Sometimes our career paths feel winding and unpredictable, and yet in the end they seem to lead us exactly where we’re supposed to be. Such was the case for Anne Marie Cassella.
With a public relations degree in hand from Utica College in upstate New York, Cassella’s first job was as PR Director for The Arc, or the Association for Retarded Citizens, as it was known at that time. The job was a good fit and Cassella enjoyed her work, but soon decided to go back to school to earn a second degree in graphic design.
In order to keep her on while she went to school, The Arc offered her a position more compatible with her student hours. “The Arc owned forty residential care homes, and I became a floating manager, going to various facilities to assess their needs and make sure they were being properly run. I had no experience in this area, but they gave me all the training I needed.”
Three years later when Casella received her degree in graphic design, she was ready to move on. “I liked my job with The Arc, but the pay was low and I wanted to use my new degree.” Cassella identified a publishing company, Delmar Publishing in Albany, NY, for whom she hoped to design textbook covers. To get her foot in the door, she found a temp agency that had a contract with Delmar and took a temporary position selling cosmetology textbooks. She laughs, “This wasn’t at all what I wanted to do, but for three months I sold beauty school books over the phone. At the end of it I had sold about $250,000 worth of books and they offered me a full-time sales job. I had never planned on working in sales, but I figured I’d take it until a graphic design position opened up.”
She stayed for 15 years.
During this time, Thomson Corporation, which owned Delmar Publishing, was bought out by Reuters. Cassella had by then relocated to Thomson’s Legal and Regulatory Group, selling online analysis of the internal revenue code. “It was a far cry from where I started out or where I thought I’d be,” Cassella says, “but it was very lucrative. It was also very stressful. That type of sales job can only last so long. You can’t sustain it.”
But it was Cassella’s personal life that ultimately led her to a major career change. “My mother had disabilities and required care for much of her life. I had moved to North Carolina by this time and moved my mother there as well. I was spending huge amounts of time trying to find proper care and treatment for her. And frankly, I was horrified by what I found. The residential care landscape in the state was not very good. I thought to myself: I can do better than this.”
So Cassella did do better. Drawing on the skills and experience she gained while working for The Arc, she created the kind of home that she would be happy to have her own mother live in. She named it Lynn’s Homes, after her mother, and now runs two such homes with plans to open more. Each house is located in a quiet, residential neighborhood with room for six residents. This allow the residents, who all have dementia, to enjoy the benefits of living at home while being provided the 24-hour care and supervision they require. They enjoy home-cooked meals and planned daily activities.
Lynn’s Homes have been so successful that Cassella wanted to find a way to reach more people, so she started a membership association. Through the association she helps others, mostly women, open eldercare homes using the same high standard of care for which Lynn’s Homes are known. “I help them navigate the system to get their homes licensed. After that, they pay a monthly membership association fee for continued guidance and support.
“It was a way for me to expand the business without actually cutting off body parts.” Cassella explains. “The best person to run a business is the owner. They have skin in the game. I could have opened 20 homes and been a multi-millionaire, but I would have had to hire other people to run them and they wouldn’t be me. The management wouldn’t have the same level of passion. My goal was to help other women in a state like North Carolina that has a very low percentage of women business owners. I help them create their own business and prosper in a growing field with exorbitant need.”
She continues, “I didn’t have a mentor because this had never been done. Private pay care homes didn’t exist in North Carolina five years ago. A lot of people were skeptical that it could be done. I said, ‘Watch me’. I used my healthcare, marketing, and sales experience. And whatever I didn’t know, I hurried up and figured out.”
Cassella believes that her own personal experience and her personality have played a large role in her success. “I was raised by my grandmother. She was my best friend until she died. I’ve always had an affinity for the elderly. Also, I was brought up in an Irish house where everybody and their brother came over. If somebody needed help, couldn’t make it on their own, they moved in. It’s just what you did. You took care of each other.”
Unlike many entrepreneurs, Cassella did not feel like her endeavor was high risk. She still had a full-time job with a comfortable salary when she opened her first home, and she felt very confident by the time she quit her job to open a second home that she could meet or exceed her current level of income.
It wasn’t always easy, particularly in the beginning. When she opened the first Lynn’s Home she had only one resident in a space designed for six. Until she found other residents, she had to cover expenses from her own pocket in order to provide the level of care that she believed was essential. She estimates that she’s made $100,000 worth of mistakes.
“I’ve maxed out credit cards, taken out of my 401K. I’ve exhausted my pension. But in the end it will generate far more money than it would sitting in an account somewhere. I feel fine about that. And the mistakes I’ve made, I won’t make again.”
When asked if leaving her high-paying job at Reuters was a difficult decision, the 44-year-old Cassella answers without hesitation. “I couldn’t wait to leave. I was so fried and stressed out. I had no time for myself.” She continues, “Now I make my own hours. I don’t answer to anybody but myself. It’s more stressful in some ways, but it’s so much more rewarding that in the end it doesn’t even matter. I love it and am blessed and grateful every day.”
- Your full-time job can fund your dream; don’t leave it too soon. I could put up with anything at work because I knew I was building my dream. I funded my business almost completely with money that I had earned through work.
- Do your research. I found a niche in the market. I found a hole that nobody else found. Now, my phone is always ringing with interested investors, many of whom I turn down. The passion to help others has to be there.