Barbara Keffer Featured

9:40am EDT July 22, 2002

Many successful businesswomen pick and choose among diverse opportunities to create a niche where they can prosper. Others, like Barbara Keffer, are simply born into situations that set them on a path to personal and professional fulfillment.

Keffer, who owns and operates Country Care Manor, a 75-resident personal care home in Fayette City, grew up around a nursing home run by her parents. She got her first job there and used that experience as a springboard to ownership of a similar facility.

"My mother and father started the Waddington Convalescent Home in 1954, and I was 12 years old when I started working there," Keffer says.

After high school, she trained as a licensed practical nurse and continued working at her parents' facility --rising to assistant administrator -- until 1986.

"Although it is certainly a business, personal care is also a vocation," Keffer says of her decision to follow in her parents' footsteps. "You must either have, or develop, certain ways of looking at life and other people. You must develop qualities like patience, compassion and respect.

"It's as much about attitude as it is about ability."

A place of her own

Keffer became an entrepreneur in 1986. With her husband as her partner, she built Country Care Manor as what she describes as a modern expression of the Waddington Home, where her husband had worked as well. Originally, the facility housed 12 residents; today, it accommodates nearly 80 and employs 40 workers. The grounds cover 12 acres in the semi-rural Fayette County countryside.

Keffer says most of the facility is configured as semi-private quarters, and it offers six private rooms. Additional expansion, in the form of free-standing, cottage-style private quarters, was under consideration two years ago, but those plans were shelved when her husband died.

Family matters

Despite the loss of her husband, Keffer has followed the winning formula of family involvement that she learned growing up at the Waddington Home. Her two daughters work for her part-time, and her son, Jeff, a former accountant in Pittsburgh, has joined her full time.

Keffer explains that the so-called "nursing home" industry encompasses three distinct levels of care:

  • Personal care, such as that offered at Country Care Manor, in which residents are largely autonomous and receive assistance only with certain aspects of daily activity;

  • Intermediate care, which provides limited medical and nursing support in addition to assistance with "activities of daily living" (ADL);

  • Skilled nursing care, which combines residential living with complete medical and nursing support.

Each type is closely monitored and licensed by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and faces extensive annual inspections to maintain licensing.

"We may be very, very good or very lucky at what we do," Keffer jokes, "because in 14 years, we've never had a single issue with licensing or inspection. Seriously, though, that's a part of the business you absolutely must take seriously.

"We like to think that this facility operates like a very large family and that human values are essential," she adds. "But there are hard and fast requirements and responsibilities, too, and we have to conduct ourselves strictly within them."

Intensive management

If Keffer has done well with the main mission -- the provision of personal care -- she's been continually challenged by the business end of the operation, especially with personnel.

"The single hardest part of the business is attracting and retaining good workers," Keffer says.

Although her work force includes maintenance and food service workers, as well as a full-time registered nurse, the majority of her employees provide care to residents.

"I have several people who have been with me since Day One, but there's quite a bit of turnover, and it's not always easy to maintain staffing," she says. "Scheduling and recruitment are constant concerns. And we're competing for a limited pool of workers with some of the giant retail establishments in the area. Frankly, this work isn't for everybody. It takes a certain kind of person with special qualities.

"I'm sure it's much easier for many people to work at Wal-Mart."

Special challenges

Staffing and scheduling concerns are not peculiar only to Fayette County or to personal care homes. All types of residential operations -- including intermediate care, skilled nursing care and facilities specializing in mental health support -- are challenged to find a steady supply of dependable, willing and enthusiastic people to do the work for modest wages.

"It's a matter of revenue," Keffer concludes. "Our residents have modest and fixed assets, so there's only a limited amount of money in the system. As a result, we're limited in the financial incentives we can offer workers." But, she adds, "that doesn't mean we can't do the job -- and do it extremely well. It means we have to be flexible and adaptable. This is, after all, very much a 'people' business." How to reach: Barbara Keffer at Country Care Manor, (724) 326-4909 or jkeffer@msn.com

William McCloskey is a Pittsburgh-based free-lance writer.