By Mary Malik | Photo by John Goldy
Constance Hill-Johnson, the owner of Visiting Angels in Cleveland, is certain of one thing — her heart belongs to Cleveland.
Born and raised in Glenville and a graduate of Collinwood High School and Case Western Reserve University, Hill-Johnson spent many years in various cities working in the corporate world. When she was ready for a change she couldn’t deny the pull of her hometown roots.
“I got my master’s degree in public administration with a concentration in health services at University of Southern California,” Hill-Johnson says. “I worked for Servicemaster, Merrill Lynch, Kaiser Permanente, and, with the exception of Merrill Lynch, was always involved in the healthcare field. Then Sept. 11, 2001, happened, and everything changed.”
The attacks of Sept. 11 were pivotal in Hill-Johnson’s life. The date is her birthday, and on that day in 2001 she was on an airplane that was first diverted mid-flight to another airport, then ultimately returned to St. Louis, where she was living at the time.
“After that experience, I was compelled to think about what I really wanted to do with my career and my life,” Hill-Johnson says. “I took some advice from a wonderful friend, who is now my husband, who suggested I do something on my own.”
After reading an article in Black Enterprise magazine about franchise ownership, Hill-Johnson did some research and discovered Visiting Angels, the home care company focused on helping seniors remain independent and safe as they age in their own homes. The stars were aligning for her, as she discovered Visiting Angels at just the right time.
“My father’s health had been failing and my mother was caring for him at home here in Cleveland,” Hill-Johnson says. “There was no Visiting Angels franchise in the Cleveland area at that time. I knew it was time to pack my bags and move back home.”
Hill-Johnson’s background in the healthcare industry made her uniquely qualified to operate a home healthcare franchise. The move home to Cleveland provided a comfort level and familiarity that was convenient in the early stages of business planning.
“I sat down with a map and figured out the areas I wanted to cover,” Hill-Johnson says. “Being from Cleveland was a great advantage. I knew what areas would be amenable to a business like this in terms of demographics.”
Hill-Johnson describes herself as the “quintessential entrepreneur” in that she virtually eliminated all startup costs outside of her initial investment in the franchise. “How did I do that?” she asks. “I moved in with mom. I know that’s not always an option for people, but it worked out great. My father had passed away, so mom loved the company, and I avoided housing costs. I conducted interviews at a local coffee shop, and I could put all of my energy into the new business without additional financial burdens.”
Hill-Johnson credits her fiscal responsibility to her time at Merrill Lynch where she invested wisely and saved. When the time came to purchase the Visiting Angels franchise, she was able to write a check.
“I didn’t have a great deal of advice from anyone directly in the business of home care,” Hill-Johnson says. “I did rely on a good friend and savvy businesswoman I knew in St. Louis. She retired from the IRS, then launched her own consulting business. I watched how she built customer relationships, and the importance she placed on customer service. I wanted to be like my friend, Alma.”
Now in the home healthcare business since 2002, Hill-Johnson can look back on when she started out with the benefit of hindsight. “There are things I wish I would have done right away,” she says. “I would have formed an advisory board made up of people with a very specific understanding of this industry. An entrepreneur needs people to hold them accountable, and also be looking out for their best interest.”
For Hill-Johnson, the continual challenge in the home healthcare business is finding the best people. She is so passionate about helping families to navigate the often overwhelming world of senior care that she sees a future in consulting and public speaking on the subject.
“Preparing for your future or that of aging parents can be daunting,” Hill-Johnson says. “By having Visiting Angels for my own mother, I experienced it from the client side and the business side. I’d like to pass on my knowledge of senior care issues and minority entrepreneurship.”
For more info: visitingangels.com/cleveland