Workers with a disability are frequently overlooked in the job market, despite research revealing that they bring a multitude of benefits to their workplaces.
The compelling case for disability employment in Australia report, released in March by the Australian government’s JobAccess disability employment hub, revealed that disability-inclusive businesses grew sales 2.9 times faster and profits 4.1 times faster than non-inclusive businesses. And employees with a disability have 34 per cent fewer accidents and, on average, stay in the job four months longer than those without disability.
It’s a message Matthew Lambelle MAICD, CEO of WISE Employment, has been sharing since the mid-1990s, when many people believed workers with a disability were unlikely to find employment outside sheltered workshops. “We still need to challenge those low expectations,” says Lambelle. “We have people with disabilities working in all sorts of jobs or professions, earning very good salaries, making massive contributions in all fields... and trailblazing the heights.”
WISE Employment has taken a leading role in education and advocacy since its beginnings in 1992 as a not-for-profit employment agency for people with a disability. Chair Joseph Graffam FAICD has been on the board since the day it began operating in West Melbourne with “six people and a small one-year grant”.
Just over 30 years on, WISE has 163 office locations around the country, employs 1729 people and estimates it has matched more than 170,000 people with disabilities and disadvantaged Australians with employers willing to provide meaningful work opportunities. Staff provide cost-free advice, training and support to transition more than 10,000 job seekers into jobs and related services each year.
WISE has also been the core service provider for numerous government and non-government programs, including previous major sponsorship of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre’s employment program and Australian licensee of the Scottish Employ Your Mind vocational rehabilitation program for people with mental illness. Other milestones include the acquisition of the Box Hill Institute (Disability Employment Services) and the launch of Rainbow WISE in Sydney, which is billed as the first inclusive Australian employment program for LGBTQIA+ individuals.
“Our early role was very much education and advocacy, which we still engage in, but we’re now caught up in the machinery of the employment services industry,” says Lambelle. “So although we’re not-for-profit, we’re operating in a very competitive industry, as well.”
WISE is one of the survivors of a shake-up of Australia’s privatised employment services program, which saw 43 providers awarded contracts under Workforce Australia (which replaced Jobactive last year). A parliamentary inquiry into Workforce Australia Employment Services is currently underway and scheduled to report by 29 September.
WISE also runs two commercial businesses that drive social change. Clean Force Property Services and Equity Labour Services (ELS) aim to deliver quality commercial cleaning and grounds services to the private, public and non-government sectors, while providing sustainable jobs and training for people who have disabilities or who are experiencing disadvantage.
Clean Force Property Services joined WISE through a merger in 2005, and the organisation has gone from strength to strength since. “They had a small team of people with a $500,000 turnover,” says Lambelle. “Today, they employ a team of 450 and have an annual turnover of $16m.”
On average, the employers who work with WISE are small to medium-sized enterprises, providing an average of 1.69 jobs. However, some, such as Officeworks, have employed 80 people with disabilities including autism and depression.
One example is Aeron, who has an intellectual disability, Asperger’s and epilepsy. He found work in 2019 after visiting Officeworks in Ringwood as a WISE job-seeker to explore potential opportunities. He found himself in the situation of supporting a customer who required advice on a modem. When store manager Brendan Nech witnessed Aeron in action, he was so impressed that he offered him permanent part-time work. “Aeron takes on many different tasks — from customer service to price changes — which happen multiple times daily,” says Nech.
In February, WISE acquired Caraniche, a Melbourne-based psychological and behavioural health service that has been operating for almost 30 years. Caraniche increases the organisation’s scale and expands its capability in the clinical mental health, alcohol and other drugs (AOD) services sector. This is an area of growth directly aligned with WISE’s current strategic plan.
After commencing a partnership early last year, the organisations began a discussion on leveraging their joint capabilities to deepen the partnership. WISE made an offer to acquire Caraniche, which meant it could continue operating as its own company with its respective CEO, management, support and delivery teams. It will also continue to deliver all of its current contracts and growth opportunities while opening a new AOD and mental health service to support WISE customers.
“Prior to the acquisition of Caraniche, we were an organisation employing 1569 people, but with only one psychologist, but now we have 60 psychologists and mental health professionals,” says Lambelle. “We’re looking at how to create an even better value proposition for our customers and support their needs, [because] if you’re struggling with your mental health, or addictions, it’s very difficult to maintain a job. That capability addition was a massive driver for us and the values aligned with wanting to help people.”
Employer clients of WISE Employment over 10-year period
Of leaders with a disability are not fully transparent about it
Estimated additional GDP as a result of job placements per financial year
1 in 3
Number of businesses that face difficulties finding suitable staff
Of the WISE Employment workforce is living with disability
Extra months that employees with disability stay in the job
How much faster disability-inclusive businesses grew profits than their non-inclusive peers
Savings for every $1 invested in workplace adjustments
Australian disability employment gap
Source: WISE Employment, Accenture Getting to Equal 2020 report, Australian Bureau of Statistics, JobAccess Compelling case for disability employment in Australia report
Maximising a merger
The 2013 introduction of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) fuelled an increase in merger activity in the disability sector as providers sought to do more for clients. A 2017 report by National Disability Services found that 38 per cent of organisations were considering a merger.
The dynamic nature of the sector in which WISE operates means constantly exploring opportunities for growth and change. “Your long-term survivability and ability to thrive is dependent on your evolution,” says chair Joseph Graffam FAICD. “If you keep doing only what you’ve always been doing, you’re not going to be able to do it forever.”
However, mergers can be risky. WISE Employment has been involved in eight of them over its 30-year history. These are a few tips on how to manage a seamless transition while maximising impact for the end beneficiaries:
Identify strategic goals
Ensuring the board and executive team are clear on the objectives of any proposed merger is crucial. WISE’s 2014 merger with Interwork — to deliver disability employment and training services in South Australia — involved coming together with other NFPs to enhance growth and expand the organisation’s geographic footprint.
“It’s about asking the question: How can we be stronger together than on our own?”
says CEO Matthew Lambelle MAICD. Others, such as the 2023 acquisition of Caraniche, saw the purchase of a commercial entity in order to boost the organisation’s skills and capacity.
Clarify rules of engagement
Discussing upfront what a merger may involve ensures there are fewer surprises down the track. With the Caraniche purchase, a list of possibilities was whittled down and a subcommittee of the board was appointed to work through a range of different options. “Once they were comfortable, that went to the full board, which ratified the acquisition,” says Lambelle. “So it was an extensive, thorough and very targeted process.” The process took about 18 months.
Explore values and culture alignment
Ensure that the values of any potential merger partner align with your own. “The worst thing you can do is undermine your own values in order to merge with somebody else,” says Graffam.
WISE Employment has shied away from acquisitions motivated by another organisation’s financial distress. “We’ve always preferred to acquire or merge with stronger organisations rather than ones that are in dire straits,” says Lambelle. “We take the approach of ‘don’t break it’. It’s about figuring out where we can integrate and cause no harm.”
A “slow integration” has followed the acquisition of Caraniche. “They’re successful in their own right, and have the governance processes in place to manage a team of highly skilled professionals,” says Lambelle. “Over time, we’ll get to know each other and build that trust.”
This article first appeared under the headline 'Word to the WISE' in the May 2023 issue of Company Director magazine.
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