They don’t wear tracksuits and they don’t blow whistles, but the life coaches at Wallara now have sporting language and thinking in their DNA. And it’s all down to the influence of the Dandenong-based disability service’s chief executive officer, Phil Hayes-Brown.
Phil has been in the role for seven years and has clearly found his métier, but his previous experience couldn’t have been more different. After studying law at Monash and spending four years as a commercial lawyer at Herbert Smith Freehills in the early 90s, Phil then moved into the world of sport. He says he would always recommend studying law and “really enjoyed” his time at Herbert Smith Freehills, but quickly realised law wasn’t for him in the long-term. He was much more interested in negotiations and trade-offs than doing research and keeping up-to-date with changes in legislation.
When moving into the corporate world, he did the sensible thing and stopped to consider his personal interests before proceeding. Sport had long been his passion. “And so I wrote letters away trying desperately to get into sports, at IMG, those big sports management agencies, the NBL, local basketball – anyone I could think of.” Fascinated by marketing, sales and business development, he found himself in a long-term role with the US’s basketball league, the NBA, responsible for consumer products, sponsorship, media sales, events and brand building, and eventually becoming the managing director Asia Pacific. Various overseas roles followed, before a return to Australia in the mid 2000s to take up a general manager position at Hawthorn Football Club.
But personal circumstances led to a pivotal moment and move away from sport. Phil’s 15-year-old daughter Phoebe has a disability, he explains. “She has moderate intellectual impairment and is nonverbal, so we use sign language with her, but she can hear.”
In 2007 he realised he was ready to focus on family and spend more time at home, but staying at Hawthorn was becoming too all-consuming. For a while he worked with his wife’s fashion design company, before a fortuitous sequence of events saw his career take a completely different path. It was during the Gillard Government’s Building the Education Revolution (BER) and “Phoebe’s school was suffering because the templates they were offering didn’t quite fit,” he says. Offering his services to the principal as an ‘angry parent’, he contacted the press and consequently found himself and the story on the front page of a newspaper.
At the same time he had just applied for the CEO position at Wallara. The board saw the newspaper article and knew he was what they were looking for.
Despite his lack of experience in disability services, Phil says his own family situation combined with his business skills convinced the board he was the right man for the job. “They wanted someone from outside disability, bringing in fresh thinking. I was a parent. Clearly I was genuine about this space. And I was really interested.”
It took him about a year to settle into the position and discover that, despite the radical change in environment, his new role wasn’t that different after all. “When I was with the NBA and Hawthorn, my job was to attract resources, investments and sponsorships in order to improve the conditions of the playing group. It’s the same job,” he says, simply.
“This is my playing group now. I’ve got 500 clients, aged 18 to 80, all trying to be the best that they can be.”
One of his first initiatives was to change the title of the disability support workers, to ‘support coaches’. There was some resistance at first, and suspicion of the ‘sports guy’ coming in with his different way of doing things. “We don’t wear track suits; we don’t blow whistles,” was the response, before Phil was able to explain his rationale and win them over.
Since then he’s faced multiple challenges – not the least of which is dealing with “the dynamic between having clients with really complex conditions and challenging behaviours that they cannot control”. But there are continued rewards. Perhaps his proudest achievement is the development of the award-winning web channel, Wallara TV, which grew out of his idea that the usual generic newsletters were doing the organisation a disservice. Instead, cameras could capture “this new playing group and support coaches who are doing really wonderful work and have incredible stories”. The channel has been very successful, with 140 videos and five 30-minute TV specials already broadcast nationally. Its facilities have also been engaged by third parties to make videos and cinema ads.
In all of this, Phil’s experience both as a lawyer and in the corporate space has been undeniably valuable. “The Wallara board wanted me to grow the profile and scale of the organisation and develop sustainable partnerships that produce better outcomes for our clients and have a vision for the future that inspired others to join us. My time at Freehills gave me the ability to negotiate win/win partnerships and understand how to manage risk at the same time, which are enormously helpful skills. We also have two Freehills alumni on our board of directors, so the firm’s network is also adding real value at the governance level.”
Herbert Smith Freehills is delighted to continue to support Phil’s leadership by providing pro bono legal support to Wallara. Our Melbourne Disputes team has assisted Wallara to recover outstanding debts.