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Taking the Right Road

A former traveling salesman finds his true calling: offering reliable home care to ailing seniors.

This story appears in the October 2009 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

During eight long years, Joe Grubb watched while his father, a vibrant and energetic 70-year-old known for single-handedly building decks and gardens, slowly succumbed to Parkinson's disease. Grubb and his sister pitched in as much as they could, but their mother was still overwhelmed looking after their father.

Hiring reliable home health care to back her up had turned into a nightmare: There was the woman whose boyfriend napped in the driveway while she was inside working; another unlicensed caregiver did well for several months, until she disappeared on the Fourth of July with the family's silverware and a pile of steaks from the freezer. Finding the right help was a long, frustrating, trial-and-error experience and relied heavily on word of mouth.

But it also taught Joe Grubb something he hadn't expected.

"I surprised myself," he says. "Helping out my dad, I found an aptitude for care-giving that I didn't know I had." That passion led the 49-year-old Grubb to a new phase in his life: After 15 years as a traveling salesman with a large printing equipment firm, he launched a Knoxville, Tenn., branch of BrightStar Healthcare, a technology-savvy, home health-care franchise, with headquarters in Gurnee, Ill.

"I'd been looking for a franchise, and when I heard about the home health-care market, I knew that was what I was meant to do with my life," he recalls. A little over a year after leaving the drudgery of living on the road four days a week, Grubb transformed himself into a self-employed businessman managing a part-time staff of 80 certified nurse's assistants and pulling in revenue of more than $1 million a year.

Grubb's path to success, though, was hardly free of pitfalls and missteps. In the last year, he has wrestled with cash-flow problems, been frustrated by the financial market and spent restless nights worrying that he wouldn't find enough business to make ends meet. But Grubb's strong competitive drive, perseverance and the ability to take a step back and make necessary changes to his business--and how he personally operated--kept the franchise afloat through the rough patches.

Simply choosing a business he was passionate about was the first key to Grubb's eventual winning formula. When he left his sales job, he knew he wanted to run a franchise, but he hadn't settled on exactly what industry to tackle.

"I'd reached a point in my life where I said, 'I've made a good salary and I've been smart with money. I have the unique opportunity to ask what I want to do next,'" he remembers.

"I thought about franchising and realized this is my vehicle for changing everything. I knew I could use what I knew about sales, and with a good franchise partner, I could take it anywhere."

He investigated eight companies, from cleaning firms to web-based ventures, but none of them clicked. All that research led him to one conclusion: He wanted a company that was bringing a strong IT infrastructure to an industry that was "a little behind the times" in adapting its business model to the digital age.

When he found the 7-year-old BrightStar, he thought it was a perfect fit--a home health-care company that was on the cutting edge of using internet-based applications.

In March 2008, Grubb pulled together his startup cash from his 401(k) and savings and signed the franchise agreement, which required an initial fee of $35,000 and about 5 percent to 7 percent royalties. He then rented a 240-square-foot office in a suburb of Knoxville, one of more than 40 BrightStar locations across the U.S.

Next was finding qualified staff. During that first month, he interviewed 18 registered nurses before electing an experienced RN, Lisa Depperman, as his branch manager. As he put it: "After I hired Lisa, we sat down across from each other at the table in that little office and said, 'What in the world do we do now?'"

While Depperman began pulling together a roster of certified nursing assistants--specially trained and licensed home health-care professionals--for the company to send to clients, Grubb turned to what he knew best.

He drove down Knoxville's Main Street and went door to door introducing himself and his business to families. It was a slow start, but knock by knock and phone call by phone call, the franchise began grabbing clients.

Grubb also began cultivating referrals from social service agencies, nursing homes and senior centers.

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