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In a World of Franchised Care, Andelcare Brings Healthcare Home

If home is where the heart is, the owner of Andelcare home health care in Bellevue has a big heart for her business and her clients.

Nine years into her business venture, Marla Beck has grown her passion for the home-health-care industry into a small business focused upon compassion for her clients.  The U.S. Small Business Administration recently recognized her efforts:  the SBA district office in Seattle named Beck the 2012 Small Business Person of the Year for Washington State.

Andelcare provides companionship, homemaking, personal care, nursing care, hospice care and care management, to name just a few of the company’s services.  “We care for the elderly, the disabled and adults recovering from surgery or illness and help them maintain as much independence as possible while continuing to live with dignity in the comfort of their own homes, wherever that may be,” said Beck.  

Her clients pay for care out of their own pockets.  “We compete with hundreds of care options but are successful because we deliver what the customer needs with exceptional customer service and high personal values.”  At any time there may be as many as 100 clients receiving care from Andelcare.  Beck estimates since opening her business in 2003, she and her staff have touched the lives of well over one thousand people in the Bellevue and greater Seattle areas.  

While the business has been an easy fit for her, she didn’t come into it easily.  After spending more than 15 years in accounting, banking and the insurance industries, she said her passion and her joy for work was dying.  “I knew I wasn’t happy.”  She said she had opportunities to be a partner in a CPA firm – her degree from the University of Washington is in business administration with a concentration in accounting – “but I didn’t want to spend my life with an I.R.S. code that is illogical and overly complex.

“I wanted to combine something creative, with doing something good in the world while making a living at it,” she said.

She knew she was going to try a business startup in one of two industries:  pet care or senior care.  With a smile in her voice she said she chose senior care “because I don’t know how you make a living sitting dogs for 25 dollars a day.”  She said she doesn’t have children and thought it made sense “to create my own elder care insurance policy” so there is someone to take care of her when she gets older.

Beck doesn’t expect to need that care anytime soon.  She said at age 53 she doesn’t plan to stop working, perhaps into her seventies.  And given her chosen industry – home health care – the growth potential is enormous.  But therein lies her biggest challenge to date:  how to grow from a small business with more than 100 employees to one that is larger yet provides the same level of personal care and service.

Beck said in the coming weeks and months that is the focus of her meetings with her mentor and advisor, Michael Franz of the Washington Small Business Development Center.  Franz and the WSBDC provide free, confidential, one-on-one business advising to business owners who are seeking to grow and expand their businesses.  Franz works in downtown Seattle in the Fifth and Pike building and nominated Beck for her award. 

Beck was judged along with several other nominees and selected by an independent panel based upon business growth, stability, overcoming adversity, and contributions to the community.  In 2010 and 2011, Andelcare was recognized by the Puget Sound Business Journal as one of Washington’s 100 Fastest-Growing Private Companies and in 2009 and 2010 received the “Corporate Citizenship Award,” recognized as one of the top 75 corporate philanthropists in the Puget Sound area. 

The WSBDC network is partially funded by the SBA and Washington State University, along with other public and private entities throughout the state.  In 2012 their services are provided by 34 advisors at 24 different locations.

Beck said she was feeling the financial pinch of the recessionary economy of 2008 and 2009 and reached out to Franz when clients started cutting back on their use of in-home care assistance.  “Frankly, I was exhausted,” she said.  With advice from Franz, whose office is in the Pike Tower building in downtown Seattle, Andelcare made changes to her business operations that offered more flexibility and pricing options.

But Beck’s challenges started much earlier in the infancy of her enterprise.  Shortly after starting the business with a partner in 2003 she realized she was upholding the vision and her partner was not.  Fortunately, Beck said she learned from her divorce from her former spouse, who was an attorney, “get everything in writing,” and before Andelcare opened, she had a partnership agreement drawn up. 

She and her business partner went through binding arbitration, and while difficult at the time, she was able to buy out her former partner’s interest at a reasonable cost.  Personal challenges were part of her life then, too, and shortly after becoming sole owner, Beck went through cancer treatment, her mother’s illness, and other personal struggles.

But the angels prevailed (in Andelcare, “andel” is Czechoslovakian for angel – a tribute to her mother’s heritage) and the struggles and hard work have paid off.  The firm is on solid financial footing and expanding its business model to hire RNs as part of the in-house staff, rather than relying upon contracted nursing. 

“The biggest challenge now is marketing,” Beck said.  “We could be bigger than we are, but I want to keep quality high.”  She said the industry has become franchised and it is difficult competing with the “glossy brochures” and national reach of the franchised firms.

“Typically people and families don’t start dealing with us until there’s a crisis,” she said.  “Then they call the 1-800 numbers that they found on-line.”  Unfortunately, while there are some good operators, issues of elder abuse, including financial abuse, can occur when corporations are too big to properly hire, monitor and train staff, she said.

“We try to think of everything in the beginning.”  Based upon her experience in the business and what she has learned along the way, “we counsel clients about what to expect down the road given their current situation.  Basically, every day is triage,” she said.  It a process of “unraveling the story” for each client, dealing with people, “dealing with emotions.”

As the business has grown, Beck said she has let go of her desire to know every client, learning to “step back and trust my staff.  You don’t see the manager of GM down on the assembly line building cars,” she said.  And there’s a reason for that, which she said she learned the hard way:  clients would sometimes bypass their care supervisors to ask Beck to resolve concerns or complaints.

“I can come in on the initial family conference,” she said, but after that, she makes it clear to clients, “‘After this my staff with oversee all your needs.”  That’s not to say Beck and her company are inflexible in dealing with personal issues and needs.  To the contrary, said Beck, “There’s always a story in the background” of every problem.  “You just have to take the time to listen, start unwinding it, and deal with the facts.”

The facts of Beck’s story are, as they are for so many other small business owners:  she created something valuable that didn’t exist before.  “I feel my success is a classic entrepreneurial story,” she said.  “I had a strong desire to create a new life for myself, I wanted to make a difference, I was willing to face my fears and I wanted to do it my way.  I bootstrapped my way to success with having a vision, working hard, asking a lot of questions, being creative and learning from my mistakes.

“Today I have a job I love where I feel I contribute to the good in society.  I look forward to going to work each day, I enjoy the people I work with, and I feel rewarded for a job well done.”  It doesn’t get much better than that.  But Beck said she intends to try.