I’m writing this on a flight to Perth, reflecting on the many many times I’ve made this trip before and the important role those flights have played in our business story.
We bought our first pharmacy in Perth in 2008 – settlement date was February 14th so Stuart quickly claimed it as his Valentine’s Day gift to me, but it was definitely lacking a little on the romance factor as it was a gift that came with a need to establish a base for myself on the opposite side of the country to him and the kids.
At that time state based pharmacy ownership legislation meant that to own a pharmacy in Western Australia you had to be domiciled there, so I established a home in Perth and began what ended up being over four years of commuting between WA and Qld as we managed our rapidly expanding business activities in my new home state alongside the established businesses across the rest of Australia.
Sascha had started school two weeks prior, and Sam was still a year away from starting kindergarten so making the decision to leave them based in Brisbane with Stuart while I criss-crossed back and forwards from Perth wasn’t easy, and many people asked why I wasn’t the one staying home with the kids while Stuart made the move.
This actually wasn’t anything that we ever contemplated. From the moment Sascha was born (actually before she was born) Stuart had been adamant that he was not prepared to play the ‘secondary parent’ role that many dads can find themselves occupying. He instigated ‘Super Sascha Saturdays’ from the time she was 3 weeks old where she was his sole responsibility, and I was only allowed to appear when required for breastfeeding purposes – the one parenting component he couldn’t deliver on, and she would never ever agree to a bottle of expressed milk despite his best efforts! – so both kids have always been very comfortable being left solo in either of our company. We do things very differently – they don’t call me The Enforcer and Stuart Holiday Dad for no reason – but the fact that the methods are different doesn’t mean one’s right and the other is wrong, and I love that they both have an exceptionally close relationship with their Dad as a result of the extensive one on one time they have spent with him.
The reality was that what the businesses needed at the time was the part that I bring to the table, establishing processes, systems and culture. Stuart’s strengths lie in putting the deals together and the big picture strategic thinking that has positioned us so well, but he’s the first to admit that getting operational processes designed and implemented is not his forte. In addition, one of the key initial activities in WA was the design and build of the first APHS Packaging facility on the same site as the pharmacy we had purchased, and this was very much my baby.
I got into a routine where I knew the airline schedules backwards and had the trip down to a fine art. I’d fly out of Brisbane in the evening after doing a day’s work there and having dinner with Stuart and the kids, and fly out of Perth at the end of the work day there, sneaking into bed in Brisbane in the early hours of the morning to snatch a few hours sleep before Sam’s gleeful leap into bed for a big cuddle for his mummy at 5am – he’s always been our early riser – followed by school drop off and a day in the Brisbane office. This became our family norm for four and a half years, and while it always made for an interesting discussion with teachers at the start of each school year – yes I spend half my time in Perth, no Stuart and I are very much together, yes the kids are well used to this as their normal and you’ll find they cope quite well with it – on the whole it worked really well.
There were certainly times when it was really, really hard – at times during the facility build I needed to be based on site for weeks at a time with no ability to squeeze a trip back to Brisbane into the schedule, and of course I missed more than my share of sports days and the like and got used to living with and managing a very healthy dose of working mother guilt.
But at the same time the kids loved having the increased freedom that life without mum 24/7 delivered (they loved nothing more than being able to tell me when I denied their request for chocolate cake for breakfast ‘but Dad lets us when you’re in Perth’ – strenuously denied by Stuart of course, followed up with the rider of ‘well its only happened a couple of times and you two promised you wouldn’t tell the Enforcer!’, and also loved joining me on Perth whenever they could where they quickly established their own favourite places and routines in what became their home away from home too. I remember getting a call from the mum of one of Sascha’s classmates after a show and tell presentation where the kids had to share their favourite park to play in, asking where the fantastic park with all of the enormous dinosaurs was as her son was desperate to go. She was disappointed to discover it was Kings Park in Perth, which made her plans to meet there after school a little challenging, but I loved this illustration that our dual lives had become so normal in the kids minds.
The other aspect that I did enjoy, which I’m sure many mums can identify with, was the freedom that time without your children and family, much as you love them, delivers. I remember when Sam was going through his Transformers phase and insisted that I had a Transformers sticker on the back of my car, one of his mates from kinder asking me what I transformed into. My answer was that straight after kinder drop off I would be transforming into someone who could have cheese on toast for dinner for the next 3 nights in a row if that was what I wanted and who didn’t have to make any school lunches for the next week, and his mum’s immediate response was ‘I need to get myself one of those stickers!’
It was all for a purpose though, and that purpose was to take our business truly national by expanding into the WA marketplace where none of our competitors had been able to establish a presence. We grew our operations rapidly, and within 3 years WA was second only to the businesses’ Qld base in size and activity. We had established a great team, our Epic culture was well and truly embedded, and all that time in the air was well and truly worth it. Four years after that initial acquisition the domiciliary component of the pharmacy ownership legislation was removed, and the maturity and breadth of the leadership team meant that they didn’t need me peering over the shoulders constantly – plus building work was commencing on the new APHS Packaging facility in Brisbane and that required my time and attention. I didn’t renew the lease on my Perth unit at it’s conclusion, and now my visits, while still a regular part of the overall travel calendar, are just that, visits, rather than commutes between homes.
One of Stuart and my favourite business mantras is ‘if it was easy everyone would do it’, and the decision to expand into WA definitely fit that brief. It wasn’t easy, but it was definitely worth it and today I can’t wait to visit the city that will always mentally be our family’s second home.