The story so far

Article in "The Australian" newspaper 2003. Prof. Peter Botsman


The letters to Rob and Melinda Chewying are of two kinds. There are the letters from parents of their employees. Full of praise, they state quite simply that working for the Chewyings' business has given their business has given their children hope, a new start, qualifications and independence.

Then there are the letters of congratulation from customers about the excellence of their lawn and horticulture service. "You have maintained our garden better than we could have expected," writes one. Standard marketing letters? No way. These letters of praise are from the heart.

The Chewyings have more than 100 lawn and horticulture projects in the Nowra area of southern NSW. Their business is unique because they specialise in employing people whom many employers pass by.

Rob's journey mirrors that of his employees. Never good at school, Rob made an art form out of being invisible, hiding his poor school skills. When the Year 10 exam came up, he knew he could never pass and simply left. At 24, the sky fell in. He experienced a psychological breakdown in which the world did cartwheels. Black was white. Up was down. It took years to begin the slow journey back to some kind of normality and only after meeting Melinda did he start to move forward.

It was a journey in small steps. After being labelled with the stigma of mental illness, it took many years for Rob to summon up the courage to knock on a door and ask if he could mow a lawn. He and Melinda rustled together $250 to buy their first mower. They would work on any job. Every time someone told him he couldn't run a business, he became more determined to create something for himself and his family, and to create opportunities for others.

Over a decade, Rob's small steps have become strides. He and Melinda have devised an extraordinary business system. They've gained formal qualifications, awards and increased their employees' wages seven-fold. At the heart of the business is a quotation system for small and large jobs, and a work system to match that allows people with disabilities, community development employment programs or long-term unemployed people to work the hours they feel comfortable with and at their own levels of intensity.

The Chewying philosophy is this: Each person has their own genius. You just have to create the environment for it to flourish.

The business system creates an umbrella of support and infrastructure. At the start of every week, employees are issued with a portfolio that breaks down each job into achievable tasks, and each week the employees get better and better at their tasks. As this occurs, new challenges are issued. The outcome for some will be their own lawn and horticulture franchise, finding and running their own jobs and employees. For others, there are TAFE and horticulture qualifications to gain and the challenge of mastering new machinery and gardens. Every employee can find their niche.

The Chewyings' clients are delighted because every lawn and garden is special for the employees. It is about proving that not only can they do the job but they can do the job as well as or better than the best. To confirm their quality, the Chewyings engage the services of a qualified horticulturist to check on each job and make recommendations for improvement. Every client gets the report. If something is not done well enough, it is immediately remedied.

The business textbooks say that to succeed you must specialise and gain contracts of a certain magnitude. For the Chewyings, no job is too big or too small. Getting your lawn mown for $30 can create a pathway of opportunities for Rob and Melinda and their employees. But they're eager for bigger contracts and more opportunities for more people.

Part of the quality is that the Chewying system is market-based. Rob knows well that for many people with disabilities, working too hard or too many hours is counterproductive. It brings back ill-health. But for the hours his people can work, Rob pays above-award wages, and they are in the marketplace with no safety nets. This creates an incentive for excelling, getting better, gaining health and independence.

The Chewyings want to expand their business and double the number of their employees. Rob has always been proud of his indigenous lineage and he is now reaching out to indigenous people who are languishing on CDEP and showing them how they can start their own business.

The Chewyings operate one small business. It would be hard to replicate the special qualities of the Chewyings that make the business run so well. It would also be a mistake to load up the problems of unemployment and lack of employment for people with disabilities on their shoulders. But you just can't help but feel that this small business makes a big difference and that its growth would be a good thing for us all.