Laura Amme & Clay Sword on Care Agencies vs. Registries in FL
As the owner and general manager of the Visiting Angels office in Port Saint Lucie and servicing several surrounding areas, Laura Amme and Clay Sword have been part of the Visiting Angels family since late 2014. As operators of a non-skilled home health agency in Florida — a state where caregiver registries are much more common than care agencies — Laura and Clay’s path to success is a potential roadmap for prospective Visiting Angels home care agency franchise owners.
Recently, Visiting Angels spoke with Laura and Clay about what made them interested in owning a care agency franchise, what’s made the franchise a success, and how they navigate operating a non-skilled home health agency in a market like Port St. Lucie, Florida.
Personal Experience with Age & Disability
Before opening Visiting Angels Port Saint Lucie, Laura had a successful career in the service industry, while Clay thrived in senior management roles. Both have been business owners. Clay had owned and operated a Direct Buy franchise in Oregon for ten years, and Laura had owned a successful photography business.
Laura and Clay have also had personal experience with the kinds of difficulties and challenges that make home care such an important service. For Laura, that experience came in taking care of a close family member during a difficult time. “I took care of my mother when she was dying,” Laura says. “So I’ve endured the balancing act that family caregivers experience.”
For Clay, a brush with serious health concerns showed him how difficult day-to-day life could be for those coping with disability. “I went through some medical issues in the early 2000s,” Clay says. “Then, in about 2004, I heard about Visiting Angels and it just hit me, ‘Wow, I could have used that 3 years before.’”
Decision to Purchase a Franchise
Laura and Clay have been friends for more than thirty years, but became partners in 2010. Within a few years, their shared dreams and compassion led to discussions about opening a Visiting Angels franchise together. “I had heard of Visiting Angels through their ads,” Laura explains. “I never considered owning a franchise until Clay explained the benefits of the business model, the branding, and the assistance franchise owners receive from corporate offices.”
Home health care seemed like the perfect fit for their personalities. Laura and Clay are the sort of people whose compassion extends beyond the elderly: they care for children, animals, and any of God's creatures who are vulnerable. In Clay’s words: “This all comes from a side of compassion. This isn’t just financially motivated.”
Research also showed that the industry has plenty of potential. “I did a lot of research on the aging population,” Laura says. “Obviously, the baby boomers are all retiring. So this is a business that’s going to be in high demand for at minimum, the next twenty years.”
As part of her research, Laura also spoke with other Visiting Angels franchise owners. “I didn’t hear anything negative that would make me reconsider the benefits of the industry,” she says. “Everyone I spoke to was very complimentary regarding the corporate office.”
Care Agency Franchise vs. Registry Franchise
At the time, Laura and Clay were living in Austin, Texas. Based on Visiting Angels’ available territories, Laura felt a move out of state would be better for starting a business. “The areas Visiting Angels had in Texas didn’t interest me. So I decided on Florida. I love the ocean. It’s just a great place to live, and it obviously has a larger senior population than most areas.”
In choosing Florida, Laura and Clay were faced with a unique home care market. Unlike most other states, Florida is made up mostly of nurse registries: companies that do not employ caregivers, but who refer clients to a network of independent care providers.
Laura and Clay knew that a nurse registry could be successful and that many Visiting Angels franchise owners had achieved success using the registry business model in Florida. They were also aware that registries operated with much lower overhead, and were generally able to offer care at a lower rate with a higher margin. However, both Laura and Clay believed there was more appeal in operating a non-skilled home health agency, one where she employed her own staff of caregivers.
“As an agency, I get to go the extra mile caring for the clients and caring for our caregivers,” Laura says. “I like to be in control, and I feel like owning a home health agency gives me a little more control over who I can hire and what I can offer the client.”
After detailed research into Florida’s regulations and St. Lucie and Indian River counties current care market, Laura and Clay felt there was room for a non-skilled home health agency — one that could be built on personal connections and quality of care. In December of 2014, Laura purchased her home care agency franchise territory from Visiting Angels. Six months later, the agency was up and running.
How Laura Built Her Franchise with Clay’s Guidance
To build a home care agency franchise that would stand out from local and competitive care registries, Laura and Clay researched and designed the business plan carefully.
They knew that it would take time to get licensed as a non-skilled home health agency. They also knew they wanted to get the business on its feet to start building experience, local name recognition, and clientele. To get their business on its feet, they applied for a home companion license and operated for the first four weeks with homemaker/companion care providers. This allowed them to start advertising, gain experience with light care work, and gain the first clients in advance of the full license.
They also committed themselves to building leads through referrals and a strong web presence, then following up on any leads that fell into their laps. “In the beginning, it’s not really how many leads you get, it’s what you do with the leads you have,” says Clay. “We never missed a lead call in the first six months. We didn’t take a breath.” It is still a priority to never miss a lead call, but with a supportive staff it is becoming easier to breathe.
Finally, in building the agency, Laura and Clay knew they would need to be selective. Says Clay: “A lot of it has to do with being very careful in the choices you make in staffing. People have a tendency to react, and they’ll just hire anyone who has the paperwork. That’s not what we do. A lot of it is vetting, making sure that candidates have excellent references, and that they are willing to come to our office for more than one interview, we want to get to know them before we hire them, ensuring we enlist the best caregivers. It sounds corny, but if I wouldn’t have them in my family, I wouldn’t hire them.”
Investing in the care staff, the agency was able to build a reputation among the area’s network of caregivers. This made it easier for them to find qualified staff later on when it came time to expand their workforce.
Of course, the early going was not without difficulties. Thankfully, Laura was able to turn to Visiting Angels’ corporate office whenever she had questions. “The only major challenge was the unknown,” Clay says. “And sticking to the game plan that corporate laid out kept us on the straight and narrow.”
Port St. Lucie’s Trusted Care Agency
Since opening, Visiting Angels Port St. Lucie has become the trusted source for in-home care in Port St. Lucie, Fort Pierce, Vero Beach and the surrounding areas. Laura and Clay say that it took only six to eight months for their Visiting Angels franchise to start seeing strong signs in their metrics. “At the beginning of 2016, we started to see momentum build,” says Clay.
Together they believe that a lot has contributed their success, however at the core of it all, personal connections and quality care are what define the relationships they have. “We get to know all of our clients. We visit them, and we talk with them and their families on a weekly basis,” says Laura. “We don’t leave it to our staff to build and maintain those relationships.”
In Laura’s opinion, going that extra mile can make all the difference when providing care for others. “Most people who reach out for home care are scared. They’re afraid to bring a stranger into their home, as well as losing their independence. Letting them know us, addressing all of their concerns and making them feel relaxed and comfortable, then making sure the caregiver is a good match in both skill level and personality, is how we gain their trust.”
When asked their advice for aspiring Visiting Angels agency franchisees, the pair stresses that franchisees need to put in the work early on. “Anyone who has the work ethic and compassion to enter the elder care industry will find the rewards far outweigh the costs.”
“I can’t think of a more rewarding business than elder care. Becoming a part of people’s lives when they need help. It’s wonderful,” Laura says.
Clay’s advice for new Visiting Angels franchise owners?
“I’d tell them to eat their Wheaties and get ready for a ride.”
“But,” he says, “it’s gonna be a good one.”