Business School in 2008 pushed Murray out of her comfort zone and strengthened her resolve to be an active NFP leader.

“NFPs carry out important work and we must invest in their leadership,” she says. “It’s vitally important for NFP leaders to have access to the latest and best international knowledge so that they can apply it. [My studies] allowed me to step outside of my industry and immediate geography – and provided a broader perspective.”

A proud legacy

Murray and the IRT board are responsible for a proud legacy. IRT began in 1968 when Dr Max Diment led a plan for the first seniors’ living development in the Illawarra. Dr Diment was concerned that the only option for elderly patients requiring brief respite was hospital care. The Illawarra Retirement Trust began with $48 in a bank account.

IRT today serves almost 8,000 seniors in more than 35 communities in the Illawarra, South Coast of New South Wales, Sydney, South East Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory. Its asset base is $1.3 billion and it is rolling out a $200 million capital expenditure program. It has more than 2,200 employees, a quarter of them are aged 55 or over.

IRT now provides lifestyle communities, care centres, and in-home care services, and operates IRT Catering and IRT College, providing specialist catering and training to the care sector. It has also built Australia’s first community for ageing people with intellectual disability and their primary carers at Kanahooka in the Illawarra.

Murray’s interest in aged care began in the 1980s when she joined a local area health service. She joined IRT in 1992 to build what is now known as In-Home Care, left in 2004 to work for Australian Unity, and was asked by the IRT board to return as CEO in 2006.

Murray’s interest in aged care began in the 1980s when she joined a local area health service. She joined IRT in 1992 to build what is now known as In-Home Care, left in 2004 to work for Australian Unity, and was asked by the IRT board to return as CEO in 2006.

Older people now outnumber children in some New South Wales communities for the first time. By 2050, one in four Australians – almost 9 million people – will be aged 65 or over, according to Treasury’s latest Intergenerational Report. Commercial enterprises and NFPs will need to meet soaring demand for aged-care facilities.

“The growing need for affordable housing for seniors and changing customer expectations will drive the sector’s evolution,” says Murray. “Only 5 per cent of seniors want to live in retirement villages, so new housing models will take root, supported by clever technology and flexible in-home care services.”

Murray, a director of the Property Council of Australia’s National Retirement Living Council, says governments need to act to enable providers such as IRT to build communities at a faster rate.

Murray, a director of the Property Council of Australia’s National Retirement Living Council, says governments need to act to enable providers such as IRT to build communities at a faster rate.

“If they don’t, the Property Council is predicting a seniors’ housing crisis by 2025 because by then there won’t be enough villas or units to house the 400,000 seniors in the market for one.” Governments, at least, recognise the scale of the problem, says Murray. “I am seeing a real commitment from all levels of government to work with the aged care and retirement living industry to tackle these challenges and opportunities head on.”

The introduction of consumer-directed care into in-home care services is the first step in national policy reform in aged care. The next step is the rollout of consumer-directed care into residential care and deregulation of the market. The Aged Care Approvals Round Funding model is being reviewed, as is aged-care spending within the broader Federal Government health portfolio. “There’s a lot happening in regulation,” says Murray. “But we also need to invest more in innovation to inform new services that are responsive to customers, not regulation.”

Future services

Murray believes consumer-directed care will underpin future aged-care services by enabling seniors to choose where and how they live. And technology will play a bigger role as “smart houses” collect data via sensors, learn a person’s daily routine, and send alerts to health professionals if needed. This will allow more seniors to live at home for longer.

Alternative seniors housing models will also feature. Murray says intergenerational share housing with students and older Australians is being piloted, and communities where seniors share a house and form an instant support network are proving successful in Canada.

“The seniors revolution has already begun,” says Murray. “Baby boomers are changing the face of retirement living and aged care, just as we have done to every industry we’ve navigated.

“We want age-appropriate housing that supports an independent and active lifestyle, and flexible services that support us to live the life we want.”

Murray says the IRT board, led by chairman Bruce Allan MAICD, is helping the executive team navigate these and other challenges.

Effective NFP boards, she says, have a strong belief in the organisation’s mission and values; have a clear understanding of the challenges and opportunities; support the strategy to grow the business and give back to the community; and have diverse skills, perspective and experience.

A health professional by training (she majored in psychology), Murray has been a crisis counsellor at Lifeline since 2009 and supports the St Vincent de Paul Society by helping her local “Vinnies Van” feed people sleeping rough and establishing the Wollongong CEO Sleepout.

“These roles have enabled me to give back to my community in a very personal and direct way. My life is enriched by the interactions I have with people from all walks of life.”

Murray wants to give more back to NFP governance. She is a director of the Community Alliance Union and the healthcare facilitator at consortium Coordinaire; a member of the University of Wollongong Council, and of the Illawarra Community Advisory Panel to the Parliamentary Secretary for the Illawarra and NSW South Coast.

“Board work has given me great insights into the challenges directors face and how easy it is for CEOs and boards to fall into operational matters and lose sight of strategy,” she says.

“It has also strengthened my appreciation of the role of the board and my focus on our governance. I’d really like to continue board work, but it’s all about balance, because I have a busy day job.”

“It has also strengthened my appreciation of the role of the board and my focus on our governance. I’d really like to continue board work, but it’s all about balance, because I have a busy day job.”