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Profile: Creating a business to meet a need

CEO Al Gauvin founded Companion Care of Rochester in 1997

When Al Gauvin’s older sister needed in-home care after being diagnosed with cancer, he and his wife welcomed her into their home. They rearranged work schedules and stopped in at lunchtime to provide her with as much support as possible.

As Muriel Gauvin became more ill, it became clear reinforcements were needed.

“One day, I came home from lunch and found her wedged under the bed,” Gauvin recalls. “It was time to get help. I looked in the Yellow Pages and started dialing.”

Gauvin did not have a good experience with an agency that said it could help. It took 72 hours for an initial home visit and care was not scheduled until the following week. On the first day, the aide got lost. The following day, she made half the shift.

“On the third day, they were there the whole time,” Gauvin says. “And, the next day, we took my sister to the hospital and she subsequently died.”

Companion Care of Rochester Inc., which is celebrating its 20th anniversary, was born from this experience. The organization provides care for the elderly and those with mental and physical challenges. It provides a means for families to keep their loved ones at home.

The company has 550 people on staff, and Gauvin estimates Companion Care of Rochester will log sales in excess of $15 million.

When asked what differentiates his organization from the competition, Gauvin laughs.

“Hopefully, our response time is a heck of a lot better,” he says, the less-than-satisfactory experience from two decades ago still fresh in his mind. “That’s one reason we started the company in 1997. I had a need and the response was not to my liking.”

Not everybody was on board when Gauvin announced his intentions to go into the home-care business in the mid-1990s.

“A couple of my associates and good friends said, ‘Why would you want to get into health care? It’s a crazy business,’” he says. “In my mind, it is a lot like the grocery business—high volume and low margin. I understood that concept, but I also knew that during the latter part of your life, you shouldn’t have to go through the maze that many do today.”

During a given year, Companion Care of Rochester provides service to roughly 500 people for two hours to 24 hours a day. Some 90 percent receive care in their own home. In some instances, long-term care or companionship is required.

In other instances, families seek what is called respite care, which often means they, as caregivers, need a break.

“Sometimes they call and say, ‘I am the primary caregiver for my mom and dad, but we need to get out of town for a couple of weeks and need help short-term,’” Gauvin says. “We can help with that, too.”

At the annual company picnic this summer, a new employee asked Gauvin, “Have you been successful forever?” The surprised reaction was priceless.

“I looked at him and said, ‘The first year I was in business we did $80,000 in sales,” Gauvin says. “But I also paid a nurse $50,000 and I paid the aides another $50,000, and I had rent and so forth. So, you could say it was very successful for everyone but me.”

It was a slow build, Gauvin says. During the first year, he employed 30 people. For the first decade, the organization provided only companion care, and the owner was on the front lines, providing care first-hand to his customers. In 2008, it became a state-licensed home care services agency, providing both medical and nonmedical care.

“In the beginning, we guaranteed service,” Gauvin says. “That meant we served as a companion, a friend and a driver so people could get around. I myself was a taxi driver, and I spent overnights in people’s houses. You do what you have to do. At that point, I was trying to make a living.”

That is the kind of determination it took to make the business venture a success, says John Milazzo, chief information officer for Kodak Alaris Inc., who has known Gauvin for 30 years.  “When he first mentioned this idea, I said, ‘Do you know anything at all about health care? What the heck are you doing?’

“But Al just has raw intelligence. He did not jump into this on a whim. It was really well thought out, and he knew what he was doing, as clearly evidenced by the end result. He is a very shrewd businessman.”

Staff is key

Gauvin attributes much of the company’s success to his staff.

“We are only as good as that face-to-face caregiver,” he says. “They have to have empathy and a real desire to do this work. We train our own staff here and at the end of training, I’ll go in and say, ‘Look, here is the deal. If you’re not in this to truly care for people, please leave now.”

As many as 15 percent of people in each training class either leave on the spot or within 30 days of hearing Gauvin’s impassioned plea.

“They tell us, ‘I needed a job and you guys were advertising, but I’ve realized this is not for me,’” he says.

That attitude does not surprise those who know him.

“Al is so transparent and so engaging,” says Loren Ranaletta, president and CEO of Episcopal Senior Life Communities. They have known each other for more than 25 years.

“He really loves people,” Ranaletta says. “Regardless of what your status is, what your job or profession is, you are treated like a human being.

“He wants to know about you and what you do and what makes you tick. He’s got a big business that he has developed, and he still manages it with a huge heart. If the employees are happy, then care is good, then all of the people he serves are good.”

Companion Care of Rochester has four offices. The first, opened in 1997, is in Geneva, Ontario County.

“We found that if service was at an adequate level in Monroe County, it was at a less-than-adequate level in the rural communities,” says Gauvin, who lives in nearby Penn Yan, Yates County.

Other offices are in Rochester, Batavia and Buffalo, which launched last year. Each region has its own unique nature.

“Buffalo is a different kind of market,” Gauvin says. “It’s interesting, because we have less of a problem getting aides to travel from their home in Rochester to Pittsford or Greece. In Buffalo, it is a challenge to get aides to go to Lancaster or Hamburg or outlying areas.

The areas are just as close, 10 to 12 miles apart, in Rochester.

“But there seems to be almost a moat between the north side and the south side of Buffalo. We’ve talked to some of our friendly competitors and they seem to have the same issue,” Gauvin says. “We try very hard to get them out there to try it. It’s the fear of the unknown. (In some instances), we will pay for a cab the first time. Then they say, ‘Oh, it’s not too bad.’…It’s just convincing them to travel to a part of the area they aren’t familiar with yet.”

Off the job

When he is not at the office, where he spends 50 to 60 hours each week, Gauvin enjoys golfing, skiing, traveling and spending time with 11 grandchildren. He and his wife, Elise, who have been married 46 years, have been to Alaska and Australia in recent years, and like to travel closer to home, too.

At 69 and with a successful business, Gauvin could retire and never look back. Two of his three children, Christopher and Kimberly, work for the company. Yet, he says he is having fun and still enjoys coming to work every day. The mission that his sister unknowingly sent him on two decades ago is still at the forefront of his mind.

“We are finding that the people are frailer, they are older, and their dislike of nursing home settings is more entrenched today than ever,” Gauvin says. “A man came up to me and said, ‘I’ve been married for more than 50 years. My wife would be in a nursing home if it wasn’t for you guys. I struggle to put a value on that. I really do.”

Travis Anderson is a Rochester-area freelance writer.

Title: Founder, president and CEO, Companion Care of Rochester Inc.

Age: 69

Education: bachelor’s degree in psychology, St. Anselm College, New Hampshire, 1970; master’s degree in management, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, Rensselaer County,1982

Family: Wife, Elise; daughter, Kimberly; sons, Christopher and Matthew

Residence: Penn Yan, Yates County

Hobbies: Golfing, skiing, traveling and spending time with grandchildren

Quote: “I had a need and the response was not to my liking.”

(c) 2017 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-363-7269 or email madams@bridgetowermedia.com.

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