Breaking Free

MOST BUSINESS OWNERS wouldn't want to boast about their time in the big house. But entrepreneur Peter Tourian of Gilbert, Ariz., says his experience in jail — especially a prison riot in which seven people were held hostage — taught him how to overcome a lot of unnecessary fears. Although, "let's be clear, I was on the right side of the bars," he says. 

Tourian is a former detention officer with the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, and after helping quell the 1996 riot in Arizona's notorious "Tent City," he gave up his 12-gauge shotgun and decided to take a shot at small business, a childhood ambition. 

Now 33, Tourian has set his sights on an unusual market, considering his jailhouse résumé: aging baby boomers who want to live independently, but need help with day-to-day activities. In 2002, Tourian founded Synergy HomeCare, hiring about 100 employees in the first year to provide "caregiver-for-hire" services, helping elderly or incapacitated people cook meals, make beds, take showers, or occupy their minds with crafts or card games. 

Why target boomers? "The reason is the demand, plain and simple," he says. The Department of Labor predicts that the number of home health aides will jump about 55% between 2002 and 2012, fueled by the aging of 76 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964. "It's the birth of this industry." 

Showing, perhaps, some of the boldness that helped him storm the jailyard during the riot, Tourian decided to franchise within the first year of business. "I saw the growth and thought, wow, this isn't stopping," he says. "Franchising is the best way to expand fast, and penetrate the market on a larger scale." 

The process of creating a franchise took more than a year, with Tourian using the services of a franchise attorney and attending seminars sponsored by the International Franchise Association, to learn more about what needed to be done. The tough part for any new franchise, he discovered, is selling the first office, especially if your business model is unproven. But by last year — the first year of the Synergy HomeCare franchise — he had sold seven offices, many to practitioners in the medical industry familiar with the needs of the aging population. He's currently drafting the sale of five more franchises, and expects to sell up to 300 in the next five years. 

Tourian stresses that Synergy HomeCare provides only nonmedical-care services. His chain offers up to three different types of caregivers: daily living companions, who might play games, work on crafts or write letters with clients; homemakers, who prepare meals, wash laundry and do other light household chores; and personal-care assistants, who might help clients in and out of wheelchairs or beds. 

Many insurance plans and government programs cover in-home care, which generally costs between $15 to $18 an hour, Tourian says. And the company doesn't limit the services to seniors. Anyone who needs help with routine daily tasks to stay at home could use the services, such as a working adult injured on the job, a disabled child, or an expectant mother. 

The initial investment for a Synergy HomeCare franchise is between $50,000 and $70,000, which Tourian estimates is what he paid (using his own money) to start the company in the first place. Franchisees must pay a 5% royalty on monthly gross revenues, along with a 2% monthly contribution to a marketing fund. Most of the company's offices are in Arizona, although some have opened in South Dakota, Washington and Texas. (On the advice of his attorney, Tourian declined to provide revenue figures or other financial information.) 

After Tourian left the jail system, he attended Arizona State University, graduating in 2000 with a bachelor's degree in human resources with a focus on small business. He'd always had an entrepreneurial bent, and remembers starting a dog-training business at age 14. "Other kids were dreaming about Superman and Spider-Man, I was dreaming about business," he says. While at ASU, he initially decided to start a health-care staffing company. But then, during a business visit to a nursing home, he was struck by inspiration to do something more. 

"There was an elderly lady, and she was in the bed, as I was leaving she grabbed me and said, 'can you talk to me a little bit?'" he recalls. The woman, it turns out, only needed a small amount of assistance, but didn't want to burden her busy adult children. She longed for the comforts of her own home. "For some people who didn't need that 24-hour constant care, this was the solution for them: Send the caregiver to their home." 

While he has competitors, Tourian says few people even know about nonmedical home-care services. Once his franchise is established, he hopes to be the first company to storm the scene with a national marketing campaign. "Just like any other business, we want to get out there, and we want to get it out there first," he says. And this time, he's glad he won't need to wear riot gear to do it.