A ride on a 25-year roller coaster

It was 25 years ago this Monday – 9 May, 1991 – when a much younger, slimmer and darker-haired version of John Perrier first opened the doors to Bulimba PhysioWorks. It’s been a roller-coaster ride for the ensuing 2½ decades, so I’d be pleased if you spared five minutes for a wander though the memories with me.

The original practice site was at 124 Oxford St, next to the Commonwealth Bank – Grill’d Burgers operates there now. I had spent weeks painting, carpet laying, buying equipment and networking with local doctors. I turned the key, opened the door, and then waited nervously by the phone for …well, nothing.

It took all day, but eventually the phone rang and I had my first booking – a young swimmer named Nathan – and my life as a private physiotherapist was underway. I’m pleased to say that I still occasionally treat Nathan (and his mother) to this day.

original bulimba practice 01

The original Bulimba Physiotherapy Centre. Luxurious, isn’t it?

From these undoubtedly humble beginnings, the practice grew to provide a very busy first few years. I had taken out a big bank loan to start up at 17% interest – the going rate at the time. I had heard multiple warnings about how many small businesses closed in the first two years, so I was determined not to fail.  Working alone, my tasks rapidly expanded beyond what my inexperienced mind had imagined – I had thought that being my own boss would give me control over my time. Ha! I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Besides treating patients, taking payments and answering the phone, I had to squeeze the accounting, cleaning and admin into my lunch breaks. Three nights a week after work I would head off to the local AFL club for sports physio from 6-8 pm. On Saturday morning I would spend a few hours in the clinic and then try (but usually fail) to complete the financials and marketing. I’d sleep in on Sunday morning – that was my only real time off – before heading to the AFL to work the afternoon as the strapper and on-field physio. I’d love to have just a fraction of that energy now – I don’t – but in its place is hopefully a little more wisdom.

Because the rooms were next to the bank, break-ins were frequent in those first few years. The thieves’ usual plan was to bust open my back door and then smash through the adjoining wall into the bank. It never seemed to occur to them that the bank’s vault would be locked anyway. The first time I walked in after a break-in I was horrified. After the sixth such burglary, I barely paused to sweep up the rubble before registering the intrusion with the police and calling my plasterer, who by this stage I had on speed dial.

original bulimba practice 02

The practice location, right next to the bank. This picture was taken about 1995 after a modest renovation.

Much has changed since then, not just with physio, but with the local and wider world. Bulimba has undergone a complete makeover. Its primary characteristics in 1991 were dilapidated old Queenslanders and dozens of industrial factories.  It’s hard to imagine now, but many large companies, including Telecom, Rheem and Lloyd’s ships, all had major manufacturing facilities in Oxford St.  There was barely a coffee shop nor a restaurant in sight. True.

The Balmoral Pub, then known affectionately as the “Balmongrel”, was not a place for the feint-hearted, with a motley collection of out-of-work tradies and old punters being the main clientele of its smoke-filled public bar. There were no TAB outlets in pubs in those days, and the nearest outlet was further down Oxford St (where Woolworths now stands). So many of the punters would wander down the street, beer in hand, to place a bet.

Unfortunately there was a brick bench directly outside my practice door, where they’d regularly stop for a breather or a cigarette. (You can see it in the photograph above, by which time it had been converted into the garden bed behind the lamp post.) At times their arguments would get quite rowdy, and I had to break up more than one fight.

As Bulimba’s old houses were renovated and the industrial land was snapped up for units, the suburb’s working class persona steadily disappeared. In the meantime, land values and rents soared: our yearly business rent is now eight times what is was in 1991.

Technology has also completely transformed the way we do business. My first computer in 1991 had a hard drive capacity of only 512 Mb (that’s megabytes). I recall paying extra to upgrade to a top-of-the-range RAM chip, which was 64 Kilobytes. Yes, kilobytes – you may have to google that term if you’re under the age of 35. To put this into perspective, you would have to link 250 similar computers to match the capacity of a single modern smart phone.

My original business card includes only the shop address and a phone number: 899 1226. (Note the missing initial ‘3’, which was not introduced until eight years later.) There were no other contact methods; faxes were the domain of big business and hot-shot lawyers, while electronic communication was still a few years away.

By comparison, we now have three phone lines (including the fax line), multiple email addresses, mobile numbers, EFTPOS and HiCaps payments, text out services, Skype contacts, a 200-page web site, e-commerce capability, online booking systems, this blog and a Facebook page. Of course most of these things come with a monthly account fee….

original business card

The last surviving copy of an original business card. Sometimes I long for these simpler times…

Thankfully, one thing that hasn’t changed much in all those years is the human body. In hindsight, I was fortunate to choose a profession that is amenable to accumulating skills and experience over time. Things that I learned way back in 1991 are still 100% relevant today – backs, knees and shoulders haven’t changed at all. By contrast, the knowledge gained in 1991 by say, a computer programmer, would now be largely worthless.

But of course treatment methods have progressed. In 1991 most joint surgery was performed by the old “open ‘em up” method that more resembled carpentry than the surgical precision of a modern arthroscopy. MRI scanners and the like weren’t invented yet, so we had to diagnose injuries with scant help from technology. This was sometimes like a mechanic trying to pinpoint your engine problem without opening the bonnet, but at least it gave us a solid grounding to develop diagnostic skills.

In this matter I’d particularly like to thank those patients who trusted me and persisted when things didn’t always improve as they’d hoped over the first few sessions. Sometimes it was only after we changed diagnosis or treatment that results flowed, and my physio bag of tricks subsequently grew each time. So thank you for your patience, patients!

At last count, our Bulimba practice has now helped about 117,000 clients – I’d like to think we’ve learned something from every one of you!

We physios are also fortunate that we have plenty of time to talk while we’re working. Can you think of any other occupation in which you can chat for 20 minutes or so to every client without impeding your time or theirs? Even better, our patients are from all walks of life: both blue and white collar workers, kids, stay at home parents, retirees, elite sports people, soldiers, you name it; everyone gets sore sooner or later. So we are exposed to a variety of problems, ideas and opinions, all of which provide for an interesting and varied work day.

The internet didn’t exist in 1991, and Google was still eight years away, so finding information was far more difficult than today; you couldn’t just type a search phrase into a computer. For most people this meant either a trip to the library or just asking around until you found someone who knew that subject.  But we physios had a big advantage: with about 100 people per week coming in for treatment, it was only a matter of time until an expert on gardening, car engines, mountain climbing or whatever came through the door. We had our own ‘mini-internet’.

We’ve also expanded our staffing levels over the years. Obviously the enterprise began with just one inexperienced soul. IN 1994 I married, and my wife started helping out in the office; she would work her day as a schoolteacher, and then come in to help with the admin until late. We ate a lot of take-way for a few years! In 1997 our first baby daughter came along, and we took the big step (well, it seemed like a big step at the time) of employing a part time receptionist. After opening a sister practice at Mansfield  we employed another physio, and have been slowly expanding since.

We now employ five physios, two practice managers and three casual receptionists. Many co-workers have come and gone, but I’m grateful that I still count most of them as friends. I’m even more proud that my daughter is now studying physio as well. Her probing anatomy and physiology questions certainly stretch my memory.

With the enormous changes that have taken place in just 25 years, it’s hard to imagine what our working lives will be like in another decade or two. But it should be fun finding out.

Yes, it has been a roller coaster ride, but one with far more ups than downs. Thank you again to everyone for your support, and I hope you continue to trust us at Bulimba PhysioWorks to help you feel better for many years to come.

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