As part of Sudbury.com’s ongoing Discover Series, Dr. Mike Commito, director of applied research and innovation at Cambrian College, who is often referred to simply as Dr. Mike on campus, is sitting down with researchers and entrepreneurs in Sudbury to spotlight the innovative work they’re doing in our community and beyond.
This past January, Dr. Mike had the chance to catch up with Sheri Tomchick, founder of the companies Plan A Long-Term Care Staffing & Recruitment and StaffStat. Plan A is a healthcare staffing agency that provides professional assistance to the long-term care sector, seniors and their health-care providers. Plan A now has franchises in 24 locations in Ontario, two in British Columbia, and another in Calgary, Alta.
As Plan A grew, Tomchick recognized they needed a better way to recruit workers and quickly fill shifts. To overcome these staffing challenges, she developed a software program/application, which developed into its own business, StaffStat.
With Plan A approaching its 10th year of operations, Tomchick reflected on how her businesses have evolved and how she continues to be innovative. During the course of their conversation, she spoke with Dr. Mike about the future of Plan A and StaffStat and how she continues to inspire her employees. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Mike Commito: Before becoming an entrepreneur, you worked in healthcare as a nurse. Can you talk about your journey from working as a nurse to becoming a business owner in the long-term care sector?
Sheri Tomchick: I worked as a registered nurse for three years and I learned pretty quickly that the kind of care I wanted to give people wouldn’t ever be able to happen if there weren’t enough health care professionals in the building. There was cutting corners and running around like a chicken with your head cut off. Because of this, I didn’t enjoy my nursing career and it took a toll on both my physical and mental health. I then had an opportunity to co-ordinate and teach a Personal Support Worker program, which is when I was introduced to the long-term care (LTC) sector. I had done a brief placement when I was first studying nursing, but that was the extent of my LTC experience. When I was co-ordinating the PSW program, I would meet with the (LTC) homes to arrange for placement for my students and instructors, and that’s when I was introduced to this huge staffing deficit in long-term care. Not that I wasn’t aware of it, I had learned all about the baby boomers and the aging population while studying to become a registered nurse. I just wasn’t paying attention to it at all. The first time I went into one of our LTC homes I walked in to see a resident standing in the doorway with her underpants down to her ankles and as I saw some people in scrubs walk by her I thought, ‘What is going on?’ I pulled her underwear up, looked up and saw somebody whose title was the ‘Director of First Impressions’ and so I introduced myself and started asking questions. What I learned was that the LTC home was in ‘Plan D’ – meaning that they were down six or seven staff that day. I also learned that they were in ‘Plan C’ or ‘Plan D’ every day. I walked away thinking to myself, ‘How are we going to keep these homes in Plan A?’, not realizing at the time that I was going to build a business called Plan A, specifically for that reason.
MC: After recognizing the need for better staffing strategies for the long-term care sector, how long did you take you to make your business a reality?
ST: It was about 15 months after that when I put pen to paper for my business plan. I was really fortunate because Ontario Self-Employment Benefits still existed when I started my business, so I qualified to learn how to start a business through the Learning Initiative program in Sudbury. I was so green, I really didn’t’ have a clue what I was doing. When I started to write my first business plan, it wasn’t even for an agency initially; it was for a home-care company specific to dementia and it was going to be called Hearts at Home. I worked on that plan for about two months and because it was all new to me, I put everything I had into it, and when it was complete it just didn’t feel like me and what I wanted to do to help our most vulnerable population. So, I scrapped that business plan and started again from scratch and the name ‘Plan A’ kept popping into my head. So, I decided to call it Plan A and I absolutely love that name. Not only does it go with my vision for our seniors, but you can play on the name in many instances. We call our workforce the ‘A team’. We expect them to bring their ‘A game’. It’s a really great play on what we do.
MC: Your idea was disruptive at the time; did you encounter any resistance when you established Plan A?
ST: I absolutely encountered resistance when I first started. I was told my idea would never happen in LTC and to find a different sector. I was also told by union representatives that ‘we’re never going to let your scabs in our homes.’ Long story short, today we service 160 homes with a staff pool of 1,400 thoroughly screened people. We have 27 locations across Canada and almost 1,500 shifts a week make it through StaffStat. I am glad I believed in my vision and in myself enough to make this happen, and that I didn’t let any of the resistance alter my focus.
MC: You had a revelation when you visited that long-term care facility and saw that woman walking around in need of help, which led to the creation of Plan A. Did you have a similar experience when it came to establishing your other company, StaffStat?
ST: We definitely had that ‘ah-ha’ moment! We were wasting all of our time on the phone calling down the list for shifts. We were on the phone 20 hours a day calling people to see if they could work. It was not working; it was expensive, time-consuming and just not effective. One day I put the phone down and said, ‘there’s got to be a better way to do this.’ There’s got to be a way that the homes could put their own shifts into a software and every screened staff can get notified that there’s work opportunities available. So, we took that idea to a local software developer and had it built here in Sudbury; that was the software that is now StaffStat. We had no idea we were going to turn that into a business. We thought it was going to be the tool that turns us into an Uber model, because that’s essentially what we are. We cover shifts with an app. People are signed up at this end and people are signed up at the other end, and in the middle, shifts get filled. Our first pilot happened here in Sudbury down the street at Pioneer Manor and they were the first ones who identified the need for it. They were very data-driven and that’s what pretty much put us into position to open it as a company. We are now being used coast to coast in Canada and in the United States. We’re being used in hospitals, nursing homes, and in community living spaces.
MC: How do you ensure your companies don’t stop innovating?
ST: You can’t ever stop trying to do things differently. You can’t be afraid to fail. You have to fail fast. Sometimes that mean money in the garbage but it also brings you steps closer to what must be done. You can’t stop trying. Just today, we finished a meeting on how we were going to scale building a talent pool and how we’re constantly looking for a new way to do it better, cheaper, faster, and the keyword is always, always better. So, if we find a way that is cheaper, but it’s not better, we’re not going to do it. We want to be as effective and efficient as we can. We’re constantly looking to push that to the next level. I do feel like we have paved the road for other companies and we’re starting to see that now. Our whole mantra is we can’t stop innovating. We’ve worked for over nine years on this mega-project, and we couldn’t have gotten this far without innovation.
MC: As your team at Plan A and StaffStat continues to grow, how do you seek to inspire your staff?
ST: You have to constantly be working to inspire your staff. The way I keep them inspired is by bringing them into my vision through a dynamic leadership team and then by keeping myself inspired by meeting people in our sector, reading, learning, attending conferences, etc. That also means that I have to take good care of myself. It’s not weekends or late nights. It’s really about quiet time, reflecting, self care, exercise, and being in the moment with my family and friends. If I can’t take care of me, how do I inspire 25 people to take care of our most vulnerable population? It’s a lot of work, but I wouldn’t change it.
MC: As Canada’s population continues to age, it will have a significant impact on our long-term care sector. How do you envision Plan A playing a part in addressing those challenges?
ST: Plan A is the fastest growing staffing backup plan for the long-term care sector across Canada. We’re going to keep our focus on LTC because that seems to be the sector that needs it the most and that is having an overall impacting the healthcare sector as a whole. When people don’t have a bed to go to or they can’t get care they go to the hospital, which impacts the way that care is delivered to the acute patients. I see ourselves as a partner. I believe we are part of the LTC sector, along with our partners, working together to keep PSW’s and nurses in our sector.
MC: What kind of goals are you currently working towards for Plan A and StaffStat?
ST: We’re heading into our 10th year [at Plan A] and we have some really big projects on the go. We are actively opening more Plan A’s across the country. We are presently building an AI component into StaffStat so that our software can predict what the homes will need ahead of time based on their usage, which will help them to fill more shifts internally and have to rely on their external staffing partner less. StaffStat is sector agnostic, so we’re looking to introduce ourselves to other sectors. If we’re putting all of this time and money into calling down the list in health care, who else needs to get off the phone? Those are some of things we’re doing right now. The year 2021 is our 10th year. I always say it took Uber 14 years, so it’s going to take Plan A 10 to have that perfect business model. We’ve had an exponential amount of growth this year and we want continue to see that because it means that Canadian LTC homes are getting the support and back up that they need. The way to keep that going is to keep innovating, developing our software and then marketing that stuff!
MC: What kind of advice would you offer to a young entrepreneur looking to make their business idea a reality?
ST: Right away if someone wanted to open a business, I would say do your market research. I would say that you need to get yourself educated. Understanding what the financials, marketing, operations, human resources and growth opportunities mean to your own business idea. Have a business plan, because failing to plan is planning to fail. Set goals – both short and long term. Reach out to people who’ve done it, like me, and ask lots questions. Find a mentor. Push yourself out of your comfort zone. And then do it. Life is too short not to give it a try. Believe in yourself and trust yourself to get you where you need to go.
Mike Commito is the Director of Applied Research & Innovation at Cambrian College. You can find all of Dr. Mike’s Q&A’s in the Discover series. Follow him on Twitter @mikecommito.