Mary O’Donoghue took somewhat of a winding road to get to where she is now, the founder and managing director of an expanding home care agency. And she took that path to the home care industry, despite only being 33 years old.
The unique stops along O’Donoghue’s professional path — training as a certified nursing assistant (CNA) and a brief go at a law career — have made building a successful business in just a few years much easier to navigate, she told Home Health Care News. Those experiences have also assisted with recent events, namely the COVID-19 crisis.
After losing her father, a physician, to early-onset dementia at a young age, O’Donoghue tried her hand at being an attorney. It was quickly evident that it was the wrong career choice, and she was lured back to her father’s line of work in health care.
“I did the typical millennial thing,” O’Donoghue said. “[I said], ‘I’m just gonna start a company.’”
That was in 2016. Now, Corewood Care is a thriving private-pay home care and care management provider with three locations in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C.
O’Donoghue recently shared with HHCN how she has been so successful in building Corewood from the ground up.
A company of one
At its outset, Corewood started and ended with O’Donoghue.
Still, her industry research, CNA training and impromptu visits to any and all home care conferences made her feel comfortable enough to steer the ship by herself.
“I went to association conferences and met with competitors — at least those who would meet with me. I would even lie about my age. I would just learn everything that I could,” O’Donoghue said. “I even got my CNA — I wanted to know how I could do the care and do it properly. So once I got my license, I was the first caregiver at Corewood, and I provided care for our first client.”
Business started through building relationships with family members who thought their loved ones needed assistance.
Instead of immediately sending a professional caregiver or aide from her agency into potential clients’ homes, O’Donoghue took a different, more subtle approach. She began first by working with local schools to recruit younger adults with a passion for senior care. Those college- and high school-aged students would then provide light assistance and companionship for Corewood’s clients who were not quite ready for a full-blown caregiver.
“Once that individual started showing signs of decline in terms of their physical or mental abilities, that’s when we would do a transition over to personal care,” O’Donoghue said. “And it was a nice transition because the person was already used to receiving care in place and having someone there that they were familiar with and enjoyed.”
Bringing an extra worker into the equation, then, felt more like a companion — plus a friend — than it felt like an unwanted upgrade in care.
Through word of month, among other light marketing tools, Corewood began to receive more and more requests for care. Just a year and a half in, the company was hiring new workers and recommending care solutions to dozens of families.
“One care manager I was working with, she asked me, ‘Have you ever thought about care management?’ And it made sense,” O’Donoghue said. “So we started doing care management as well and things just took off. It was just so unique to the industry in the area because [not a lot of people] do it.”
Some of O’Donoghue’s colleagues thought it was a poor business decision, worrying that other care managers would stop referring clients to her. But that wasn’t the case.
“In the beginning, people were worried about that, but it actually worked in our favor,” she said. “Care managers are usually nurses or social workers. And at the end of the day, it’s about finding the best solution for the client. So if another care manager may have the tools and resources at their disposal, great. We’re all here to work together. Even though we have a care management team, for instance, we refer cases out to other care managers, and they refer to us. We even work with other home care agencies.”
The collaborative approach bought Corewood credibility from competitors and other health care operators in the area. Similarly, O’Donoghue was gaining credibility with her current and future workers as she built out a diverse-minded staff.
A well-rounded team
Off the bat, Corewood’s caregivers respected O’Donoghue because she acted and felt like she was one of them.
After all, she was her own company’s first caregiver. Her CNA training helped her with caregiver relationships. Even her fluency in french, oddly enough, helped her gain equity with workers who originally were from the French-speaking countries of West Africa.
The benefits, like 401k offerings, for instance, have helped too. In Corewood’s experience, the happier the caregivers are, the better business is.
“That’s the biggest impact for Corewood,” O’Donoghue said. “It resonates with clients when they hear from the workers that they love working with us. And then, they make referrals to their friends.”
Caregivers aside, Corewood’s hiring practices have been especially beneficial over the last few months as the COVID-19 virus has taken a stranglehold on the industry.
The company’s CFO grew up in Hong Kong and lived there during the SARS outbreak — another illness caused by a coronavirus. Early in the year, before the global pandemic was referred to as such, he urged Corewood to get its ducks in a row.
“The moment he heard that COVID-19 was on its way out, he said, ‘Guys, we’ve got to prep. And we’ve got to start now,’” O’Donoghue said.
That preparedness has kept Corewood from running into a lot of the issues that agencies across the country have.
Its personal protective equipment (PPE) stock is intact, its cleaning supplies are far from running out and its caregivers aren’t as struck by the sudden fear that has plagued so much of the workforce over the past month.
The correct messaging was easy to communicate — thanks to a former CDC worker on Corewood’s staff. She’s a physician and still approved by the CDC as a trainer.
The company also leveraged her knowledge early on.
“We asked her, ‘Can you give our caregivers the right information?’ Because the scariest thing about an epidemic or pandemic like this is the lack of information,” O’Donoghue said. “So she came into the office and we brought small groups of caregivers in to hear from her first hand.”
Corewood’s staff — probably by virtue of its leader’s age — also skews younger. That has manifested itself in good technology infrastructure, which enabled the majority of the team to begin working remotely at a moment’s notice in March.
Despite being relatively new to the home care world, Corewood feels like they’re ahead of it, O’Donoghue said.
“We were already kind of ahead of the game,” she added. “That’s because we’ve been in tune with it and we can see where the industry is going.”