Healthy Margins: John DeHart, Ken Sim

John DeHart, Ken Sim are Co-founders of Nurse Next Door Professional Homecare Services Inc. John DeHart throws his cards down on the table. “You win again, Jimmy!” he exclaims. His partner has just laid down a three of clubs, a four of hearts and a queen of spades. It doesn’t seem to matter that the cards don’t really add up to anything in this game. As long as Jimmy wins, everyone is happy. It’s not often you find the head of a growing Vancouver company hanging out at a Yaletown long-term care home playing cards with an Alzheimer’s patient. But the co-founder of Nurse Next Door says he likes to get out of the office to keep in touch with his 1,200 employees and 1,000 clients. Jimmy is one of those clients. His basic needs are taken care of by facility staff, but his family wants a worker with him a few hours a day to keep him entertained and his brain ¬active. That’s why they called Nurse Next Door. The company was started by DeHart and his business partner, Ken Sim. They met by chance when both were looking to start something new. Sim was leaving his job as an investment banker. DeHart had already started a few technology companies and was looking for a new project. They realized the answer lay in what they were dealing with back at their own homes. Sim’s wife was on emergency bed rest due to a difficult pregnancy. Meanwhile, his mom was ailing and he couldn’t find anyone he trusted to care for either of them. DeHart was struggling with similar issues with his aging grandmother. “We knew we weren’t the only ones going through this. We looked at the whole demographic shift and realized the little home-health-care industry is going to become one of the most essential parts of our health care system,” DeHart says. In the last year, the company’s revenues have grown by 50 per cent. The five-year goal is to have 50 locations, 40 of them franchises and the rest corporate offices. They hope to have their first international franchise in Seattle within three years. But ask the men about profits, and they quickly try to change the topic. “It’s a sticky subject, because while people are coming around, there are still people out there that don’t like the idea of for-profit health care,” Sim says, carefully crafting his words. DeHart agrees: “That perception is starting to change, but it’s something that every private health-care company faces: should Canadians be allowed to make money off of health care?” But they make no apologies. Their services fall outside of the Canada Health Act. Far less than half their clients get some kind of government funding for their care. The rest are footing the $19- to $21-an-hour bill. “We think home health care should be covered by the government,” says Sim. “Most of the people we serve are not wealthy; they just want to stay in their own home and we allow them to do that. It’s just helping people lead better lives.” There’s another reason they don’t like to talk about profits. They’ve been able to fly under the radar of the unions, but they’re worried that might change if profit numbers are printed. “We don’t cut corners, and work really hard on employee loyalty with birthday cards, gift certificates, lots of time off, leaves of absence, extremely fair wages. With our nurses, we actually pay them more than the unions. We have to.” Back at the office, it’s 11 a.m. and our interview is interrupted for something that happens every day in this Kerrisdale office. The 13 people who work here cram into the small meeting room. They know the rules of this meeting well: no one sits and it can only last seven minutes. The group runs through client incidents and other points of business. Finally, they end with a cheer: “One, two, three, Lora!” the group yells. Lora is a scheduler who’s been getting especially positive feedback from clients and staff. She leaves the meeting giggling and blushing at all the attention. The crew heads back to their desks, stepping around overturned tables with pictures propped up against them. There are three different colours of paint on the wall, as the office is being refurbished yet again, one of the challenges of a rapidly expanding company. “We’ve been through four offices in four and a half years,” DeHart says. “And it looks like we’re growing out of this one, too.”