Rick’s Passion

Fired by God

God has a great plan for our lives, but we are often too afraid, stubborn, or set on our own plan to follow Him into the unknown. His plan will no doubt lead to a better life for us in the long run.

I have always looked up to my dad. He was a pioneer in so many things. He was an entrepreneur and had his own business for as long as I can remember. I saw how he could run the business on his terms and always do what he thought was right with his customers and employees. He was always more than fair and did his best to satisfy everyone. He helped a lot of people in his lifetime through his mission as a good employer, and still has that great heart and helpful spirit in his retirement.

I knew in my heart since I was a child that I would not be satisfied with myself until I owned my own business as well. I had always thought that I would be working with my dad in his construction-related manufacturing business. However, hard times hit the construction industry and he sold his business. I felt a bit lost at that point. I was only a teenager then, but my perceived secure future was suddenly gone. The rug of my career was pulled out from under me.

I obtained my business degree from UTC in 1987 but did not know yet what I wanted to do. I felt God lead me to my first job out of college, working for a large nursing home company in their acquisition and development department. It was a great job for me where I was given a lot of responsibility very early in my career, so I gained a lot of experience very quickly. At this point, I understood that my original plan of taking over my dad’s business was not as good as God’s plan.

After 12 years there, I was very comfortable in my job and was now the youngest vice president the company had ever had. I learned a lot about the senior services industry. However, for several years, I had the feeling that I wasn’t fulfilling what God had put in my heart to do with my life. I felt like I wanted my own business and now I was feeling very comfortable in the senior industry and loving the fact that the mission of the industry was to help the elderly have better lives. But I became too comfortable and was afraid to do anything else and take the risk it would require to start a business.

My wife, Shelley, was now pregnant with our first child and was working as a nurse. Although my title was great at my current job, the pay was not – I had much more title than I had income. It took both of our incomes to pay our monthly bills. Also, I was working 10 to 12 hours per day, and I knew this was not the type of hours I wanted to keep as a new father. With these hours, I would leave before the baby woke up, and would be coming home after her bedtime. I wanted to have more time with my family. I was struggling with what to do because we were determined for Shelley to be able to stay home and raise our children.

Then Shelley was laid off from her job when she was seven months pregnant. With her job went our insurance, and the income we needed to pay our monthly obligations. Although I knew the day would soon be coming when we wanted her to quit her job and care for our family at home, we were not ready for it to happen now! We didn’t know what to do. However, God was ready.

Another large healthcare company out of Boston had been asking me to come and work for them for quite some time, but I had insisted I would not leave my hometown in Chattanooga where my family was because family was very important to me. They approached me after Shelley lost her job and offered for me to set up an office in my own home so I could be near my family. They offered me about twice the pay I was currently making as well. Wow!

I finally felt safe enough to step out of my secure job because “I” had figured out a plan and worked it out with this Boston company. I was pretty proud of myself! I knew a little about the internal politics of this company and knew that I would probably not be able to be a long-term employee with living away from the corporate office.

However, being the planner that I am, I had it figured out, if I could stay with them for two years, I would be able to save $35,000. With this money, I planned to live for 6 months to a year while I built up a consulting business. If I could continue to get business, I would remain an independent consultant, helping other businesses buy and finance senior centers. This was my expertise.

I further planned that while I was consulting, I would try to find buyers that would give me small percentages of ownership for my commission when I helped them buy a property. I assumed if I could continue this for many years, I could own small pieces of many communities. With my plan in mind, I accepted the offer and turned in my resignation. I worked out a 45-day notice so as not to leave my employer in a bind.

To kick off my new job, I traveled to Washington DC to meet my new employer at an industry conference. I arrived at my hotel room at noon. Shortly after, there was a knock on my door. I opened it and it was my new boss. I greeted him cheerfully as I was excited to get going.

However, his face was pale and he appeared to be very anxious and distraught. He asked me to sit down and proceeded to tell me that the board of the company I had met the night before had decided to suspend all acquisitions. That was the department I had been hired to run! My earlier assessment that the employment there might be volatile was correct, but I was way off on the timing! I was fired after one hour on the job! Much shorter than the two years I needed to save up my $35,000 to get started on my personal business plan!

However, he took out an envelope and slid it across the table to me. He said, “I know we didn’t negotiate this, but I feel so bad to do this to you, I worked out a severance payment for you and your family.” I opened the envelope to find a check for $35,000, the exact amount I had calculated to start my business! God showed me again that my plans could dissolve in an instant, but He could still take care of me better than I had even imagined. The very amount made it unmistakable that God was in all of this!

Although I think God was suggesting it years earlier, I was too fearful to leave my solid job until I thought I had a safe new place to go. I didn’t trust Him enough to just follow his lead. He had to put me in a financial crisis, show me a mirage so I would make a move, then take away the mirage so I would get on with His plan.

I put the $35,000 in the bank, knowing that was all we would have to live on until I generated more income from a brand-new business. That same night, I called my long-time employer and told him the story and how I was available to do projects for him on a consulting basis, but I felt called to start my own business and not return as an employee. The next day, he graciously hired me as a consultant doing much of the same work I had done for 12 years.

I was also able to develop other clients in the industry, and never had a day when I didn’t have work. I never had to touch that $35,000 in the bank. God showed me again that I never really needed that money I was waiting for but all I needed to do was to step out and follow His plan. I was making twice the money I was making when employed and had the quality time I had desired to spend with my darling baby Isabella since my office was in my home.

I remained a consultant for various clients for several years, and life was great, but I still felt the drive to be an owner in senior communities, so I kept an eye open for opportunities. One such opportunity came along in 2003. I was helping a client to refinance Riverwood Life Community in Rome, Georgia. While making some progress, they struck a deal to sell the property. That deal fell through and my clients were very disappointed. Not wanting to negotiate with a client, but seeing an opportunity to take the next step in my plan, I offered to take the position of the buyer that had just left the table. They accepted! Then I had to figure out how I was going to pay for it!

I had become reacquainted with Don Howe, someone who I had gone to college with 20 years prior. Our children were the same age, so we found ourselves spending time together in church and other events. Don had started a physical therapy company from nothing and turned it into a great success in just a few years. Through Don’s success, he developed a good amount of capital.

When the Riverwood deal came up, and I was pretty sure I couldn’t get it financed without some better financial backing, I remembered Don telling me if I ever found a good business opportunity he would enjoy being a Partner with me. So I told him just a little about the deal with the Riverwood property and asked if he would like to be my partner in it. He said yes, and so I was planning to provide tons of detail, an investment package, a big business plan, etc. to get him comfortable with the investment. To my amazement, he just told me “If you like it, I like it! I’ll put in whatever you put in.” At that point, he earned a loyal business partner for life. He helped me make that crucial next step and I thank God for him!

We bought our Riverwood Community and quickly turned it into a success by doing the right things for the right reasons. We took the approach that we wanted to provide a quality physical environment and service we would be personally happy with if we, our parents, or our grandparents, were living there. The communities we target for acquisition are those that are struggling in those areas because we know we can turn them around and improve those communities and the quality of life for the residents there.

Don and I each have our skill sets. Don is a visionary and I am very analytical. We realize each others’ talents and our own challenges with these personality types, so we work very well together and complement each other’s styles. One thing we realized is that neither of us was well suited to manage the complex business day-to-day. We are both project-oriented and need the talent of good operators that excel with those skills to be most successful. We, therefore, created a plan where we would bring in that talent.

That is how Randy Holcombe joined the team. Don had known Randy since high school and knew him to be a hard worker, fun, and anxious for a challenge. He had a great set of skills that he had acquired through his career that fit our industry very well. Randy became involved with the ownership and management of our fourth community, near his home in Nashville. Here he proved himself to perfectly fit the missing needs of our company. He now serves as the president of the entire company and oversees the day-to-day operations.

I am so happy that God was finally able to get me where he wanted me to be. I am blessed with incredible gratification when we purchase a challenged community and are able to turn it into a success for the residents, families, and staff. We have an incredible team at all levels of this organization, and that is what allows us to be so successful. I am able to sleep with complete confidence and peace each night!

I praise God for allowing me to be a part of this successful mission and sticking with me while I was not willing to make the move and was afraid to take the first step. I am also grateful to the Lord for placing a crisis in my life when I needed it. I didn’t appreciate the crisis at the time, but in retrospect, I understand it clearly and embrace it now. Hopefully, I have learned to trust Him more so I can move to His will more quickly and avoid any of these crises in the future!

Rick Stern/Partner