Leading During Disruption: How Synergy HomeCare’s New CEO Took Control Amid COVID-19 Chaos

Securing stockpiles of personal protective equipment (PPE), doubling down on company-wide training efforts and implementing educational initiatives are just some of the responsibilities that home care leadership teams have taken on during the COVID-19 crisis.

While most home care agencies were navigating the public health emergency over the past few months, Synergy HomeCare’s CEO had the additional responsibility of getting acclimated to his new role.

In April, Charlie Young took the reins of Synergy as its chief executive officer. Young is only the second person to lead Synergy, taking over the role from founder Peter Tourian, who is now the company’s executive chairman.

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NexPhase Capital-backed Synergy is a Gilbert, Arizona-based non-medical home care franchise that offers companionship services, in addition to personal assistance, housekeeping, live-in care and 24-hour home care services. Currently, the franchise company operates throughout the U.S., serving roughly 25,000 clients and employing about 20,000 people.

Home Health Care News recently caught up with Young to discuss the company’s newly launched educational campaign, its growth strategy and why Young isn’t ready to walk away from Medicare Advantage (MA) opportunities just yet.

Below are highlights from HHCN’s conversation with Young, edited for length and clarity.

HHCN: We last connected with Synergy in 2019. Can you recap the company’s highlights and challenges since then?

Young: Here’s what I can share with you from my perspective. Synergy HomeCare is a really cool and unique company in the home care space. It’s a company that has been franchising since August of 2005 — 15 years. We now have 160 or so franchise partners that operate in 350 markets around the United States.

I think there was a time period in 2009 through a couple of years ago where Synergy was focused on growing its business and building out the foundation of what the brand would stand for, not only for its franchisees but also for the caregivers and the clients we serve.

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There’s been a renewed interest in the growth of Synergy. Two years ago, the company was sold. We are now owned by NexPhase Capital, a private equity company. I, along with others, was brought into the fold to bring Synergy to the next chapter of growth. That’s where we’re focused now going into the future.

COVID-19 has moved home care into the spotlight. Can you talk about how your company has handled the public health emergency?

We’ve handled COVID-19 by recognizing the role that we play in the health care continuum, more specifically in helping our clients maintain their independence and livelihood at home.

We’ve seen two things happening: We’re seeing people move out of hospitals, skilled nursing facilities (SNFs) and nursing homes. We are also seeing people who were at home and well cared for needing to have that care continue. Our franchise partners around the country– and their caregivers — are the front lines.

Many of our operations around the country are working with COVID patients and making sure that they’re maintaining safety standards. As a company, we are making sure caregivers have access to PPE and proper training on how to keep themselves safe, too.

On the client side, it has been about attacking social isolation. Through our senior connections program, we make sure that the clients we serve are staying connected to the communities around them. This means, in some instances, enabling connections with our clients and their loved ones through video chat and other communications.

In many cases, our franchisees around the country are making sure that the match between caregiver and client is a good and solid one. They are maintaining consistency and continuity between the client and the caregiver. We think it’s important at this time to have that level of continuity for safety and to ease any concerns.

We’re also focused on helping our franchise partner locations around the country recruit new caregivers. With the economic fallout that has come from COVID-19, we have a great service to bring to the community and a lot of opportunities for caregivers. We’re finding that there are new types of caregivers coming to the market, as hospitality workers, restaurant workers and retail workers are out of work because of the pandemic.

How have you handled being a relatively new CEO during a public health emergency?

Before I started, there was a lot of anxiety and apprehension about starting this role during these times. However, I think that now that I’ve been at it for three months, I can take a step back and say it’s been a hidden blessing.

When you start a new job as a CEO, you’re thinking about how to bring the team together. You’re thinking about the process of sitting down in person with your employees. Since Synergy is a franchise company, I thought about getting out on the road and going to visit franchisees and spending a lot of time in the field. Obviously, these things couldn’t happen. Our corporate office was shut down. I couldn’t travel to see our franchisees and I’ve been heavily reliant on Zoom. What I’ve found is that I’m able to have much more intentioned conversations with our employees and with our franchise partners. I’ve also been forced to be more creative than maybe I would have been otherwise.

Since I wasn’t able to go visit our franchise locations, I built a series of CEO roundtable discussions. I met with over 100 franchise partners, either one-on-one conversations or through the roundtable. For the roundtables, we would put 10 franchise partners on a Zoom call with me for an hour and a half. I had a set of questions for them, but I also gave them plenty of time to ask me questions as well. In the span of seven days, I was able to meet with an incredible number of franchise partners and hear from them about what they thought the opportunities were for Synergy HomeCare.

It was a level of exposure to the grassroots of the business that I wouldn’t have had if I was physically traveling to our locations.

One of the secret weapons of Synergy HomeCare is the connected nature of our network and how we learn from each other and support each other in normal times, but also during the pandemic.

Synergy recently launched an educational campaign about a technique called “benevolent probing” that can assist adult children in determining if their parents could benefit from home care. What’s that about?

We know that oftentimes home care comes because of a life event. There’s been a hospitalization, a surgery, a fall in the home or some other event that has caused the loved ones of the client to rally and evaluate whether they need care. This program is designed to help family members identify and keep track of where “mom and dad” are in terms of their need for extra support in advance.

We know that if you can proactively provide care, then you can extend the independence cycle of the time by which our clients are active at home — even if they need a little assistance and support to do that.

This program is about a series of questions and things that loved ones can look for when interacting with seniors and their families. Things that might tip them off about change taking place in the home. It’s all about tracking activities of daily living (ADLs) and keeping up with them.

Helping people have these hard conversations earlier, in a more productive manner, is going to serve our clients in the end.

For the last 10 years, Synergy has grown at an average rate of 20% year over year. This has largely been due to organic growth. Can you talk about the company’s growth plans moving forward?

We’re still in the early stages of formulating strategy. When you think about growth, there are two primary ways that will grow Synergy. One: We currently occupy about 350 territories around the U.S. I think there’s plenty of upside growth for more Synergy outlets and markets that we’re not serving at the moment. The demand for Synergy HomeCare franchises is strong. I think the pandemic is only fueling that demand for franchise territory. I think that our challenge in that process will be to make sure that we’re bringing the highest quality franchisees into our system.

The second: Organic growth. My definition of organic growth would be, “How do we take our existing franchisees and help drive growth into their business?” I think we’ll be focused on that quite significantly. We will be looking at how we can drive a deeper penetration into our markets through marketing and sales activities, by forming new referral relationships at both a local and national level. I think that there is a definite upside for growth within our existing system.

Beyond referrals, I think product and service offerings are an area that we will take a closer look at. What are the things we can do for our clients that we are not focused on today? I think technology will have a bigger role in how we provide service to our clients.

When I connected with your predecessor last year, Medicare Advantage was the growth avenue the company was most excited about. Can you talk about the inroads the company has made on the MA front?

Everyone in the home care industry is bullish on the fact MA will be an opportunity in the future.

However, we have not seen the Medicare Advantage switch being turned on yet. Payers are just not there yet when it comes to offering home care as part of the plans. But we are not walking away from it.

What area will be the company’s main point of focus for the rest of the year?

For the rest of the year, we will be very much focused on helping our franchise partners and the caregivers that work for them settle into the new normal of the pandemic. No one should think or believe that it will be going away anytime soon. These are the conditions by which we’re working. That means making sure that everyone is up on the latest protocols and has appropriate levels of PPE.

Beyond that, our focus will be on figuring out how we provide care to growing populations, as we see the number of hours for home care starting to come back. There are COVID-diagnosed patients that need care — and clients who don’t have the virus and also need care. We need to be able to provide services to both of those populations and prepare our franchisees to do that.

I think that Synergy is poised for significant growth in this industry. It’s a young industry, and there are many players in the home care space. I think over the next several years, you’re going to start to see the industry mature and certain players within the playing field will mature faster than others.

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