Leadership in aged care: the elements of success

Thursday, 06 June, 2024

Leadership in aged care: the elements of success

Juggling single motherhood, a costly legal battle and financial insecurity, aged care entrepreneur Chiou See Anderson’s unwavering drive propelled her to success. Here, she shares how she achieved her dream of building a retirement village that honours Eastern values of respect and care, writes LAINI BENNETT.

It’s Wednesday lunchtime and Chiou See Anderson is worn out. Surprisingly, it’s not because she owns and runs two large retirement villages, sits on three boards, contributes to government panels and simultaneously holds state, national and international women’s council positions.

No, this exhaustion comes from her favourite ‘job’ as grandma, babysitting her granddaughter 2.5 days a week with her husband. Anderson’s home looks like a whirlwind hit it, but she wouldn’t have it any other way. She wants the same close relationship with her grandchildren that she had with her grandmother, who raised the Singaporean-born mother of three while her parents worked.

Indeed, her grandmother was in part the inspiration behind the retirement village Anderson spent 15 years fighting to build. Her determination to bring her dream to fruition is a testament to her self-belief and can-do attitude.

Investing in the future

When Anderson was in her mid-thirties, she was a single mother of three children, juggling motherhood with working and pursuing a Master’s in Business Administration (MBA). Already an accomplished accountant, CPA and business manager, Anderson’s studies opened her eyes to the growing economy generated by the aged. She was determined to take her hard-won skill set and funnel it into her own business to meet the needs of retirees.

Much to the dismay of her children, she sold the family home to pay the 5% deposit on a vast tract of beautiful Brisbane bushland. She envisaged people like her grandmother enjoying the tranquillity of the forest and discovering friendships within the community. Confounded by perceived negative Western attitudes towards seniors, Anderson also wanted to introduce the Eastern values of respect and care into her retirement village.

For months, Anderson meticulously researched the ideal living conditions for her future residents. Following input from a local councillor, she spent almost a year doorknocking, with her children trailing behind her, to meet the council’s community consultation requirements.

So, she was stunned when the council refused the development application because her land was in a koala habitat zone — not understanding at that time that a council approval would set a precedent that would allow residential development for the surrounding 250 acres of pristine bushland. Determined to fight for her dream, Anderson prepared to go to court.

A nightmarish marathon

The lawyers quoted $300,000 in legal expenses, but as the court battle dragged out over the next 18 months, these blew out to $600,000. She juggled contract work and a PhD that came with a stipend trying to make ends meet. Amid the chaos, her beloved grandmother passed away.

“It was a nightmare, like this marathon that never finished,” Anderson said.

Nonetheless, Anderson hadn’t come this far to give up. Six years after buying the land, she finally began building the first tranche of 16 retirement homes, undertaking the marketing, legalities and financials when she struggled to find new employees.

“Why would they leave a comfortable job to work for a crazy single operator?” she said, referring to the fact she was new to the aged care industry with no established credentials.

When she looks back on those days, she can’t fathom how she found five families who believed in her vision enough to sell their homes and wait for her to complete the first stage. She has dinner with them every month and affectionately calls them her “suckers”.

“They bought a home from a random Asian woman standing on a big block of land, telling them, ‘This is my dream!’” she exclaimed.

It wasn’t until she turned 50 that she finished building the last stage of the now fully occupied 123-home Elements Retirement Living village, a testament to her resilience and self-belief.

Chiou See and her residents.

Laini Bennett interviews successful career women about their leadership lessons learned. Visit lainibennett.com to read more stories about inspiring women.

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