Over an emotionally frustrating span of about 10 years, Mary Ann Stallings needed to help six family members and a friend navigate through a difficult decision: finding a retirement community to meet their needs and personality.
"The process of finding the right place was always confusing and no matter how many times we did it, we found ourselves starting over," Stallings said. "It was difficult remembering important details about the level and type of care offered in each facility. I watched with empathy as I witnessed residents moving to other communities when their physical or mental needs changed, their families finding themselves at a loss attempting to discover the best community to meet their loved one’s needs.”
Her experience served as a beacon others sought; she sympathetically shared the lessons she learned finding the right community with the right services for her loved ones. As people kept seeking her help, it didn't take long for Stallings see how the knowledge she gained could be turned into a calling.
And a fast-growing small business.
Demand for heart-to-heart caring communities to increase
Since 2010, Bridge to Better Living has taken the mystery, fear, confusion, and complexity out of the effort to find the right nurturing, caring community with face-to-face help, making connections between area communities and the specific emotional, physical, medical, and financial needs of its clients--and involving the families who care for them at each step. When there is a need for in-home care or other community resources, Bridge to Better Living is able to make a referral.
The three-person office in Southeast Community College's Entrepreneurship Center in Lincoln enjoys close business relationships with nearly every facility in the city and recently have expanded its reach to a growing number of community providers in Omaha.
While Stallings' firm offers services at no cost to its clients, the business model is based on the welcome help she offers to communities.
"We do the screening for them that often takes a considerable amount of time," she explained. "They lose money when apartments are empty, and our services help fill those vacancies, both in the present and future.
It's reasonable to assume the demand for Bridge to Better Living services will increase. According to a survey by Woods and Pool Economists, the population of 55 years of age and over in Lancaster County has risen an estimated 50 percent, to 19 percent of all residents since 2000. In the year 2030, projections say the fastest growing population segment will be 85 years of age and older.
Since its launch, revenue growth for Bridge to Better Living has been a steady 15 to 20 percent each year, but, "in 2014, it jumped to 30 percent," claimed Stallings.
Rewards are more than monetary
“The thank you and hugs we receive from our clients are priceless and well worth the time,” Stallings said.
"I had an elderly couple, and their children wanted them to move into a community," she said. "Sometimes the children will bicker with the parents because of the tension of such an emotional decision, so I asked the son if I could to speak to his parents alone, because the couple said, 'no way we're not moving.'" After Stallings carefully outlined the drawbacks and benefits of a retirement community, the couple made the decision and within two weeks made the move.
"People need people," she explained. "To see people we help go to a quality retirement community where they embrace a new quality of life, where mom and dad have proper nutrition, are safe, well cared for and happy is priceless., It takes the burden off the children -- it's so rewarding."
Finding care for the elderly has been a passion for Stallings since she was a young girl growing up on a farm in western Nebraska, frequently visiting her grandparents in a nursing home. She was saddened when she noticed other residents received few visitors, so she'd oftentimes go over to talk with them and play their favorite hymns on a nearby piano. Back then there were very few programs to help the residents stay physically fit and mentally alert.
"There are so many wonderful communities now," Stallings said. "Part of the problem talking to families is the older generation have the memories of nursing homes from when they were young and seeing their own grandparents or parents there.
"When I was looking for communities for my family, I thought I knew the right questions to ask when I was there until I was back home and realized I didn't. I didn't ask those important financial questions. There really wasn't any place you could go, like the internet, pointing out how you need to ask this and this. It was a frustrating process on where to go and where to start. And Bridge to Better Living takes care of families from the beginning to after a family member is placed.
Getting her start through SCORE, NBDC and the SBA
Before becoming an entrepreneur, Stallings taught kindergarten through seventh grade for 28 years in Lincoln, but took a sabbatical to serve as the first director of the Lincoln Children’s Museum and was the first director of the Lincoln and Lancaster Children’s Consortium. She even managed two successful political campaigns, one for city council and another spearheading passage of a school bond issue. As she gained the trust of the communities and senior businesses in the area, she also was building a foundation of salesmanship that when the time would come to start her own firm would build the trust of the assisted living and retirement communities with the unique service she could offer them.
To start, Stallings took a class on writing a business plan from the Lincoln chapter of SCORE, and got help from the Nebraska Business Development Center on financial projections, spending a year and a half on research. "If I was going to do this," she said, "I wanted to do it right."
Bridge to Better Living's market strategy not only would offer a strong online presence but would lean on Stallings' ability to connect person-to-person with professional groups, doctors’ offices, financial advisors and attorneys, wherever might be found referrals to potential clients on the cusp of that major life decision. She needed start-up capital, and took her business plan to Cornhusker Bank where she was approved in October 2009 for an SBA Express loan. The capital not only paid for computers and other expenses, getting the loan also served as a personal validation that her consulting business idea would be a good one.
"My husband didn't think retirement communities would pay somebody to do this," Stallings said with a little smile. But for a while as she worked to establish her company's reputation, she found herself alone in her office in the upstairs loft of their home almost agreeing with him.
"At times I felt discouraged, there were downtimes when the phone wasn't ringing and you're not confident in business yet and wondering if it would ring again," she admitted, thinking of the times her days were scheduled as a teacher down to the minute.
Soon enough, there was enough business for Bridge to Better Living to bring on another expert in senior living care, Robbie Nathan, who also was one of the first people Stallings met starting the firm, "and she kind of held my hand as I learned about the business along the way."
Last year, Bridge to Better Living moved from herhome office to the Entrepreneurship Center, and in January 2015, she hired Cindy Pelan, who brought over 25 years of experience in senior careto guide the firm's expansion efforts in Omaha.
"Watching people be happy, their worries gone brings great satisfaction. There aren’t enough words to describe my joy," Stallings said. "Placement with passion, is what we do as a business, it really is."