PPP History Thus Far

Rachel CombePPP2 Comments

 I wrote this article in June 2017. A lot has happened since then…

July 10 this year marked the 15th year anniversary of when I started my business, then known simply as Pilates Proactive. It has caused me to reflect on where it all began, given we are on the precipice of launching ourselves into establishing the fourth practice in St Peters in a couple of weeks’ time.

It’s been a huge ride to date; mostly fun, satisfying and inspiring to say the least, but as a with all small business owners, there have been times where I had contemplated the simpler path of working for someone else. During this 15 years, I have experienced many personal highs and lows, thankfully mostly good things, and these have been significant in how the business has grown.

I started the business when I was 28 years old, off the back of a three-year travel odyssey based in Cambridge, UK. When I returned to Australia, I had not a cent to my name, was living at my parent’s house temporarily and was single and carefree! Now I am almost 44 years old, a home-owner, with two children and a husband… oh and an ageing Labrador! Talk about a busy 15 years.

My passion for Pilates initially began when I was doing copious amounts of classical ballet classes in my younger years.
My passion for Pilates initially began when I was doing copious amounts of classical ballet classes in my younger years. Some of my ballet friends had sustained injuries and were miraculously cured with Pilates rehabilitation, which back then was only available at the Centre of Performing Arts with a brilliant dance physio named Nicole Vass.

I decided to explore the benefits of Pilates in the dance population in fourth-year physio. I spent a memorable week in Sydney, where Nicole Vass had moved her practice and observed many dancers, as well as musicians from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, enjoy huge technique improvement from Pilates exercise. At that point in my life, I truly believed I would become a dance physio as soon as I graduated and would be working for the Australian Ballet Company in no time!

Life, as we all know, takes on many different twists and turns and my first job was actually at Broken Hill Base Hospital where I enjoyed meeting many wonderful country people and loved being part of a small community. 18 months later I landed a job in Cambridge, working for the NHS, where incredibly the waiting list for physio appointments was over a year! Needless to say, there wasn’t much point doing any manual therapy for these patients. Their conditions were chronic and their bodies were in desperate need of postural re-education and exercises to rehabilitate. I was lucky enough to be sent on a number of Pilates courses in Surrey, and soon after began to teach Pilates to patients as well as the Addenbrooke’s hospital staff. It was thoroughly enjoyable and I received great feedback during this time.

I returned to Adelaide three years later and I remember clearly, my cousin Joni Combe, who already had begun running her well-known drama school Theatrebugs, urging me to start some Pilates classes in Adelaide. The Pilates movement had yet to really hit Adelaide and my famous last words were “I don’t think Adelaide will be interested in Pilates”!!

Well, I decided to give it a go, sourcing initially a school gymnasium in Stirling, a community hall in Glenelg, and Joni’s rehearsal studio. Conditions were fairly basic; unpredictable heating and cooling, shared space with other hirer’s, and the occasional blackout! None of this mood-lighting, ambient temperatures and signature oils being burned we see today in our studios. And my first clients, particularly the Hill dwellers were very hardy and forgiving of the austere space. They just wanted to learn Pilates.

My first Pilates course was at Stirling East Primary School on Wednesday, July 10th, 2002. The first one had booked out so quickly I needed to add another. The participants had to walk a couple of hundred metres up the driveway in pitch darkness (thankfully a few had torches) and it would have been about 5 degrees. Amazingly, they had also brought blankets and mats so I knew I was dealing with an enthusiastic crowd. I can still recall the names of every single person who booked that course and incredibly, many are still attending our classes 15 years down the track.

Things grew fast from there and I started mat classes in another 5 venues; Beaumont, Malvern, Blackwood, Walkerville and Aldgate. I employed two young physios to help me, one being Vanessa Tesanovic who went on to work at PPP for another 5 years. I hadn’t really considered what to do next when a good friend asked me whilst sharing a bottle of wine at the Aldgate Pump, “so…what’s next?” I explained that maybe one day, I might consider opening a small Pilates studio of my own (I was then working for a Pilates Physio practice in Hazelwood Park), and pointed out what a great space the old Facial Attractions site in the Stirling Arcade would be if I was ever in a position to start up a practice of my own. She looked at me straight in the eye and exclaimed, “You’re a bloody idiot! What are you waiting for? Do it now!!”

And scarily enough, I knew she was right. I had to do it, as petrifying as it was. I called my mum who was on holidays in Italy and I’m sure I woke her up in the middle of the night. I needed to know mum was on board with this crazy venture as I couldn’t do it alone. Thankfully she had the same enthusiasm as I did and as soon as she was home we started madly planning.

Rachel Combe with Mother

Rachel Combe with her Mother, one of the biggest supporters of Rachel and the foundation of Physio Pilates Proactive.

We opened what was then called Physiotherapy and Pilates Proactive on September 15th, 2003. They were very exciting times and mum and I had no idea what we were doing!! Another famous last words moment was mum remarking on opening day that she thought we had taken on too much space and wouldn’t be able to fill it! Those of you who attend our Stirling practice will know oh-too-well that it can be like Grand Central Station at times, and has been like this almost since the day we opened.

A couple of months prior to opening I attended a physio course where I met the lovely Jane Deere. Jane was hoping to be inspired by the McKenzie Method as she was at a bit of a professional crossroad having worked predominantly as a Women’s Health physio at the Women’s and Children’s Hospital while her children were growing up. Jane and I still laugh about who was more foolhardy; me offering a Pilates physio job to someone who had yet learnt how to teach Pilates or Jane accepting the job when the bank hadn’t even approved my business loan. As providence would have it, the risk paid off well for both of us and over 14 years we have forged a rather wonderful friendship.

So for a while, it was the Me, Mum and The Jane Show all learning as we went along;  some unique meetings were had in the early days, where mum couldn’t stop calling me “darling”! After a year, the practice was growing at a steady rate and needed more staff. Annie Ayres and Gwendalyn Schmidt, experienced, accomplished physios and the highly personable receptionist, Josie Carsiotis joined in 2004. At the end of that year, Ellie then Adams (now Parnell) joined as a new graduate.

For the next two and a half years, I lived, ate and breathed Pilates and the business. I was working about 80 hours per week; 8am-4pm weekdays at Stirling, 5-9pm weeknights at the still open off-site venues in church halls, Saturday mornings at Stirling, Saturday afternoons “doing the books”, and to finish off an exhausting week, I’d spent Sunday mornings cleaning the practice!

So what was I thinking when I had a brainwave to open a second practice? It was late 2005 and I was having a coffee at Jenny’s Bakery on Glen Osmond Road when I saw our current Parkside building was up for lease. Having grown up in the area, I’d always been intrigued by the two storey Art Deco building and thought it would make a pretty unique Pilates studio and physio practice. So with a little more business experience under my belt, I signed another lease. Mum again was by my side helping me make decisions and operating the administrative aspects of the practice. Beck Trevitt and Carolyn Gadd, two wonderful family friends, had also joined the team and were helping transform our processes into something much more streamlined.

Parkside was a much more challenging beast in the early days- different locations and communities don’t necessarily respond to a cookie cutter approach.

Parkside was a much more challenging beast in the early days- different locations and communities don’t necessarily respond to a cookie cutter approach. So like a mother getting to know her second child and realising they are not the same as their first born, I slowly got to know the unique rhythm and energy of Parkside.

However what was building synonymously between the practices was a strong ethos and philosophy of patient care. It was happening through my values but also the similar values held by my staff. And something which I had never expected when you start your own business; the clients themselves were helping shape what PPP stands for to this very day. It’s the culture which makes me feel happy when I am at work, where I have met so many inspiring people, some who have become lifelong friends, the culture where I genuinely care for all of my staff and celebrate their wins and feel sad for their losses. I feel animated when I engage with our clients and continue to feel thoroughly chuffed when someone says they enjoyed one of my classes.

Rachel Parkside 2006 Pilates Adelaide

Rachel at the Opening Night of the Parkside PPP Studio – circa 2006.

Anyway, back to what is turning out to be a rather lengthy bed-time story! Our General Manager, Sue Caldicott joined us in 2006 but in spite of her holding a Bachelor of Communications and a Masters in Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Sue was applying for a part-time admin role. She too was at a professional crossroads and was sick of corporate culture. I decided to employ Sue despite my misgivings that she may leave in a couple of months to return to corporate life. And wow, was that a good punt! Sue has been with us for 12 years, gradually taking on a much bigger role and for a long time has been my right-hand woman. Sue is incredibly thorough with every decision she makes and I can be rather impatient when I have an idea which I want to take flight. Between us, we are known as Progress and Perfection and the balance of our traits creates such an effective, enduring partnership.

I spent the next two years after Parkside was “born” madly acquiring more Pilates qualifications, regularly flying all over Australia to attend Polestar Pilates courses. While I was enjoying the thrill of learning more and networking with more Pilates-minded physios, I was close to burning out.

In November 2007, life abruptly changed. My gorgeous mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. This devastating news was felt not only with our immediate family but with my staff and clients who had gotten to know Mary so well at the practices.
I’d been working insane hours for five years and for my seemingly endless energy drive was waning.

In November 2007, life abruptly changed. My gorgeous mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. This devastating news was felt not only with our immediate family but with my staff and clients who had gotten to know Mary so well at the practices. Beautiful cards and flowers were sent to mum, wishing her to get better soon. Mum had been regularly attending my Pilates classes for years and during her battle, she still managed to do a daily Pilates routine at home to keep her mobile.

In a strange way, I  think I was keen to give mum a project while she underwent treatment and I think I wanted us to feel like a partnership again so, in 2008, we opened a little practice in Littlehampton. It was comforting going through the familiar steps of fitting out a practice space with mum, and typically she was meticulous in her detail (very different to her rather impulsive daughter!). Littlehampton chugged along with myself, Annie Ayres and Vanessa Hemer teaching and treating there.

Through such sad circumstances, a silver lining came along with my dear sister Lucy returning home from a 6-year stint away from Adelaide, living in London and then Melbourne. She has a strong administration background, amongst many other skills and was a favourite on the desk for 3 years. Lucy also added a huge amount to our newsletter and other communication projects.

On Wednesday 4th March 2009, my beautiful mother passed away. My world had changed irreversibly. Mum taught me so much about compassion, patience, kindness, being focussed and we had so many laughs in those early years of building PPP. She had left such a legacy with our culture and testimony to this was the strong presence of clients who attending mum’s funeral. Both practices closed for the first and only time on a weekday, non-public holiday as all 17 staff wanted to attend her funeral. I will always remember the huge feeling of support and love on that day and am eternally grateful for their understanding during what was the hardest time of my life.

The next few years after mum died felt like a blur and despite me not being my usual energetic self, PPP continued to grow quite independently of my limited leadership. It had become an entity of its own and was the sum of all its parts; me, the staff and all of its clients contribute to this vision and everyone believes in the key philosophies of passion for learning, enjoying the process of maximising movement potential and belonging to a friendly, non-judgmental community.

Personally, life changed much for the better when I met Paul Hedges in 2008. Mum was still alive then but I didn’t start dating Paul until December 2009. It was how I had imagined meeting your life partner…well, maybe not the lightning bolt but pretty close to it and such a sense of confidence that this union was going to last! Once again, my staff and clients shared my happiness when Paul proposed. I remember showing Josie my ring and her not being able to stop saying “wow”, over and over again! While I was teaching my class, she and Gwendalyn bought a couple of bottles of champagne and had glasses of bubbles waiting for the clients and I afterwards – at 10.15am!! It was that love and support which I had experienced with such sadness, coming to the fore again with joyous, happy news.

Many staff and clients attended our wedding, and when our two beautiful children were born, Paul and I received so many cards, flowers and presents from the PPP community. Some clients will remember me turning up with baby Cate in her capsule, dumping her beside Josie or Lee so I could attend a class. They both graciously cuddled and rocked her when she woke and I think Jose once had to change a rather awful nappy!

Combe Family PPP

Rachel, Paul and their two children.

Just before our son Hamish was born, Paul was made redundant, which really wasn’t such a bad thing as I was heavily pregnant and was happy to have someone to look after an exuberant 18-month-old toddler. Funnily enough, Paul had had enough of corporate life too, having worked in high level managerial and sale positions for many years so we decided temporarily for him to try his hand at business coaching and consultancy work.

This plan changed somewhat when I needed to return to work sooner than expected a couple of months after Hamish was born, due to staffing shortages. Paul fell into the stay-at-home dad role with surprising ease and skill, keeping us watered and fed while the PPP fire in my belly was being stoked after so many years. Ideas were starting to flow but the difference was, this time I had someone at home who understood business. Paul had always been very proud of my achievements but now we had time to properly discuss and expand on ideas.

A culmination of this think tank was our first Wellbeing Day which we hosted in August last year at the National Wine centre (coincidentally where Paul and I had our wedding reception). It was such a successful day and through this, Paul and I decided to formalise his role as Director of PPP – naturally I was promoted to Managing Director! With his input, time, and skillset we have been able to map out many new ideas which you would have noticed over the past year.

Recently in March this year, I was invited by a close ballet friend to join her project The Studio which she envisaged to be a one-stop shop for dancers, from physiotherapy to dance coaching. I am finally doing what I thought I would do 20 years ago- treating and teaching dancers! But The Studio, based in Glynde has actually also turned into a formidable Wellness Centre with our Pilates classes, dietetics services, speech therapy and yoga classes. I think going “back to my roots” teaching Beginners Courses has reminded me of what I love so much about Pilates. I thoroughly enjoy watching the steep learning curve participants experience over the 5 week period and how excited they feel about moving onto ongoing classes. Reminds me of the old days!

I think this restored passion and energy for PPP along with an equally enthusiastic husband-slash-business partner has led up to our latest project, opening our new St Peters practice. I have always wanted to run Reformer classes and the timing seems right. The location sits logically between Glynde and Parkside and connects the practices in a loop around the eastern suburbs and the Hills. This amount of practices seems perfect where we have some scale now, able to offer a greater number of services for differing client needs but still a small enough number that we can maintain quality control which we have built such a strong reputation over the years.

The team is the best I’ve ever know it; Sue, Jane, Gwendalyn, Josie, Ellie, Briar, Lee, Angie, Caitlin, Nettie, Jean, Catherine, Vicki, Chantel, Mel and Belinda – you are all brilliant and I am so grateful to have you at PPP. Our physios have a combined amount of almost 200 years clinical experience. Since opening Stirling in 2003, we have delivered almost 100,000 physio consults and have had over one million Pilates class attendances. These figures are something I am immensely proud of; a huge team effort! We have helped so many people achieve better movement and less pain over the past 16 years and my motivation is stronger than ever to make a positive impact on our community’s health.

Right now, I feel like PPP is poised for really exciting times and consolidation. I am strapping myself in for a new ride, one with greater maturity, humility and more channelled energy.  I am older and a little bit creakier (!!) but feel positive about where this adventure will take us. I hope I can be writing an update of this journey in another 15 years’ time.

As a postscript to this piece, our St Peters practice opened four months ago and is going from strength to strength (excuse the pun!).

2 Comments on “PPP History Thus Far”

  1. Hey Rachel, this is a wonderful account of your journey. I am very proud to have been a small part of it, as a devotee, ever since 2003!! Congratulations and let’s look forward to at least another 15 years. Love and best wishes, Loene

  2. This is a great real-life success story. Very proud to be associated with PPP and part of the STIRLING history. It is amazing what can be achieved with passion and support.
    Congratulations and I’m looking forward to the next 15 plus.
    Cheers Jenny

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