23 May 2024

Greenacres incumbent CEO reflects on a formative decade

| Dione David
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Greenacres CEO Chris Christodoulou with the organisation's longest standing employee, Elaine Harvey

Chris says the best part of the job has been the participants, like Elaine Harvey, who after just shy of 50 years is Greenacres longest-serving supported employee. Photo: Greenacres.

Greenacres may have already announced the retirement of its beloved CEO Chris Christodoulou, but he doesn’t see himself officially stepping away until some time around October this year.

Eight months might seem a long lead time to install a replacement, but an eventful decade at the helm of the major disability services provider leaves some big shoes to fill.

The son of working-class migrant parents from Greece who eventually settled in Figtree, Chris’ transition to the role was organic.

Before Greenacres, his work had always been in Wollongong’s trade union movement and he eventually became assistant national secretary of what was then the Australian Liquor Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union (now the United Workers Union).

It was the mid-90s and the workforce was still playing catch-up on the 1986 disability services act.

“Up until then, people who worked, who had a disability, weren’t regarded as employees. They had no working rights whatsoever,” he says.

“This law said, ‘We have to give people who are doing work-like activities rights at work and we have to work out what we’re going to pay them, taking into account the fact that many of them had high-level intellectual disabilities and were doing very simple tasks.'”

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Though it was a pivotal time for the rights of people with disability, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. One advocacy group strongly believed there was no place for organisations like Greenacres, and that employees with disabilities should be in open employment.

“There would have been 20,000 people in Australia without these organisations to guide them into work, and most of them probably wouldn’t have been able to secure work in open employment, because it would’ve been too costly,” Chris says.

It took eight years; eventually the Fair Work Commission decided on the wage issue. Chris played an instrumental role representing Greenacres and arguing the rights of people with an intellectual disability to have a job.

Chris, who had been working for Unions NSW for 20 years and in the union movements for about 45 years, was ready to give up the daily commute to Sydney and settle somewhere closer to home in Figtree.

“There was one question – had I stayed with Unions NSW long enough would I have gone into politics? I was very Labor oriented, I’d been active – perhaps overly active, as I was not all that well-liked in some quarters of the Labor Party,” he says.

“I decided to take the job at Greenacres after serving on their board for a year and it turned out to be the right choice. I have loved this place.”

Chris with Greenacres supported employee Tim Walsh in Canberra

Chris with Greenacres supported employee Tim Walsh during their trip to Canberra to speak in front of Parliament House regarding the royal commission. Photo: Greenacres.

Among the milestones of his 10-year tenure, Chris represented Greenacres on the Fair Work Commission, which allowed him to get the powerful “My Job Counts” campaign across the line.

“Being able to empower people with disabilities to be able to speak up for themselves about what they wanted has been one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever been involved in,” he says.

He also helped usher the organisation through its biggest change to date – the introduction of the NDIS.

“I had no idea what that actually meant for Greenacres. In the main, it was beneficial for the participants but for providers it was an enormous challenge. Funding changed – how we managed shop floors, staff, wages, all had to change drastically, otherwise I was forecasting a $2 million loss,” he says.

“We didn’t have the financial infrastructure and systems in place, or the finance systems to cope with 1000 invoices a week, which is what we do now. We had to onboard systems and retrain and upskill staff.”

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Other highlights included the success of the Mountain to Mountain challenge, a fun run from the base of Mount Keira to Mount Kembla, during which the organisation raised about $450,000 to pay for crucial infrastructure.

But by far the greatest highlight has been the people.

“The staff are salt of the earth; I’ll miss them, and the people we look after – our participants,” he says.

“I remember the first day I got here I did my first walk along the floor and a supported employee came up to me and said, ‘My name is Dan, I hear you’re the new CEO … I’d like to see you down here two times a week saying hello to everyone’. I always had the intention but it only struck me then how important that visibility was.

“I promised I would and have stuck to that promise, and that’s something I’ll truly miss.”

IRT CEO Patrick Reid and Greenacres CEO Chris Christodoulou shake hands

IRT CEO Patrick Reid shakes hands with Chris. The two organisations have shared a long-standing partnership. Photo: Keeli Royle.

His replacement will toe the line between staying the course with the organisation’s three-year strategic plan and innovating.

“I think I was what Greenacres needed in my time, but we’re coming into a new age, and we do want a fresh set of eyes. At this point in time we need someone with a different skill set to me to manoeuvre through some of the issues we’ll face in the coming years. For example, given all the sensitive data we manage, we need someone who understands the existential threat of cyber security,” he says.

“We also need someone with commercial skills to help our amazing teams usher in our enterprise undertakings, like our own line of homewares and lifestyle products, and take things like our cafes and catering kitchen to the next level.

“Mostly we want someone who shares our values of fairness, inclusion, respect, empathy and safeguarding. They have to be honest, authentic; in this job you have to be tenacious at times but also be able to empower people with disability to speak for themselves.”

While he looks forward to hopping onto his motorbike more, bodysurfing and nipping away for mini holidays – Chris says he won’t be a stranger.

“You’ll be seeing me around,” he says.

Applications for the CEO role at Greenacres close this Thursday 30 May – for more information or to apply visit Ethical Jobs and LinkedIn.

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