Challies' battle against Parkinson's

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By Anne Gibson

Simon Challies, managing director of the $4.9 billion Ryman Healthcare, likens his fight against debilitating Parkinson's Disease to that fought by Muhammad Ali.

Challies, in his mid-40s, recalled how Ali was diagnosed with the disease but vowed to fight,and the healthcare business boss from Christchurch said he was taking precisely the same approach.

"Well I'm going to beat it! That's my prognosis," Challies said laughing. "I remember reading Muhammad Ali. He said his biggest battle was with Parkinson's and he was never going to let it beat him. I remember seeing a specialist in Oregon about five years ago and he said it might feel tougher at the time but ...you have to eat well, keep fit, and challenge yourself."

He made his shock announcement at yesterday's full-year results briefing in Auckland where the company announced a $178.2 million underlying profit for the March 31, 2017 year, saying he was standing down at the end of next month for the sake of his health.

Talking in a shaky, unsteady and relatively quiet voice, the man who has headed the business since 2006 told of awful symptoms including exhaustion, an unsteady hand, trouble using a keyboard and how he suffered from a much weaker voice.

But he kept his dry Cantabrian humour, joking how touch screens had been helpful

"It's given me a powerful insight into our residents," Challies told the room of analysts and media, adding that only the board and close family member knew and how his 2011 diagnosis was just before a company annual meeting at which he had to speak.

"I had the outlook of an 80-year-old a bit earlier. I had times when I had trouble brushing my own teeth, let alone using a keyboard."

That made him realise what some of the Ryman residents' lives were like.

Tracey and Simon Challies. Photo/ Dean Purcell
Tracey and Simon Challies. Photo/ Dean Purcell

"It made me a lot more rounded CEO," he said, telling how the business had changed with his insights "and that's not going to end with me stepping down. I keep myself really fit and work hard and am mentally stimulated so I'm not giving up anything at the moment. I'm just not going to be having that huge commitment of managing Ryman so I'm sad but I'm sort of excited at the same time."

In the front row sat his wife Tracey who said afterwards it was important he take care of his health and that would be the emphasis in future.

"My health has deteriorated. I've noticed it in the last six months," Challies said. "The job isn't getting smaller. I'd love to stay longer but I can't honestly say I'd do it justice. It's always a challenge public speaking. I remember when I got diagnosed was just the day before the AGM and I stood up at the AGM and it must have been the most awkward presentation I'd ever given because I felt so vulnerable. You're sort of self-conscious. And it does fatigue you," he said.

Ryman managing director Simon Challies. Photo/Michael Craig
Ryman managing director Simon Challies. Photo/Michael Craig

"But the management team will laugh because they see me working longer hours than any of them and crazy hours, working day and night. I feel like I've worked really hard to compensate for this."

Challies kept his condition a secret from the market for six years because Ryman did not want "misinformation" and having Parkinson's did not affect his day-to-day performance, he said.

WHO IS SIMON CHALLIES?

Ryman Healthcare managing director, retiring next month

• Originates from, and works in, Christchurch.

Continued below.

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• Schooling: Prebbleton Primary, St Thomas of Canterbury College.

• Law and commerce graduate, University of Canterbury.

• Initially worked as a chartered accountant.

• Joined Ryman in 1999 as chief financial officer.

• Appointed chief executive in 2006 aged 36.

• Won 2014 Deloitte Top 200 CEO.

• Married to Tracey, teenage son Sam.

What you might not know about him

• Loves the YouTube video with village residents dancing to the popular song Happy by Pharrell Williams.

• Staff call him 'the chief dissatisfaction officer' because his untiring interest in doing things differently.

• Has a memorable rhyming nickname: residents know him all over the country as Simon from Ryman.

• When he became CEO, Ryman co-founder Kevin Hickman told him the only condition was that he had to ditch his lime green Vespa motorbike.

• Challies used to wear a matching lime green helmet when he rode that bike.

• His son told him when he was nominated for a Deloitte award: "Don't worry Dad, you haven't got a show."

• Relies on his wife and son to keep him grounded.

• Says he's a success because of his tight-knit team who are as obsessive and passionate as he is.

• Has all the faces of that team on his cellphone and shows their images off to prove he's not alone.

• He's based in Christchurch and his former office was wrecked by earthquakes.

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