By Matt Walsh
Susanne Smith Wise has had this scene etched in her mind since she was a grade school girl. She remembers her father, a grain and beef farmer in Coldwater, Mich., population 10,000, sitting at the kitchen table, in the quiet of 3 a.m., writing his thoughts about his latest idea and next ventures. Wise has never forgotten her father’s passion, the gusto that he threw into every day, making the most of his time.
Bob Smith worked seven days a week. By choice, Wise says. He tended the cattle; plowed and harvested the grain; fixed and sold chain saws and painted in the winter; invested in the local bank, served on its board. He loved what he did. He loved his independence.
Wise credits her father for her energy and her own passion, the passion she pours into her company, Take Care of Sarasota Inc. She loves her independence, too. In only six years, Wise has built her company — a provider of home health care services — into the third-largest woman-owned firm in Manatee and Sarasota counties. For the year ending December 2000, Take Care’s four businesses generated $11 million in revenues and had grown to 430 employees. Her company is the region’s largest locally based home health care provider.
The growth of Wise’s Take Care is remarkable not for its fast pace, nor for its flashiness or high profile. In fact, Wise is the antithesis of neon. Unlike many entrepreneurs, she is not driven to be the biggest, have the most, conquer the next Big Deal or position Take Care for the Big Payoff in an initial public offering. She wears olive suits, brings an apple and banana to work for lunch and apologizes for imposing when she asks her administrative assistant for help.
No, Take Care’s growth is remarkable for how Wise got where she is. The mother of three college-age daughters and married to the same man for 20 years, Wise clung until recently to the role of traditional Mom — cooking, doing laundry, cleaning toilets, taking and picking up the kids from school. At the same time she held the family together, she found a way to satisfy her own inner passion to grow professionally. She worked as a home health nurse, earned a master’s in business administration with honors and, at the urging of her husband, decided to become an independent entrepreneur in the image of her farmer father. Wise would be the last to credit herself as Wonder Woman. She would be the first to say she couldn’t have reached where she is without the support of her children, husband and a staff that is intensely loyal.
“The best times were the welcome home,” Wise, 47, says of her Saturdays coming back from a day of MBA classes in Tampa. “They were always wonderful.”
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Wise’s colleagues always describe her as compassionate, a trait, no doubt, she inherited. Her mother was a nurse for severely retarded children. That influenced Wise’s own decision to earn her registered nurse license in Kalamazoo, Mich., 45 minutes from the family farm. Wise completed the program with honors.
Afterward, she decided to pursue her bachelor’s degree in health sciences but was ready to put that on hold after receiving a job offer at Emory University in Atlanta. Wise was excited about leaving the confines of Kalamazoo and heading to the big city. But on a Sunday in September 1975, the excitement vanished. Her father and two brothers were killed in a plane crash on the return to Coldwater from a farm machinery expo in Minneapolis. Wise still moved to Atlanta shortly after the funerals, but she stayed only six weeks. She couldn’t carry the weight of the tragedy. She felt an urge to be back in Kalamazoo. It was a good move. Kalamazoo residents rallied around the Smith family women — Susanne, her mother and sister — with a harvest bee. Friends and neighbors harvested the family’s crops and took them to market. Wise brought closure by immersing herself in her work at a Kalamazoo hospice. She dealt with her father and brothers’ deaths through the deaths of others. In a recent letter to a niece, Wise attributed the plane crash and its aftermath to where she ultimately landed — in home health care, caring primarily for the aged. The scar of the family tragedy remains. Says husband Carl: “Come fall, you can tell it still affects her.”
Wise went back to school and worked as a medical surgery nurse at a Kalamazoo hospital. She tried nursing for dialysis patients, spent a year in oncology and then gravitated toward teaching nursing at a community college. She liked nursing, but she didn’t like being in one place doing one thing. “I’m not a good 7-3 person,” Wise says, referring to the standard hospital shift for nurses. “I thrive on flexibility.”
Wise’s restlessness worried her. Something was missing. She felt she didn’t have the passion of her father. Then she met Carl — as he says, not at a bar.
They married in 1979 in Coldwater, Mich. In 1982, they moved to Sarasota. They had two daughters, both under the age of two, and not much more. Carl, a commercial real estate broker, figured it might take them three years to get on a solid earning track. About 18 months later, they had their third daughter. With three children under the age of three, Wise began working as a home health nurse to supplement the family income. She’d stay home with the girls during the day and work nights and early mornings. When the girls grew to school age, Wise would make sure her shifts would end in time to get home, feed the girls breakfast and take them to school. “I never wanted anyone else to do that,” she says. She felt the same after school. At night, she went to work.
“I don’t know when she ever rested,” Carl says. “Her hours were horrible.” But he remembers his wife always having the girls “cleaned, dressed, rested and fed” when he arrived home from work at the end of a day. “She would take care of me, too,” he says. “I was spoiled.”
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Wise enrolled at Nova Southeastern University in Tampa to earn an MBA. The urge to seek bigger challenges was gnawing at her as the girls approached double-digit ages. “I loved nursing,” she says, “but I knew I was limited. The logical move was business.” She continued to work nights, studying during down times and on Sunday nights. Friday nights and Saturday mornings she traveled to and from Tampa.
Wise took a break from home-care nursing about this time. She became the local marketing director for Doctors Home Health, a division of Columbia-HCA. When she was passed over for the administrator’s job, she landed as the director of nursing at Metro Nursing, a locally-based firm. Wise spent two years at Metro, soaking in everything about the business — the numbers, recruiting nurses, the complexities of scheduling dozens of part-time nurses to meet the needs of dozens of patients. In two years as nursing director at Metro, the company’s business doubled each year.
Wise’s husband — the family risk taker — urged her to start her own agency. She had already been thinking a long time how she would run a home-health business of her own. When
1995 began, Wise was ready to make the move.
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The Wise’s accountant discouraged them. Even though Wise had written a business plan with a proforma showing profitability in two years, the accountant predicted failure. They didn’t listen.
In mid-May, the Wises pooled what little cash they had, leased an office and made a deposit on utilities. They bought a few folding chairs, a cafeteria table, telephone and desktop computer and opened for business. Their three girls were 14, 12 and 10.
It was a big risk. Wise figured she wouldn’t take a salary the first year. They would count on Carl’s real estate sales to carry the family. Says Carl: “We were really hung out.”
From day one, Take Care’s sales exploded. Wise fueled the growth with a nifty move — she billed her clients weekly to generate cash, but she paid her employees every other week to gain a cushion and float time. Still, the business was growing so fast, Wise quickly realized she didn’t have the working capital to keep it going. She needed cash. That’s not an easy proposition — especially for a first-time woman business owner whose company had no previous banking relationship. Wise called an old family friend in Coldwater — the president of the bank where her father had been a director and stockholder. She asked him for a $50,000 loan.
The banker told Wise he would lend it, provided her mother co-signed the note. “How soon do you need it?” he asked her. Said Wise: “Can you wire it?”
• • •
Wise paid off the bank loan in less than a year. She blew through her two-year proforma in only six months. The company made a profit its first year.
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The details count. It’s Wednesday morning, payroll day, and Wise is trying to catch up. She already called Ted, one of her van drivers, and sang “Happy Birthday” to him. She missed sending him a card the day before and felt bad.
That’s one of the little but important touches Wise employs to make the company’s 430 employees feel appreciated. Every Friday, she puts out a spread of treats for the employees who stop by Take Care’s central Sarasota office to pick up their pay checks. During Nurse’s Week, she sends a $15 gift certificate to each one of the company’s 400-plus nurses. Each day of that week, she has a special food day at the office — bagel day, donut day, fruit day, pizza day. At Christmas, she sends a poinsettia to every one of her 200-plus clients. They all get birthday cards.
These are small but important details in Take Care of Sarasota. Wise has carefully used these signs of appreciation as a way to help build what many in the industry say is one of the most reliable, qualified home health staffs in the region. These touches are not just a tactical strategy. They come from Wise’s compassionate, motherly heart. She’ll tell you she fights every day to keep her company from becoming “corporatized.”
Nowhere is that more evident than at Take Care’s Sarasota headquarters. Wise’s desk sits in middle of an open room, next to the receptionist. Her assistant is the one with the big private office. Wise’s desk is homey; lots of family photos crowd one corner of the desk.
“It’s part of the ‘mother know all,’ ” Wise says, explaining why she sits in the middle of the room. “I like to be involved in all the action.”
She thrives on it. Wise likes every aspect of the business, except the administrative detail. She pays special attention to two crucial elements — hiring and selling. Wise interviews virtually every prospective employee. Because Take Care’s nurses play such an intimate role in customers’ lives, Wise understands they can make or break the business. An insensitive nurse can have lasting effects — not just with one customer but potential customers as well.
With more than 20 years of caring, nursing and recruiting, Wise has a keen sense of people. “That’s how she has built this business — by hiring the cream of the crop,” says Wise’s assistant, Diane Bronstead. On this particular Wednesday, Wise interviewed a candidate for a position in the Manatee office. Wise’s assessment after a 20-minute interview: The candidate had the technical skills, not the personal skills. “You can teach anybody the skills,” she says. “But you have to have the personal skills.”
With clients, Wise is equally careful. She sees all the company’s new clients in Sarasota and nearly half of the new clients in the company’s Manatee division. Knowing that when she is meeting a prospective client that she is selling herself and her company, Wise is always impeccably dressed. Her bedside manner is calming, empathetic and reassuring. She makes sure Take Care goes out of its way to take care. Take Care Transport driver Jim Jodoin has been known to take patients for a view of the beach on their way home from the doctor’s office. He obliged one clients’ request to go to a Red Lobster restaurant. Wise herself stays on call for patients 24/seven — except for one weekend a month.
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If Wise has a weakness, it may be that — she works non-stop. Bronstead, her assistant for two and a half years, classifies her boss as having typical entrepreneurial characteristics. She should know; Bronstead has worked for four entrepreneurs.
One common trait: “They’re always notoriously
late,” Bronstead says, “because they’re overextended.” Wise had to cancel two personal meetings that day.
“They’re afraid to let go of things,” Bronstead says, “because they think no one can do the job as well as they can, which is usually true.” When Wise realized the company had grown so large and she couldn’t be everywhere, she gave in to hiring an assistant. At Bronstead’s first interview, Wise told her: “I know I need an assistant, but I don’t know how to use one.”
Wise had no job description; instead Bronstead told her what she would do for Wise. It took three interviews and three months before Wise made the leap. On the day Bronstead started, Wise gave her a small desk in the accounting office — with a fresh rose on top. But Wise gave her no job details. Bronstead has figured out her duties on her own.
Wise is getting better about giving up minutiae and delegating, Bronstead says. “I do come in here in the mornings and on Mondays and find more things on my desk with notes,” she says. “My piles are growing larger.”
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Even though Take Care of Sarasota is expected to reach $13 million in revenues by year-end, Wise is cautious about growing too fast. Despite being entrepreneurial, she is much less of a risk taker than her husband. Four years ago, he urged her to open an office in Venice because so many clients were Venice residents. She rented the office, but took six months to open it. Wise wanted to make sure she found the right person to run it. Almost two years ago, her husband urged her to open a Manatee office. She resisted again, until one day her company landed 12 new clients — all from Manatee. She now has Take Care of Manatee Inc. This past fall Wise expanded once more, this time into the transport business. The company has three vans that provide curb-to-curb service throughout Manatee and Sarasota counties.
The expansions have worked out for the most part. Venice is profitable. Manatee has proven a challenge. Wise had to fire the Manatee manager after four months and then spend two months there with Bronstead to set it on course. This experience reminded Wise again of the importance of having the right people and being careful not to spread herself too thin. The transport business, meanwhile, has gotten off to a fast start. Wise says it is at break even.
What’s next? Not so fast, Wise says. She has ideas — an assisted living facility owned and operated by her employees for one. But for now, she is content.
“I don’t want to grow to the extent we lose the way we are,” Wise says. “I don’t want to be a corporate entity. I’m happy going up to our Manatee office on the weekend and spending four hours fixing it up.
“I don’t worry about the numbers,” Wise says. “If you take care of the business, the numbers will take care of themselves.”Adds husband Carl: “It continues to amaze me how much energy she gets out of this business.”
Somewhere, Bob Smith is smiling.