Cathy Thorpe did not take a conventional route to becoming CEO of a home care company. She comes from the world of retail, where she rose through the ranks at The Gap, ultimately running operations for the company in both Germany and Canada.
Following her career at The Gap, Thorpe became a consultant for small and mid-size businesses before a personal experience introduced her to Nurse Next Door. She joined the Canada-based franchise company in 2014 and took on the CEO title two years later.
During her time with Nurse Next Door, she has helped lead the company’s expansion into the United States, including through an innovative partnership with a California health system. And she has brought the skills she honed at The Gap to help Nurse Next Door define the “one best way” to do business across its platform of about 150 franchises.
You began your career at The Gap, correct?
While I was in university, I had started in retail as a sales associate. I found myself over at The Gap at the end of my university years, and really fell in love with the experience of working on a retail shop floor.
This was in 1992?
By 2003 you were the country lead for all of Canadian stores and operations, how did you climb the ladder at The Gap?
Like I said, I fell in love with retail. They say you get it in your blood, and it stays with you. It was the experience of being with the customer, working with the customer on the shop floor and having the opportunity to go into the management program. We would always say that working at the The Gap and going into the management development program is like getting your master’s. Really, [it’s] the opportunity to learn how to lead people, systems, processes and all those things that can take you into different aspects of business. And I loved it …
I spent three years in Germany running the German organization and then was back in Canada running the Canadian organization, and loved every minute of it.
You joined Nurse Next Door in 2014. What attracted you to that opportunity?
I was the daughter. My mom was going through a very serious operation and I found myself out in Edmonton, sitting in a waiting room with my dad, and literally looked beside me and there was the pink pamphlet. I knew about Nurse Next Door in Vancouver because of the [company’s pink] cars. I saw them driving around. I really didn’t know what the company did, but I just put that pamphlet in my bag and said, I don’t know if we’re going to know what to do, let’s see. And it was about three days later that I called up Kelly, who was the franchise partner out in St. Alberts, and said, I need help …
It brought peace of mind to me, my family, and my mom and dad, and the experience stuck with me.
What were your main areas of focus when you first joined Nurse Next Door?
When I first started, it was very much an entrepreneurially run organization. [Co-founders John DeHart and Ken Sim] were serial entrepreneurs. And when I started, it was saying, do we have the systems and process that are able to scale and help us grow? When I started, we had 80 versions of what a good job looks like. Every franchise partner had a different version of how scheduling should be done, or different pieces of the system that you have to build out. It was not one best way, and when I started, I knew we needed to build out that one best way.
When I was with The Gap, that’s what you learn. How do you have a system and process that allows people to really understand what a great job looks like, and how to build and scale a business.
I imagine that if I’m an entrepreneur who owns my own franchise and has, in my mind, the best way to do things, and now there’s a new president who says this is what a good job looks like … maybe you experienced pushback?
You can approach it that you’re going to go and change things without building relationships, or you can build the relationships first. I spent a lot of time that first year being out, meeting franchise partners, hearing from them where things were at, and starting that conversation. We didn’t come in and change things immediately. It was really through the process of building those relationships and trust to get to a place where we all did it together.
There are currently about the same number of franchise locations in the Canada and the U.S.?
What was that breakdown when you came in?
When I started, Canada was three-quarters of the organization. We’d only had about 15 locations in the U.S. and it was in the infancy.
Can you talk through the opportunity you saw in the U.S., and what that process has been like to ramp up that presence?
It’s about building a brand … When you find the right franchisee, you build the brand in the right way. So, we spent a lot of time making sure we had those right partners to help us grow across the U.S. People always say, how do you move into different states and make decisions about moving across the country? For us, it comes down to the right person, who has 50% heart and 50% business mindset.
Nurse Next Door has an arrangement with St. Joseph Health, a $6 billion California health care organization. I think in early 2016, the partnership was first announced, for St. Joseph to become a franchise owner of several Nurse Next Door locations, to serve their Southern California market. I believe it’s the first time a health system has become a franchisor. What’s the backstory to this partnership?
We do have the 44 locations [owned by St. Joseph], and 40 are operational.
It was the pink car. Someone at St. Joseph had seen the pink car driving around and became intrigued. They contacted us and were interested in buying the company. John and Ken were very clear, we’re not for sale, but how can we work together? Because we spent some time with them and realized we’re very like-minded in our core values and in what we were going after in terms of helping people stay at home.
Their mandate was to get into the community. How can they get out of the hospital and into the community? They did have a small home care arm, but they realized that they are a big, bureaucratic machine, and being able to leverage the entrepreneurial mindset of an organization like Nurse Next Door, and [have] something that sits outside of St. Joseph Health, it was able to move and grow at a much faster pace than if it had sat inside the company. So, that was the catalyst.
It’s been an incredible journey. We’ve learned together and gotten to know what’s the same, what’s different being a franchise owner of 44 locations versus one or two. It’s been an incredible experience.
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