- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 31, 2005

Mike and Laura Pierce are just starting to see profits from a Fairfax business they started in September 2001 to help elderly persons live independently.

The Prince William, Va., couple, both 38, opened a franchise of Comfort Keepers, a Dayton, Ohio, network of caregivers providing nonmedical, in-home care to seniors, after both were laid off in 2001. Mrs. Pierce had worked in sales while Mr. Pierce was a network storage engineer.

What started as a two-person operation with $1,000 in revenue in its first three months has grown to a company with 78 staff members and $750,000 in sales last year.

The Pierces said they expect to have $70,000 to $80,000 in annual income this year, the first profits after investing more than $150,000 into the business.

The income is less than half of what the Pierces made in their previous jobs, which totaled $220,000 to $230,000 annually.

“We lived on love, our savings and a home-equity loan,” Mrs. Pierce says on a recent rainy morning at the Comfort Keepers office in a Fairfax City medical building.

The couple bought the franchise, the first one in Northern Virginia, which serves residents in Prince William County, Fairfax County and Alexandria, for $15,000. The Pierces, then newlyweds, spent $40,000 to $45,000 to get the business going in the first year.

They started as the only staff for the first month, working 10 to 15 hours every day to build a solid client list and carry out the services, which include grocery shopping, transportation, companionship, meal preparation and housekeeping.

“It’s been a lot of work, but the payoff is phenomenal, especially when you have clients’ family members thanking you,” Mrs. Pierce says.

The franchise earned only $1,000 in sales in the first three months it was in operation in 2001. By 2002, sales had surged to $125,000, and then nearly tripled to $350,000 in 2003.

The Pierces say they are expecting to have at least $1.5 million in sales this year.

The biggest sales growth has come in the last six months, Mr. Pierce says. Comfort Keepers typically has seasonal spikes and plateaus. More customers want services right after a major holiday, with January to March being one of the busier times of the year, he says.

The Fairfax franchise has about 100 clients each week, who pay $15 to $17 an hour for caregiver services.

Clients, or even family members of elderly residents, also pay $35 to $80 a month for systems that monitor a senior’s prescription-drug intake or general health. One system will alert Comfort Keepers and paramedics when emergencies arise.

Clients range as to how long they use the franchise’s services. The business has customers stick with the company until they die, while others only use the services for a few hours, Mrs. Pierce says.

The Pierces’ success has not come without mistakes, primarily within their hiring process and marketing.

“I think we earned a Ph.D. in bad marketing,” Mrs. Pierce quips, getting a laugh from her husband. The pair has spent about $5,000 on “bad promotions,” such as ads on grocery carts and prescription-drug bags that resulted in few to no new customers.

“We learned our business came from mostly word-of-mouth and some professional referrals,” Mr. Pierce says, adding the couple places select ads in senior-oriented publications in Northern Virginia.

Another tricky part of the business has been hiring reliable caregivers, who go into a client’s home on a regular basis. “The turnover rate in this industry is 75 percent. Ours has been 40 percent,” Mr. Pierce says.

When they first started hiring caregivers, the Pierces put an ad in a large Washington area newspaper, resulting in hundreds of applications, but only one new employee, who lasted three weeks.

Additionally, the Pierces say they wasted time scheduling interviews with hopeful candidates only to have few show up for their slotted times. “We learned to screen applicants over the phone and then set a regular interview day that was good for our schedules,” Mr. Pierce says.

AT A GLANCE

Company: Comfort Keepers

Description: Caregivers provide non-medical, in-home care to senior citizens.

Location: Fairfax

Franchise owners: Mike and Laura Pierce

Staff: 78 employees

History: The Pierces started the company as a two-person operation in September 2001.

Sales: $750,000 in 2004, more than double the $350,000 revenue for 2003.

Income: The Pierces expect their net income, the first since starting the company, to reach $70,000 to $80,000 this year.

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