“Reach for the stars and, no matter what you do in life, be proud of it!”
Country of origin: Chile
Occupation: Founder and CEO at Rehab Management Holdings Group. State of residency: NSW. Favourite place in Australia: Sydney Harbour. Upon arrival: Surprised by how clean it was and how many colour TVs there were!
Photo by Chrissie Hall Photography.
By Cristina Abela & Anne-marie Taplin
Marcella Romero is a successful entrepreneur and managing director of three businesses at Rehab Management Holdings Group. She is also married to Craig and is a proud mother of three. Marcella first trained as an occupational therapist and soon went on to start her own business. Two decades later, she runs a multi-million-dollar group of companies providing health, rehabilitation, wellbeing and employment services to people around Australia. Her business employs more than 350 staff across 96 offices from coast to coast, and has been recognised in multiple awards.
TELL US YOUR STORY
When I was 9, my family fled Chile for Australia because of the political turmoil. I couldn’t speak a word of English and with my parents, Olga and Carlos, and my brothers Carlos and Jose, we began our new life in a strange country. It was daunting but at the same time exciting!
Being a migrant definitely had an impact on my wellbeing and psychological development. People would find it hard to believe now, but I lacked confidence. I was used to being one of the brightest students in class back in Chile, but when I started school at Springvale Primary School in Melbourne, I needed special lessons because I couldn’t communicate in English. Kids were so cruel and I felt humiliated, although I still did well in maths and sports. I endured many hardships and tears, but my family were strongly bonded and we helped each other through those early years.
Right from my earliest memories, I’ve wanted to help people and when I was still in primary school, I decided I’d start my own business. It would focus on helping the vulnerable or disadvantaged, including those who’d faced racism and adversity like me. Occupational therapy attracted me as a career because being part of someone’s recovery journey after injury or illness seemed a powerful skill. I was also interested in a career that would allow me to work part-time after having my children, and one that had great potential to grow - I knew from my research that health was a fast-developing industry and one that could easily accommodate an entrepreneurial person like me who had big dreams.
I started my business from a tiny home office in Sydney. Over the past two decades I’ve used my migrant background, passion for innovation and my zest for health, to lead a thriving national organisation. We’ve grown from Rehab Management, the parent company servicing clients through all the big insurers and governments around Australia, to opening my second business, AimBig Employment (for people with disability) in July 2018, and LiveBig (a disability therapy services provider) in March 2019. The success stories of our customers is one of the aspect that keeps me going. It’s rewarding for everyone involved in helping them achieve their best outcome, often against the odds.
I feel humbled and honoured to receive industry recognition here in Australia as a thought leader. I have been a winner for the Comcare 2014 Innovation Awards (Australian Government); and a finalist in the 2017 and 2019 NSW Telstra Business Women’s Awards (Entrepreneur category) and (Medium and Large Business category). I was also a finalist in the 2018 CEO Magazine’s Executive of the Year Awards (Health Executive category) and I was shortlisted for the AFR BOSS Most Innovative Company Awards for 2019 (winner to be announced in August 2019).
Family is my touchstone – my husband and my children keep me focused on doing my absolute best both in my personal and professional life.
Sense of belonging - My brothers and I felt out of place in a ‘foreign’ country. We were called ‘wogs’, which was hurtful, but at the same time it taught me resilience and pride in my heritage. Through being bullied and kept ‘on the outer’, I learned to push past any obstacle in my way – skills that have helped me throughout my career.
Work ethic - Seeing my parents work so hard for us and in areas that were outside of their expertise like factories was difficult. I learnt a strong work ethic at an early age, and that no matter what you do in life - be proud. Since then I’ve always applied the same work ethic and treated everyone with respect throughout my career, no matter what position they hold.
Maintaining a strategic focus - Directing two start-up businesses while concurrently keeping the parent company, Rehab Management, generating revenue and thriving is extremely challenging. Luckily many years ago I realised that I couldn’t do it all alone! Now I’m happy to have a team of supportive and talented people around me (as shown by this staff video).
Challenging the status quo - My personality makes me inclined to challenge the status quo in business! I want to continue doing things differently and challenging ‘the way things have always been done’. This has been part of my special recipe for success, along with always being true to my core values.
Attitude to life - Compared with my home country Chile, it’s no surprise that I’ve found Australians to be a lot more laid back, casual and relaxed, while at the same time, more open and committed to social causes.
Education and support - In Australia, regardless of your socioeconomic background, you have access to a good education. In Latin America your economic status is directly related to the kind of education you may be able to access. As a women in business, I have also found excellent support from the community and from the government.
Support for minorities - I’m impressed by the current focus on minorities and encouraging people with disability in our community. The power of social inclusion and valuing diversity is really just beginning. I’m excited for a more inclusive future.
PIECE OF ADVICE
Believe in teamwork - There’s a quote by Steve Jobs I really like, “Great things in business are never achieved by just one person”. It’s about working together and the strength that collaboration brings. I truly believe in the notion of teamwork. I always try to surround myself with strong, intelligent and committed leaders to succeed in business.
Live a life free of regrets - My parents taught me to live a life free of regrets. It’s important though, to reflect on lessons learned from your experiences both personally and professionally. So, here’s what I’d say to my 25-year-old self: 1) You’ll have challenges along the way but continue to work hard because the best is yet to come. 2) Let failures be a lesson to you and learn from your mistakes. 3) Be curious, ask questions and challenge the status quo. 4) Stay grounded, be respectful and connect with people – and always keep the loved ones close. 5) Reach for the stars and, no matter what you do in life, be proud!
You can be extraordinary - Extraordinary people are like you and me, the only difference is ordinary putting in that bit extra – that’s why they’re extraordinary.
IN THE NEXT FEW YEARS…
Marcella has big plans for her group to keep building towards her target of doubling in size. She wants to always be seen as a strong presence and an industry innovator. Outside of work, she will continue to celebrate all the special moments with her family and friends.