The right Way to start a business

Jeenee Mobile is not your typical family business, but the family behind its creation is anything but typical.

This week’s family business profile is not exactly a family business. Well, there’s a family involved and it’s a business, but there’s much more to it than that.

I'm talking about a new Australian mobile phone company called Jeenee Mobile, based in Parramatta and scrambling towards break-even after 18 months.

The family is the Ways: Robyn and two of her three children -- Jeremy, who runs Jeenee, and Melissa, who works for Robyn.

Robyn Way, 73, is the force of nature behind Community Connections Australia, a not-for-profit organisation that provides services for people with disabilities. And Jeenee Mobile is its very interesting entrepreneurial subsidiary, designed to help disabled people, and anybody else, to communicate, and to help them with anything else they might need, as well as help from CCA.

Robyn is actually the second generation of her family in this “business”, and Melissa and Jeremy are the third.

Robyn’s parents, the late Neil and Audrey McLeod, were the extraordinary couple who started the Spastic Centre of NSW, now known as Cerebral Palsy Alliance, because their first daughter, Jennifer, born in 1938, was profoundly disabled.

So the business of this remarkable family is disability services, and they are as dedicated to it through the generations as other families are to getting, and staying, rich.

Jeremy joined his mother at CCA four years ago, having spent a decade or so working in the “for-profit” sector, including a stint at McKinsey & Co.

It is interesting and challenging, but not fulfilling: now he reckons that as long as he can pay the mortgage and send his two kids to school, what matters is what you do, and whether you make a difference, not how much money you make.

He learned that from his mum, who learned it from her mum and dad. I wish I’d met them.

Neil McLeod was an orphan in rural Western Australia, one of five kids without parents, living with an uncle and aunt. They had one pair of shoes between them.

Neil left home at 12! He worked in the wheat fields, and when he was old enough he put himself through accounting school and got the top mark in the state.

He married Audrey in the early 1930s and worked as an accountant in Perth, and in 1938 their first child, Jennifer, was born. There’s apparently a heart-breaking daily diary in existence written by Audrey during Jenny’s first two years. It’s peppered with sentences such as: “Why won’t she sit up?”

Eventually Jennifer was diagnosed with what was then called spasticity, and the doctors advised the couple to put her in a home and forget about her -- to move on. That was, by all accounts, common practice in those days.

The McLeods refused to do that. Instead they went on a global search for some kind of treatment and eventually tracked down a research academic in the US who had had some success with the condition, so travelled to Sydney on their way to the US. War intervened, however, and they were stuck in Sydney, where they stayed.

Audrey used to put Jenny in the high chair and play an ABC radio program called Kindergarten of the Air and, as she watched, she could see that the child who had been declared “uneducable” was trying to do the movements being described on the radio. Audrey knew then that she could be educated.

She contacted the ABC and told them about it, and they sent out a reporter who did a story on Jennifer. That’s when the phone calls started up, from other parents in the same situation, looking for the same answers.

And so, in 1945, the McLeods put together a group of 15 families with children with cerebral palsy and together they started the Spastic Centre of NSW in a house that was lent to them in Queens Street, Mosman (it now forms part of Queenwood School).

With materials and labour that was begged and borrowed (not stolen), they built a treatment centre and school for children with cerebral palsy. Neil was chairman of the board and Audrey was honorary superintendent (CEO), a position she held for 40 years. That centre, and working with disability, took over their lives and, of course, the life of their second daughter Robyn, who was born in 1941.

Robyn, not disabled herself, grew up surrounded by disability, complaining that she only had legs, while everyone else had wheels, which was beastly unfair.

She started working for her parents at the Spastic Centre, but then worked in a series of charities such as the Quadriplegic Association and St Vincent de Paul.

As a result of the Richmond Report of 1985, the mid-1980s saw a great wave of de-institutionalisation of disability services, when disabled people were moved out of big institutions and into the community.

One of the smaller organisations formed to deal with this new approach was Residential Care Inc, a company limited by guarantee and funded by the NSW government as a pilot to support disabled people who were moving from institutions into their own homes. In 1988 it recruited Robyn Way, as she had then become, as CEO.

In 2001, the name was changed to Community Connections Australia, but it remained a state government-funded disability service provider, run by Robyn Way and with Don McKenzie, a former partner of Ernst & Young and CEO of Gadens Lawyers, as chairman.

A few years ago they could see there was a third wave of change coming to the disability sector, a sort of natural next step following the de-institutionalisation after the Richmond Report.

It was the funding of individuals instead of institutions: the disabled people themselves would get the money and choose how to spend it, and that idea has since culminated in the National Disability Insurance Scheme, now being piloted in several states.

Robyn Way and her board have always taken an entrepreneurial approach and they decided to find a way to fit in with the new paradigm for disability funding and the forthcoming NDIS. They recruited Robyn’s son Jeremy, and after lots of discussion and research by Jeremy, they decided to start a telco.

They approached the NSW government for money and persuaded the bureaucrats and politicians that disabled people were poorly served by telecommunications companies because they were usually high maintenance customers who were also poor -- that is, they are high cost, low value.

They got $9 million in two tranches, mainly to set up a call centre. Except Jeremy persuaded his board, and the government, that it had to be attached to an actual telco in order to work, so the price could be kept low.

And so Jeenee Mobile was born 18 months ago, based on the Optus 4G network, and with a 22-person, 24-hour call centre in Parramatta, as well as a brand, a marketing plan and a billing system. In other words, all the trappings of a telco.

Its prices are cheap (the plans can be found at jeenee.org.au) and the service is … well, let’s just say when you ring, any time of day or night, you get a human being. In Australia. Being helpful.

About a quarter of its few thousand (so far) customers are disabled, and they ring the call centre all the time, for any reason at all -- when they get lost in the street, or lose their credit card, can’t get on the bus with the wheelchair. In reality, Jeenee is a disability help line with a phone company attached.

Can it actually break even, let along make a profit, while competing against big telcos’ pricing on low margins with low-cost foreign call centres and robots answering the phones?

Jeremy and his mum/boss think it can, although the model relies on a large volume of able-bodied customers effectively cross-subsidising the services for the disabled. He’s also selling the call centre as a stand-alone service for the disability sector generally.

Audrey and Neil McLeod died close together a bit more than 20 years ago, having spent 50 years almost single-handedly bringing the treatment of the disabled in Australia into the 20th century, simply by treating them as equal human beings instead of locking them up and forgetting them.

Their daughter Robyn then led the next step of the development of disability treatment, when institutions were replaced by homes, and she is still very much in charge, as well as an industry leader.

And now the McLeod’s grandson Jeremy is at the forefront of the third stage: the replacement of the paternalism of institutional funding by giving the funding to individuals to decide for themselves, via the NDIS.

This may not be your usual family business, but it’s quite a family, and quite a business.