What I've Learned

Comfort Keepers Founder Kristina Butler on What She's Learned From Her Business

Kristina Butler,co-founder of the multibillion-dollar Comfort Keepers, on confidence, money and moving on.

By Megan McDonald January 11, 2016 Published in the January 2016 issue of Sarasota Magazine

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Back in Ohio, homebound patients, often the frail elderly, frequently asked home health nurse Kristina Butler if she wouldn’t mind throwing in a load of laundry or running an errand. But as a hospital employee limited to medical care, she had to say no. That inspired her to create Comfort Keepers, a company that could help with companionship and necessary personal services to help people stay at home instead of moving into assisted living. Seventeen years later, Comfort Keepers is now valued at $23 billion and is the second largest in-home services company in the world with more than 800 franchises in the U.S. and seven countries.

Butler and her former husband and company co-founder, Jerry Butler, sold the company to Sodexo, a France-based multinational corporation that specializes in hospitality management, food services and facilities management. Kristina Butler has kept a handful of franchises in Ohio that employ about 250 people and gross about $7.5 million.

Butler, 50, moved to Sarasota full-time in September with her second husband. Already, she’s mulling over new business ventures, perhaps something “wine-related.”

“I thought about the idea of Comfort Keepers for about a year. We were sitting around the dinner table, and I decided to put pencil to paper about a business that would help people with chores, driving and shopping. Our children were 5 and 11 and I wasn’t sure I was up to starting a business. There was so much at risk. Jerry came from an entrepreneurial family and he was convinced Comfort Keepers would work. Money was the problem.”

“Expect to hear a lot of ‘It’s a great idea, but…’ We decided to franchise about a year and a half in. We were in our 30s, making about $100,000 and no money in the piggy bank. We went to a local bank and the loan officer got shivers when we told him about our business and what we wanted to franchise. He said, ‘My mother needs your help and she needs it now.’ He gave us $32,000 based on our signature.”

“You have to be creative with financing. We needed $250,000 to have a lawyer draw up the franchising documents. Then credit cards started showing up in our mailbox. Jerry told me, ‘This is how we are going to do it—borrow from Peter to pay Paul.’ I said, ‘Have you lost your mind?’ But he was right.”

“You have to make sure that your concept can be duplicated when you consider franchising. Sometimes it’s a mom-and-pop operation and that’s why it works. You have to ask, ‘Can I train other people to do this?’ Home care agencies are duplicable.”

"The industry has become very competitive. When I started the business in 1998 there was only a handful of agencies and today there are hundreds. Seems everyone is getting into the market. In some states it is easier to get into the industry than others because not all states require a license."

“Finding employees has been one of our greatest challenges. You can teach a lot of things, but you can’t teach compassion.”

“If you treat your employees with utmost respect, you never have to worry about profits. Happy employees are happy caregivers, and that creates happy clients and a happy life, too.”

“If I could go back in time, I would not sell the corporate franchising to anyone. We sold shares in the company in steps beginning in 2002. We needed more capital and more employees. Jerry and I were working 100-200 hours a week and it came to the point where we didn’t have time with the kids and with each other. I had had it by 2005."

"Sodexo bought out the rest of our shares in 2009. It burns me every month when I have to pay royalty fees on a business I started. It’s like I gave up my child for adoption and now I have to watch the adoptive parents make decisions that I don’t always agree with. On the other hand, they have had some really great ideas.”

"When we landed in Sarasota we knew we were home. We had been traveling the entire state of Florida and stayed in multiple cities. We returned multiple times the last two years and made the decision to move here full-time this fall."

“My brain is churning for a business in Florida. I’m kicking the can around, trying to do something completely away from health care. My husband and I love wine and we haven’t found many good wine bars. We’ll look at what we are missing here and maybe start something new.”

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