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Undercover Boss: How BrightStar Keeps Rapid Growth on Track

It's an exciting time when a company
is growing fast -- but it's also a risky time. If you move too fast, execution can suffer.

One company that seems to be steering clear of the fast-growth pitfalls is national health- and childcare franchise BrightStar Care. The Chicago-based chain has grown to nearly 200 locations and aims to double in size again by the end of next year as it begins to franchise internationally.

Recently, I spoke with Shelly Sun, co-founder and CEO of the Chicago-based company, about BrightStar's rapid expansion and how the company is staying on track. Sun is a high-energy former corporate exec who in February 2010 was named the International Franchise Association's entrepreneur of the year.

One reason BrightStar is thriving may be Sun's total focus on the company's success -- when she was on bed rest with her now-6-year-old twin boys, she once held a company meeting at her hospital bed. Her husband, J.D. Sun, is the company's co-founder executive vice president of global development. Another plus: Both founders worked in hotel franchising before launching BrightStar in 2006, so they learned the franchising business before launching their own franchise concept.

A notable feature of BrightStar's growth is that much of the company's expansion has happened quite recently. At this point, Sun notes, 75 percent of the franchise locations are less than two years old. That's a lot of new franchise owners BrightStar has to help ramp their business all at once, keeping the company growing despite the downturn.

"I know a lot of businesses say '10 percent down is the new flat,' but that wasn't acceptable to us," Sun says.

How did BrightStar make sure their new locations stay on track for growth? Here's a quick look at Sun's key strategies:

  • Big support staff. Where a typical ratio of headquarters staff to franchisees is one to 12, Sun reports BrightStar has 54 support staff at headquarters to assist 170 franchisees. "We have a very high level of touch," she says, "so we can focus on building the business and serving the community."
  • High pay. BrightStar has positioned itself as best-in-class for private healthcare and pays nurses a bit more than competitors. That helps keep staff rosters full and builds worker loyalty toward the growing brand.
  • Think long term. Because the couple own BrightStar outright, they can make decisions that might cost now but pay off in the long run -- there are no outside investors pushing for short-term results. "I'm not looking for a quick flip for outside investors," Sun says.
  • Keep innovating. Though BrightStar's business is fairly recession-resistant, healthcare clients -- particularly families paying out of pocket -- did cut back on services during the downturn. The company got creative, focusing more on temp-staffing and childcare to keep the business diversified.
  • Up your credentials. To set itself apart from competitors and allow the company to serve new customer segments, Sun decided to pursue professional healthcare certification for its franchises from The Joint Commission, the international body that certifies healthcare providers. Commission certification allows BrightStar to accept payment from federal health-insurance programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, Sun notes. "This really insulates our business model and allows it to grow," Sun says.
  • Learn about franchisees' experience. To learn more about how franchisees operated, Sun recently took advantage of an offer to visit several franchise locations incognito for the CBS-TV show Undercover Boss. Her episode airs April 17, 9:00 p.m.EST/PST.
"It was a great opportunity to really make sure the quality and service J.D. and I are so passionate about and committed to was there," Sun says.
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