BrightStar Care's CEO Shelly Sun on Building and Leading a Growing Brand

 BrightStar Care's CEO Shelly Sun on Building and Leading a Growing Brand

Shelly Sun, CEO and co-founder of BrightStar Care, never planned to start a company. But in 2001, she and her husband, J.D. Sun, were struggling to find quality in-home care for his grandmother and discovered they weren't alone. They decided to take matters into their own hands.

"We built a healthcare company to provide the full continuum of care, from home care to supplemental staffing for corporate clients such as nursing homes and physicians," she says. Sun says she worked 90 to 100 hours, 7 days a week in those early years, but the payoff has been worth it.

They launched the company in 2002 and began franchising in 2005. "Although we already had three successful company-owned locations, we knew that through franchising we would be able to expand much faster than if we were to do it on our own," she says. BrightStar Care was the first franchising company in the U.S. to specialize in both and non-medical care and healthcare staffing.

Now a decade later, BrightStar has grown to more than 300 locations nationwide serving more than 15,000 families and generating more than $350 million in system-wide revenue. The brand offers a full continuum of caregiving in the home, including adult, elder, and child care, along with babysitter and nanny services. And Sun says there's much more to come, including a new, complementary brand.

Shelly Sun is the chair of this year's Franchise Leadership & Development Conference, September 28-30 in Atlanta at the InterContinental Hotel.

1) Building The Business

What has been the best and the hardest thing about being an entrepreneur?
Best: The opportunity to help others become entrepreneurs through our franchisees and other emerging franchisors I mentor. It is such an incredible honor to work alongside passionate, driven franchisees who serve customers and create jobs in their communities. I may be a little biased, but I believe we have the best franchisees of any system. It is always an amazing experience to open the awards ceremony at our Annual Conference Gala and look at a roomful of more than 250 people who have become dear friends and achieved great success and remember that just 10 years ago none of it existed.
Hardest: Never being able to have a bad day. My temperament sets the tone for the organization - for our team members and for our franchisees - so I am cognizant that my attitude and optimism are essential to accomplish our collective goals. I can't have a down day in front of the team, franchisees, customers, and suppliers. Fortunately, most days are optimistic and exciting as I usually view the world as a glass half-full. But on occasion when it is a tough day, I am grateful for my current and former board members to reach out to.

How has your experience in running a franchise business been different from what you expected?
The tension between positioning the brand for growth and addressing franchisees' preferences for the current state is different than I would have expected. We have multiple stakeholders and they are at different stages: a franchisee in their first 24 months needs very different things and has far different priorities for themselves and what they want from the brand than a franchisee with 7 years who is within 5 years of an exit strategy. Trying to balance the needs of a diverse group while staying true to the decisions that will propel the brand forward is much different than I expected.

How did you grow the brand at first? What changed as you expanded?
In the beginning we added new franchisees based on strong relationships with brokers that helped us get our message out to more prospects than we could have reached on our own. In our first 5 years, the franchisees that came through brokers were roughly 80 percent of the total new units added. As we became more established and built out a franchise development team, more of our new franchisees came through the Internet and referrals.

How did you transition from founding a brand to leading a brand?
In the first several years I had to roll up my sleeves and be a generalist and do what was needed: supporting franchisees, teaching classes, processing payroll, and many other tasks. As the business grew, I transitioned to leading the brand by building a stellar team and allowing my team to handle what they were best at. We had to move from generalists to specialists. Leadership transitions are about ensuring you can spend more and more time leveraging your unique gifts and ensuring the same is true throughout the organization by empowering others to handle what they can do better. Building a great team allows me to have the time to do the things I love and have others handle everything else. I love being involved in strategy - for our organization and in helping franchisees define their strategy for realizing their potential - and spending time focused on regulatory and advocacy, industry leadership, mentoring, and public speaking. Even now, I continue to evolve to be more the visionary, strategist, and chief culture officer for the brand while empowering a president to run the day-to-day operations.

How would you describe your leadership style?
I believe in high performance for our entire team and also for myself. I believe in sharing success with our team because they are key to our growth and to the service and results we deliver for our franchisees. Every employee in our organization, from receptionist to president, has stock options in our company. We work hard and we play hard, and we enjoy each other both inside and outside of work. I also believe in empowering others to make decisions and ensuring that everyone in the organization is clear on our plan for the future, from the 1-year plan to the 10-year plan and everything in between, so we are all rowing in the same direction.

What is the key to your company's success?
We designed services that meet a need and we have invested to ensure we can deliver on the quality that is part of the brand promise. We benchmark ourselves with accreditation and data to ensure we are the market leader, and continue adapting and investing to stay the market leader in quality, patient outcomes, Net Promoter Scores, revenue per franchisee, franchisee profitability, franchisor profitability, etc.

2) Lessons And Advice

What's the most important lesson you've learned so far?
The single biggest contributor to BrightStar's success has been our commitment to hiring ahead of growth and focusing on having the right people in the right seats to deliver the highest level of support and care to our customers, franchisees, and the communities we serve. I've made slight adjustments to our organizational structure to help me move into a visionary role for the organization and to empower my senior leadership team to manage the day-to-day business. This has freed me up to work on the big picture opportunities and threats for our franchisees, our brand, and all our stakeholders.

If you could do one thing differently, what would it be?
I would have backfilled key roles earlier when I knew someone was leaving. I would have forced conversations sooner when someone's work performance declined so we could plan for change and handle the team member more gracefully in their need for an exit.

What advice would you give to others considering starting their own franchise brand?
Believe in yourself. Surround yourself with positive influences. And be adequately capitalized to reach 50 to 75 units - the level it typically takes when recurring revenues exceed expenses.

3) What's Ahead

What would you like to achieve in the next 5 years?
By 2018, we plan to have 3 brands in total and we will be operating and in at least 8 international markets. In the next 10 years, I predict that BrightStar Care will be serving 250,000 families and will have grown in revenue to $3 billion.

What's coming up that you're excited about?
The start-up phase of our second brand, BrightStar Senior Living and Memory Care, and the international expansion of BrightStar Care in 2016.

Note: This is an excerpt from a longer interview, which appeared in Franchise Update magazine earlier this year (page 21).

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