Stephanie Howe runs the most financially successful office in the Comfort Keepers franchise. She was the first franchisee in the company to breach the $10 million mark. After a decade in the business of providing in-home care, she owns five Comfort Keepers offices, four in new Jersey and one in Maryland. And she now owns her own school for teaching home healthcare professionals the way to do it right.
And the Robbinsville resident never had a clue what she was doing.
Actually, let’s rephrase that. She had no real experience running a business and no idea how to run a profitable one—and that was still true four or five years into running her Comfort Keepers business. But she was smart enough to know that her lack of knowledge was something she could fix. She accomplished this in two ways: One was to surround herself with people who knew all the things she didn’t. Two?
“I always tell people I went to Google University,” she said.
Howe’s rise from winging it through business to companywide example of how to do it right was impressive enough to Sheila Truncellito, general manager at Howe’s Comfort Keepers office in Robbinsville’s Town Center, that Truncellito nominated her for a Women of Achievement award from the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce.
What Truncellito said in her nomination was a secret until the awards ceremony, which was held June 22 at Jasna Polana in Princeton. The event—and the reveal—occurred after this edition went to press.
But what is known is the reaction Truncellito’s nomination garnered from the chamber.
“The Women In Business Alliance Committee was blown away after reading Stephanie’s nomination,” said Lorraine Holcombe, the chamber’s executive vice president and CFO, and head of the Women in Business Alliance. “She is what I would call a Super Woman, and I can’t wait to hear her story.”
So, about Howe’s story. The one that carved the path for Howe to be a successful healthcare entrepreneur started in earnest in the early 1990s. At the time, in her early 20s, Howe was halfway through her bachelor’s program in speech pathology, but had to come home. Her father, Ron Pawson, was being overtaken by multiple sclerosis.
Pawson’s MS was cruel and progressive. When a new symptom developed, he never recovered from it. He lost control of his independence at an early age, with no hope for improvement or cure.
Howe’s mother, Barbara, felt she had no choice to put her husband in a nursing home because she could no longer care for him at home. Howe said her father would have been happier if he lived out the rest of his life in the family home surrounded by people who loved him. But, instead, he lived in the nursing home for 17 years, and died in 2008 at the age of 61.
At the time of the decision, there weren’t many options for treating and managing the care of a 44-year-old man with MS. Not unless you had pay-for-hospital-care-out-of-pocket kind of money, which the family did not. The family had no other choice but to put him in a nursing home, paid through Medicaid.
So, Howe realized that she needed to go back to school right away, or she’d never go back. She opted to become a nurse. In 1994, she finished the program at Helene Fuld School of Nursing and had the idea of starting a company that provided care for patients like her father.
“I came up with the idea for a company that would keep people at home,” she said. “It turned out that many people came up with that before me.”
Howe worked as a registered nurse at Capital Health System from 1994 to 1996 and then at Princeton Healthcare System until 2002. In the meantime, she’d gotten married and had two children. Then, at age 26, she learned that she also had multiple sclerosis.
The diagnosis changed her life and her marital status.
“I knew he wasn’t going to be there for me,” Howe said of her first husband. “He told me, ‘I don’t want you to end up like your dad.’ That flipped a switch in me. I thought, ‘I have no intention of ending up like my dad.’”
So Howe “hit the fast-forward button” on her life, starting with a divorce. She understood quickly that while she had no plans to enter a nursing home anytime soon, MS wasn’t going to wait for it to be convenient for her to slow down in life. She knew that at some point, and earlier than most, the disease would keep her from doing things.
That realization is what propels her to enjoy life and do it now, she said. If she really wants to go to Hawaii, she’s going to go, because later it might not be an option. One of the first things she did was start a support group for people with MS, but she was kind of a pariah after the first meeting.
“Everybody was brooding,” she said of the group’s attendees. “When they got to me, I said MS was the best thing that every happened to me.”
They looked at her as if she was from Mars.
“I couldn’t go back after that first meeting,” she said. So she started a second group for people with a more positive outlook on MS, though she’s no longer part of it.
Today, Howe is 46, has a second husband, Rich Howe, and six children—four of her own and two stepchildren—none of whom have yet shown signs of MS. Howe has heard conflicting data about the genetic component of MS. The last statistic she heard was that there is a 40 percent chance of being diagnosed if you have a parent with MS. There are no statistics she knows of about the chances of developing MS if there is both a parent and a grandparent with it.
“I do live in fear that I’ve passed this on to one or more of my children,” she said.
She also has numerous brain/spinal cord lesions from the MS. But there has been so much progress in the treatment of MS in the last 20 years that there are options available for treatment. Howe’s currently taking a once-a-day oral medication that has no side effects for her and is keeping her MS stable. She still wears heels, and given her generally positive, bouncy energy, you’d never know she had MS.
Howe’s MS, unlike her father’s, is not progressive. It is relapsing-remitting, which means there are points when MS symptoms return and others when the disease goes into remission. Howe said she remains essentially unaffected by the disease.
“I always have said that my dad took the heavy load for both of us,” she said. “I never told him of my diagnosis because I knew he would blame himself, and I certainly never blamed him. I have done everything I can to turn his tragedy into something positive and don’t complain about my little symptoms. My dad honestly never did, so neither will I.”
That mindset, not to mention her medical background and what it was like to care for her father, has given her incredible insight into how to treat people through Comfort Keepers.
It wasn’t the compassion and energy part that was an issue for her, it was the business-running savvy. Howe started her first Comfort Keepers office in Hamilton Square in 2005 (later moved to Town Center) and her second in Monroe in 2006. Though she enjoyed the business, she admits she didn’t know what she was doing, businesswise. Her husband, Rich, was in construction and had briefly run a business himself, which helped Howe in two ways. First, he would offer some business advice, but second, his income was enough that if she wasn’t making money, it wouldn’t hurt the family.
The thing is, she said, she didn’t realize she was running an unsustainable business until she joined a performance group for Comfort Keepers franchisees in 2010 and was told flat out that with her current way of doing business, she was not going to make it.
That turned out to be another of the best things to ever happen to her, because it propelled her to “Google University” and to surround herself with the right people in business. Hiring and training the right staff, the right way, Howe said, has turned things around so far that her “unsustainable” business is now the flagship example in the company. In 2016, Howe’s five locations combined to turn $10 million for the year; this year, she said, they are on target to turn $12 million.
Rich runs the office in Easton, Maryland, where the couple have a second home. Howe said she and her husband have dramatically different styles in management, but that the office under his stewardship is doing extremely well, thanks to his way of doing business.
Last November, Howe opened the New Jersey Caregivers Academy next door to her Robbinsville office. It was a longtime goal to open a school, but Howe said the main impetus for doing this particular school was to unify the way caregivers actually give care. One of the big problems in the home health aide sector, she said, is that everyone does things a little differently. That would be fine, except that she’s hired some people who didn’t know how to use some pieces of equipment they really should have known how to use. What she wants is to make sure caregivers from any and all caregiver companies understand what it means to do the job well. The academy has its official ribbon cutting ceremony slated for this month, but the date has not been finalized.
Hiring and training the right people is the bedrock of a successful business, Howe said. As is an understanding of the job she hires people to do. She knows it’s not a lifetime career for most people. She knows it can be draining. She knows it can have many days when the family of a client lay into the caregiver because they just need to scream at someone. She knows her caregivers have to face children of clients who are burning with guilt and confusion. She knows that clients will pass away and it will hurt.
But it’s not about the bad stuff, she said. Care givers give care. That’s what they need to keep in mind. And often, long-term and live-in health aides become members of the clients’ families. Despite its tough days, Howe said, it’s a rewarding way of life.
“It’s a feel-good business, but it doesn’t always feel good,” she said. Nevertheless: “It’s so good for your heart and soul to help other people.”
Howe is one of four award winners this year. The others are: Lori Grifa of Archer & Greiner; Amada Sandoval of Princeton University; and Diane Grillo of RWJ Hamilton/Barnabas Health.
Grillo, who has spent 17 years at RWJ Hamilton and now is vice president of health care there, said in a statement that she is grateful to the hospital for giving her the opportunity to be creative and invest in community health.
“In my early days, RWJ Hamilton led the way in prevention and wellness with outreach in senior centers, conducting health assessments, bringing in holistic therapy, and building a medically-based fitness center,” she said. “We were ahead of our time then and we continue to push the envelope with our new RWJ Wellness Advantage program, linking our patients who needed extra support with not only their primary care physician, but adding a whole team to work together—a nurse, behavioral health counselor, dietitian, and our fitness center with a personal trainer. This wellness program moves from isolated primary care into a full wellness support system that has seen people get healthier, take less medication and live a more full life. That makes me want to get up every day and advocate for our community.”