Stephanie Howe runs the most financially successful office in the Comfort Keepers franchise. She was the first franchisee — among more than 600 in the Ohio-based company — to break the $10 million mark in annual gross revenues. After a decade in the business of providing in-home care, she owns five Comfort Keepers offices in Robbinsville, which serves all of Mercer County, Monroe Township, Warren, Toms River, and on the eastern shore of Maryland. And she now owns her own school for teaching home healthcare professionals the way to do it right.

And she never had a clue what she was doing.

To be more precise she had no real experience running a business and no idea how to run a profitable one ‒‒ and that was still true four or five years into running Comfort Keepers. But she was smart enough to know that her lack of knowledge was something she could fix. She accomplished this in two ways: One was to surround herself with people who knew all the things she didn’t, and two was this:

“I always tell people I went to Google University,” she says.

Howe’s rise from winging it through business to company-wide example of how to do it right was so impressive to Sheila Truncellito, general manager at Howe’s Comfort Keepers office in Robbinsville’s Town Center, that she nominated Howe for a Women of Achievement award from the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce.

What Truncellito said in her nomination is a secret until the awards ceremony, which will take place on Thursday, June 22, from 8 to 10:30 a.m., at Jasna Polana, 4519 Province Line Road in Princeton. Tickets are $65. Visit www.PrincetonChamber.org.

What is known is the reaction Truncellito’s nomination garnered from the chamber. “The Women In Business Alliance Committee was blown away after reading Stephanie’s nomination,” says Lorraine Holcombe, the chamber’s executive vice president and CFO, and head of the chamber’s Women in Business Alliance. “She is what I would call a Super Woman and I can’t wait to hear her story.”

The other award winners this year are Lori Grifa, a partner at the law firm of Archer & Greiner; Amada Sandoval, director of the Women’s Center at Princeton University and a founding sponsor of the Princeton Women’s Mentorship Program; and Diane Grillo, vice president of marketing at RWJ Hamilton/Barnabas Health.

Howe grew up in Lawrence Township. Her parents, Ron and Barbara Pawson, both worked at IBM in Dayton. She had begun her college education with a plan to be a speech pathologist and was attending West Chester University when she had to come home. Her father, then just 44 years old, was being overtaken by multiple sclerosis.

“My dad’s MS was cruel,” she says. “It was progressive, so when a new symptom developed he never recovered from it. He lost control of his independence at such an early age with no hope for improvement or cure. My mom felt she had no choice to put him in a nursing home because she could no longer care for him at home. He absolutely would have been happier if he lived out the rest of his life in our family home surrounded by people who loved him. He lived in the nursing home for another 17 years and died in 2008 at the age of 61.”

Howe realized that she needed to go back to school right away or she would never go back. She opted to become a nurse. In 1994 she finished the program at Helene Fuld School of Nursing and even then had the idea of starting a company that provided care for patients like her father.

Howe worked as a registered nurse at Capital Health System from 1994 to 1996 and then at Princeton Healthcare System until 2002. In the meantime she had gotten married and had two children. Then, at age 26, she learned that she also had multiple sclerosis.

The diagnosis changed her life and her marital status.

“I knew he wasn’t going to be there for me,” Howe says of her first husband. “He told me, ‘I don’t want you to end up like your dad.’ That flipped a switch in me. I thought, ‘I have no intention of ending up like my dad.’”

So Howe “hit the fast-forward button” on her life, starting with a divorce. She understood quickly that, while she had no plans to enter a nursing home anytime soon, MS wasn’t going to wait for it to be convenient for her to slow down in life. She knew that at some point, and earlier than most, the disease would keep her from doing things.

That realization is what propels her to enjoy life and do it now, she says. If she really wants to go to Hawaii, she’s going to go because later it might not be an option. One of the first things she did was start a support group for people with MS, but she was kind of a pariah after the first meeting.

“Everybody was brooding,” she says of the group’s attendees. “When they got to me, I said MS was the best thing that ever happened to me.” The others in the group looked at Howe as if she were from Mars. “I couldn’t go back after that first meeting,” she says. So she started a second group for people with a more positive outlook on MS, though she is no longer part of it.

Today Howe is 46 and has a second husband, Rich Howe. Between them they have six children (none of her four kids has yet shown signs of MS). She also has numerous brain/spinal cord lesions from the MS. But she still wears heels, and given her generally positive, bouncy energy, you would never know she was sick. “There has been so much progress in the treatment of MS since my dad was diagnosed in 1982,” she says. “When I was diagnosed in 1998 there were only a couple of injectable medications available with pretty uncomfortable side effects. Today there are many options available including several once-a-day oral drugs. I’m currently taking one of the oral medications that have no side effects (for me anyway) and are keeping my MS stable.”

Managing her own illness — in addition to her medical background and the experience of caring for her father — has given Howe incredible insight into how to treat people through Comfort Keepers.

Developing the insight into how to best run the business side of the operation took longer. Howe started her first Comfort Keepers office in Hamilton Square in 2005 (later moved to Town Center) and her second in Monroe in 2006. Though she enjoyed the business, she admits she didn’t know what she was doing. Her husband was in construction and had briefly run a business, which helped Stephanie in two ways. First, he would offer some business advice, but second, his income was enough that if she wasn’t making money, it wouldn’t hurt the family.

The thing is, she says, she didn’t realize she was running an unsustainable business until she joined a performance group for Comfort Keepers franchisees in 2010 and was told flat out that, with her current way of doing business, she was not going to make it.

That turned out to be another of the best things to ever happen to her, because it propelled her to Google University and to surround herself with the right people in business. Hiring and training the right staff, the right way, Howe says, has turned things around so far that her “unsustainable” business is now the flagship example in the company. In 2016 Howe’s five locations combined to gross $10 million for the year. This year, she says, they are on target to turn $12 million.

Her husband runs the office in Easton, Maryland, where the couple have a second home. Howe says she and her husband have dramatically different styles in management, but that the office under his stewardship is doing extremely well.

Last November Howe opened the New Jersey Caregivers Academy next door to her Robbinsville office. It was a longtime goal to open a school, but Howe says the main impetus for doing this particular school was to unify the way caregivers actually give care. One of the big problems in the home health aide sector, she says, is that everyone does things a little differently. That would be fine, except that she has hired some people who didn’t know how to use some pieces of equipment they really should have known how to use. What she wants is to make sure caregivers from all caregiver companies understand what it means to do the job well. The academy has its official ribbon cutting ceremony slated for July but the date has not been finalized.

Caregivers who successfully complete the academy’s program also gain an important credential: certification. “New Jersey requires that any caregiver providing personal care services in the home (as opposed to companion services) must be a certified home health aide (CHHA),” says Howe. “The hope is that the school will allow us to attract and develop exceptional caregivers to place in our clients’ homes.”

In addition to completing the training program, the home health aide must complete a competency evaluation by the New Jersey Board of Nursing and a criminal background check. But there appears to be no shortage of demand for such workers. As the academy notes on its website, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that employment of home health aides will grow 38 percent from 2014 to 2024. As the baby-boom population ages and the elderly population grows, demand for the services of home health aides to provide assistance will continue to increase.”

Hiring and training the right people is the bedrock of a successful business, Howe says. As is an understanding of the job she hires people to do. She knows it’s not a lifetime career for most people. She knows it can be draining. She knows it can have many days when the family of a client lays into the caregiver because they just need to scream at someone. She knows her caregivers have to face children of clients who are burning with guilt and confusion. She knows that clients will die and it will hurt.

But it’s not about the bad stuff, she says. Caregivers give care. That’s what they need to keep in mind. And often, long-term and live-in health aides become members of the clients’ families. Despite its tough days, Howe says, it’s a rewarding way of life.

“It’s a feel good business, but it doesn’t always feel good,” she says. Nevertheless: “It’s so good for your heart and soul to help other people.”

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