Everything about Jenni Falconer’s career has been about maintaining and fostering relationships.
“I always know who to go to,” says Falconer in an exclusive interview with Waikato Business News five days after she was named Waikato Business Awards’ emerging leader of the year and Emergency Consult, the company she founded, took out the Innovation award.
Since her graduation as a nurse in 1991, Falconer has fashioned a career built on getting to know people and influencing outcomes for patients by making the environment better for those involved in clinical care.
She has taken Emergency Consult from a telehealth organisation founded a year out from the Covid pandemic to a company that turns over $8-$10 million a year and employs 90 people.
Soon there will be another 29 on the payroll and Falconer talks of increasing turnover to $65 million in five years.
Surrounded by flowers in her office on the second floor – it used to be the car park level of what was the former State Theatre on the corner of Victoria and London streets in Hamilton – she reflects on what doors the awards will open for her and the company.
The 54-year-old admits she wants to give being a chief executive five years – so she has two years to go.
“I don’t want to be told to leave. Depending on the growth of the business, maybe there will be a chance to step aside and let someone else take the reins.
“The hard thing is when you own the business and you are an executive in the business, you have to wear different hats all the time – shareholder, director and CEO.”
The decision making process is dependent on which hat she is wearing at the time.
She and her fellow founders, shareholders and directors – emergency consultants Giles Chanwai, Martyn Harvey and Mustafa Alshaar – worked in Waikato Hospital’s emergency department for several years.
Four years ago, they saw a need for a telehealth solution built like an emergency department. The planning had been done and the launch was about to happen when the pandemic came in 2020.
“Covid, as hard as it was, was a blessing in disguise because it normalised telehealth.”
Emergency Consult had to pivot – the company supported the aged residential care sector with virtual registered nurses and offered fast access to top emergency doctors when people needed urgent care.
Early last year the company helped other DHBs with their Covid responses by making virtual house calls to those isolating at home. They became the only telehealth provider offering a 24-hour service on demand without an appointment or the need to download an app.
Falconer says she has been seeking answers to New Zealand’s health woes throughout her career and always wants to make a difference. Nurses can do that.
“If you want a process designed or change management done, a nurse can do it.”
She was born in Melbourne to New Zealand parents and the family moved back when she was seven, settling in Te Kuiti.
Falconer went to boarding school in Taranaki at Sacred Heart Girls’ College in New Plymouth.
When she graduated from Taranaki as a nurse in 1991, there were no jobs.
Placements in Whanganui, Taumarunui and Tokanui gave her an understanding of rural and community health issues.
“They all had a glut (of nurses) which is just criminal now when you think there are some people I trained with that never worked as a nurse because there wasn’t a job.”
She returned to Melbourne where she worked as an agency nurse cutting her teeth working in high dependency units and aged care.
She got married and moved to Dunedin where daughter Jordan was born in 1993.
“I wasn’t a very good stay at home mum; I really wanted to do some shifts, so I joined a nursing agency.”
The hospital decided to trial a three month programme training nurses in the ward to go into the emergency department when it was busy.
Falconer did it and never looked back.
“That is where I found my love for ED.”
In 1997 she moved north joining Waikato Hospital in an overflow winter ward because there were no jobs in the emergency department.
“Every day for three months I knocked on the door to ED with (charge nurse) Julie Law and I’d say ‘hi, it’s me, any jobs?’”
Falconer’s persistence paid off when Law took her on. Two years later the department recruited six new clinical nurse managers, including Falconer.
In 2001, now remarried, Falconer had son Steven and later went to Waikato University part time to do a post graduate diploma in management.
“While I had credibility as a nurse and had operationally done significant roles, I didn’t have the qualification and so I really wanted something to validate myself not only in my own head but to the external world.”
One of the lecturers was associate professor Peter Sun. Falconer had introduced herself as “just a nurse.”
“He said ‘wait, let’s pull this apart. You run 240 staff, you run a multi-million budget in an acute service. You’re not just a nurse’. He took it out of the context of health and said I was running a small to medium size business and making some critical (business) decisions.”
Falconer was seconded into service development projects at Waikato and Thames hospitals allowing her to form relationships out of ED.
In 2016, by then the ED nurse manager, Falconer resigned to join Counties Manukau DHB’s Ko Awatea Centre running conferences.
She also started a small company called VIP Care and picked up the New Zealand agency for the Zoono brand of hand and surface sanitisers, ideally placed she thought to capitalise on Covid but sourcing product became a huge headache.
Then came the Emergency Consult opportunity. The nurse in her drives her thinking and given it is a “hands on” profession, how does she explain arguing for telehealth?
“Hand on heart, I’m a nurse, I’m a touchy feely person, I want to rub your legs if you’ve got sore legs. You can’t do that through telehealth but then what is the alternative?”
Eighty percent of the telehealth presentations “we can see and treat.”
Emergency Consult is about to open a nurse-led walk in clinic in Papamoa. Doctors would be available by telehealth.
A solution to the country’s mental health crisis is also on the company’s to do list.
She wants to develop her governance skills, take on other board opportunities and find the next CEO.
“I always want to know how and why – I will always be asking the questions,” says Falconer.
“Everything in my career has been about relationships, that would be the thing I would say today, you can’t get anywhere unless you’ve built those relationships.”