Emma Dickison knows a good business model when she sees one. As a former executive of both Blockbuster and Sylvan Learning Center, Dickison is now leveraging her business expertise to focus on growing the franchise brand of Home Helpers.
While at Blockbuster during the company’s heyday, Dickison helped grow the brand from 150 stores to 8,800 worldwide in her 14 years there. She also helped fuel similar growth at Sylvan Learning Center.
So when Home Helpers Founder and CEO Gary Green recruited Dickison to join the provider of one-on-one companion care and in-home services in 2007, he knew she would be able to help develop a strategy to grow the Home Helpers franchise.
“Gary and I started talking about Home Helpers because of my experiences and where he wanted to take the company,” says Dickison, president of Home Helpers. “I really saw it as a great opportunity to take a company that had done well and make it even better and continue to drive and build it. I think of Blockbuster and how that growth happened and I thought I’m young enough to still do it again.”
Home Helpers has more than 600 locations and has more than doubled its revenue in the past five years for 2011 systemwide revenue of $79 million.
“Home Helpers was a great company and they had just celebrated their 10-year anniversary, but in franchising, the first few years in any concept is really a strong learning curve.”
Here’s how Dickison used her past experiences to develop strategies that would allow Home Helpers to reach new heights.
Change is good
In any business that has the objective to grow its operations, change has to be a necessity that is embraced by the company and everyone in it. Dickison had to find out where to take the business next that would help it in its growth.
“After 10 years, obviously we had a foundation underneath us,” Dickison says. “Home Helpers was started as completely nonmedical services, and it did what was known as companion care, which meant serving as a companion to a client who needed meals made for them or maybe to help getting to and from the doctor.
“About two years before I joined, the industry started to transition into what is called personal care. Personal care is where you’re physically working with a client whether that’s transferring them from a wheelchair to a bed or helping them bathe, it’s hands-on care.
“From that, a year ago, we transitioned to yet another phase out of a strategic decision to continue to be able to provide a broader continuum of care to the client so they aren’t dealing with multiple agencies. We now have our offices in a position where they can provide medical services as well.”
The company then supplemented that with its Direct Link brand, which is vital sign monitoring, medication management and personal emergency response systems to allow clients to remain at home for as long as safely possible.
“So from where I started with largely a companion care business, we’ve now transitioned over the last five years into an organization that allows families to utilize one agency to be able to keep mom, dad, an ill spouse or a sick child home longer than what would otherwise be possible,” she says.
No matter what industry your business is in, change is a difficult thing to grasp and implement.
“We are all creatures of habit, and to have a bold result, you have to make bold decisions,” Dickison says. “For us, that has been strategically to be able to say, ‘What additional services do we need to provide so that families can feel comfortable about their family member?’ Change on any system is a challenge.
“There is a book by Tom Feltenstein and it’s called, ‘Change is Good, You Go First.’ There is a quote in that book that I think is powerful that says, ‘If you don’t like change, you’ll like irrelevance a lot less.’ The reality is you have to provide a product or service that the consumer wants or needs and is willing to pay for, and that’s kind of where we are.”
The services Home Helpers provides are needed, and the company has to continue to change as the industry does and as its consumers do to stay relevant.
“We’re a strong believer in testing and listening to our consumer and our franchise offices and then making the changes, and we’re changing first because we think we need to remain relevant,” she says.
Changes in your business can’t be made without a strong reason for making them.
“You have to have a great understanding of the industry you’re in and where it’s going and how you want to position yourself in it,” Dickison says. “Secondly, you have to take risks. The alternative to not doing something can be fatal.”
Dickison compares risk to a baseball player at bat — you never want to be called out not swinging the bat.
“Some things are going to be a great success, and there’s probably going to be a few things that are not, but you can’t be afraid to fail,” she says. “You have to be willing as a leader to take that risk and step up. Then you have to be accountable for whatever the results are. I take very seriously my role in that the decisions I make as a leader impact thousands of families, and I can’t take that lightly because I know they are depending on us to be that leader.
“I also have to think of the brand and lead us into the future and know that will require and has required us to take risks to figure it out, to make it happen and to move the system forward.”
The changes that Home Helpers makes are part of forming a strategy to move the company forward. These plans have to be carefully thought out and the right people have to be involved in the process.
“The end users, which are our offices, those who deliver every day a core mission to the communities that they serve, have to have a part in shaping strategy,” Dickison says. “We are very strong in seeking feedback from our franchise offices.
“We survey them twice a year formally. We get feedback after every training session and at our national conference. We get feedback on everything, and then we take that feedback and we review it very seriously to say, ‘What is the direction we need to go?’”
Having your stakeholders, which is your staff as well as your franchise offices, have a voice in shaping that strategy is key because then you can get buy in.
“You’re never going to please 100 percent of the people all of the time,” she says. “I have to make decisions as a leader as to what’s going to benefit my brand and the majority of my franchise offices. So having them be a part of that is critical, and we’ve done that in the five years that I’ve been here.
“Our positioning to move into medical services was as a direct result of focus groups and feedback we had done with our franchise offices who were concerned long term that based on where the industry is going, that if we did not make some changes in that direction, we were going to be at a competitive disadvantage.”
Franchise business models are unique in that franchisees don’t actually work for you but with you, which can make strategy implementation tough sometimes.
“The uniqueness of it is if you’re an organization that’s not franchise-owned, it’s easier to make that strategy and communication known and carry it through,” Dickison says. “It has to be a very collaborative effort and everyone has to buy in to the direction you’re going to. That’s why it’s not as simple as it is for some organizations where we decide the strategy, we tell you what it is and you deploy it.
“In franchising, there has to be a collaboration between the staff, the owners and management to work together to realize that strategy and deliver it.”
While everybody has the opportunity to have a voice, you’re going to make some decisions that are unpopular.
“It becomes a matter of showing the value — the features and benefits — of what you’re introducing or eliminating, in some cases, as you move the system forward,” she says. “It really comes back down to including stakeholders in the decision-making process, communicating, gaining buy-in and executing against it.”
Grow your franchise
In a franchise business model, it is crucial that franchise owners are aware of the business strategy and are involved enough that they want to contribute and generate ideas to help grow the company.
“We get those ideas every day, and I’m grateful,” Dickison says. “Our franchise owners give us feedback on ideas that they think could benefit the operating system daily via email, live conversation, surveys, national meetings and any communication style you can imagine. If they could send us smoke signals, they’re willing to share. That’s the great part for me.
“Every time I go out into the field, they are just so passionate about what our mission is and the work we are doing. They are eager to support our growth and our operating system.”
To get your company employees or franchisees involved in the business, you have to make sure you are communicating to them and that they understand what it takes to grow the business.
“It comes down to communication, communication, communication — aligning the strategy, communicating it and allowing them to be part of it,” she says. “I did, when I first got here, a series of town-hall meetings. I traveled all over the country and we talked about where we were and where we wanted to go. I made it clear from that moment that we wanted feedback.
“Not only did I communicate it, I demonstrated it in my actions. Many of the changes that we have seen today are as a result of very incredibly bright business owners who live and work in the trenches every day serving hundreds and hundreds of communities that have been willing to serve and provide feedback.
“Not only did I tell them it was important, I demonstrated it because I took action on the feedback that was given.”
With a strong strategy in place to deliver on what the industry and the company’s clients are asking for and a smart and devoted team of franchisees, Home Helpers is growing to that next level.
“We’re a brand of 15 years into growth,” Dickison says. “We are in 42 states today, which means we still have markets available for owners to come in and be able to build a strong business and serve the communities that they have.”
The keys to this growth have been a couple of points.
“No. 1, it’s selecting the right franchise owner,” she says. “Are they going to have the skill set, the expertise, the working capital to be able to realize their dreams of owning a small business that we can help them support? Selection of those that you are awarding territories is key.
“Then backing them up with a great operating system and a proven operating system that can help support their growth is critical. Then it’s having the right staff in place to ensure that.”
Since Dickison has been at Home Helpers, the staff has grown by about 40 percent and has done so because the company has grown and supported that expansion.
“It comes down to four things: having the right strategy, selecting the right owners to come into the system, giving them a terrific operating system that stays relevant to the industry, and then providing them great support,” she says.
With those four helping Dickison lead the company to that No. 1 spot in the industry, she is able to focus on the future.
“We want to continue to maximize our opportunities here domestically,” she says. “We are going to continue to explore those opportunities that allow us to stay on the cutting edge and remain as a strong competitor in our industry.”
How to reach: Home Helpers: (800) 216-4196 or www.homehelpers.cc
- Embrace change; understand where you want to be.
- Form a strategy to get you were you want to be.
- Communicate changes and strategies.
The Dickison File
Born: Ashland, Ky.
Education: She received a bachelor of arts in history and has a minor in secondary education from the University of Florida.
What was your first job and what did you take away from that experience?
My dad, in the recession of 1972, bought a small, independently owned hotel in Florida. That was going to be my parents’ retirement. They took a huge risk, invested everything they had, borrowed more and bought this hotel. At the age of 10 I was a maid. I cleaned rooms, I helped paint, I helped clean the pool and scrubbed the lounge. I learned from that experience to have an incredible work ethic and know that nothing was going to be given to me without me working hard for it.
What is the best business advice you’ve ever received?
Business is truly about relationships and how you interact with people. It’s really the golden rule — treat people the way you want to be treated. That’s true of your staff, franchise owners and vendors.
Who is a leader you admire in business?
The best leader I ever worked with is a woman by the name of Eileen Terry. She was an executive with Blockbuster. She was the first woman at the time in that role, and I believe there hasn’t been another who has held the title of executive vice president. She was incredibly gifted. She had very high standards, but she was such a great mentor. Today she is at Panda Express.
What are you excited about within the health care industry?
I’m excited about the role Home Helpers will play. Everything I read says we’re all going to need some level of care and so for us to play a part of that, culturally it’s important. Not just from a business standpoint, but how are we culturally going to take care of those who can’t take care of themselves. The fact that we get to play such a significant role in that is exciting.