Care Driven

Rachel Lee Cummings believes that care is a two-way street

by Liz Schick

Rachel Lee Cummings worked her way through college by working for home care agencies. The work so impressed her, she launched Armistead Inc. Assisted Living Services of Williston in 1999, before the end of her senior year. Today, the company employs around 40 caregivers and an office staff of four.

Rachel Lee Cummings believes that people should live at home and take part in their communities for as long as they can. This 28-year-old is so driven by the belief that she can do this statewide — and do it better than anybody else — that she created Armistead Assisted Living Services in Shelburne. 

Driven is a good way to describe Cummings’ passion for her business, the people she cares for and for her caregivers. It stems, she says, from the very untraditional life she led, growing up in India where her mother — Rebecca Lee Samanci, now the owner of Cobb’s Corner foods in Westford — owned a pizza and apple pie restaurant on a beach. 

Cummings and her two siblings were encouraged to “think freely and independently, and that was definitely a factor in getting me into my own business, ” she says. She was the only white child in school, and because she had very blonde hair, she was called “old lady,” since only old people in India have white hair. Perhaps that’s where her compassion and caring for older people began, she says. It certainly left her unable to picture herself “in an office environment unless it was an office environment of my own creation.”

Her family moved back to Vermont so their children would have access to college. To pay for it, Cummings worked part time in high school and full time in college for various home care agencies. She loved the experience. “I was absolutely passionate about it. I loved the human interaction, the stories I learned from clients, and I knew that I was making a difference with the care I provided.”

Cummings was a 22-year-old senior at the University of Vermont in September 1999, when she started Armistead — named after her grandfather — with two part-time employees. By the time she graduated in June, she had a staff of eight full-time people.

“I was one of the first private-pay agencies, and word spread fast,” she says. “People liked the care they received and they liked the caregivers.” A scant five years later she was named Vermont’s 2004 Entrepreneur of the Year by the U.S. Small Business Administration.

The company is expanding into Washington and Lamoille counties, with plans to be statewide by the end of 2007. Pictured are Laurel Perry, field services manager, and Rod Munn, marketing and outreach coordinator.Armistead has grown to include around 40 caregivers and an office staff of four. “We doubled our sales in 2005 and exceeded our revenue target by $200,000,” Cummings says. “We are projecting more modest growth in 2006, but I am hoping we’ll have another stellar year.”

The company is expanding into Washington and Lamoille counties, and Cummings has plans to go statewide by the end of 2007. To do that, she has carefully built her infrastructure by hiring field manager Laurel Perry; Rod Munn, marketing and outreach coordinator; Sara Rutanhira, office manager; and Kara Russell, assistant office manager.

Cummings’ vision is not only “to provide excellent care for clients” but to also take good care of her employees. “It’s not just about providing good pay for good work,” she says, “but it’s about finding those who care about what they do and creating a job where they can continue to grow.” 

For example, she says, Perry handles all new client intakes to determine what kind of help they need, and develops ongoing education training programs that enable caregivers to learn on the job. Cummings expects Perry will train others to do what she does as the company grows to encompass other counties. 

She sees Munn also training others to contact the professional community—doctors, pharmacists, state agencies that serve the elder market—“to make sure they know Armistead is their best resource for non-medical caregiver services,” she says.

“When I hire folks I’m not just hiring for the position, but for the future,” Cummings stresses. “With these people training others, I expect it is possible that Armistead will grow exponentially across the state.”

Investing in its caregivers shows up in Armistead’s reduced employee turnover, says Cummings. According to a study commissioned by the Vermont Department of Aging and Disabilities five years ago, the best guess at an industry average turnover for caregivers is between 35 and 60 percent in nursing homes and home health agencies. Armistead’s turnover rate is 17 percent. She maintains that it’s “not a number I’m proud of, because I know I can do better, but as far as the rest of Vermont is concerned, it’s proof that our philosophy works.”

Armistead was one of the first private-pay agencies in the state. In 2004, Cummings was named Vermont Entrepreneur of the Year by the U.S. Small Business Administration. Sara Rutanhira (left), office manager, and Kara Russell, assistant office manager, help keep things on track.

Armistead is well positioned to continue its fast-track growth, Munn says, because the baby boomers are coming of elder age. “Twenty percent of America’s population in 2030 will be 65 or older,” he says, “and, according to the Champlain Long Term Care Coalition, by 2020 Vermont will experience nearly an 80 percent growth in the number of residents age 65 and older.” 

The coalition estimates population growth of those age 65 and older in Chittenden and Grand Isle counties to increase by more than 100 percent relative to the decline in the number of people ages 18 to 64. That means the caregiver shortage already being experienced will be exacerbated. 

Baby-boom families pay for Armistead’s services for their parents out-of-pocket or by long-term care insurance. “What really separates us from others is that we are locally grown, professionally run and make sure that we try to hire only caregivers who are truly dedicated and love what they do,” Cummings says emphatically.

Jude Kantorowski, a caregiver with Armistead for nearly two years, exemplifies that statement. “I can’t think of anything better than to help older people remain in their homes or be part of their communities as long as they are able.” Currently Jude cares for only two clients because she provides overnight stays as part of Armistead’s Live-In Plus service of 24-hour coverage. 

“I am one of two caregivers who, as part of our duties, prepare meals, do housework, laundry and run errands for a couple who are in their 80s. Each evening we spend some time visiting with my ‘family.’ I help them get ready for bed and then I listen on a room monitor to make sure they didn’t need help during the night. Their children arranged for our services, with their parents’ consent. I know I’m also there for emotional support as well, because it’s very difficult for a spouse to watch a formerly healthy person, the love of his or her life, struggle with things that were formerly easy.”

According to Armistead’s current clients, their services are invaluable. Elizabeth, who turned 90 years old in February, has been using Armistead’s services for about two years because, she says, “my family thought that my husband and I were getting old and needed some help in the house. My husband is 92, and while we are in pretty good health, he is a little unsteady, so we agreed to the idea.” 

Elizabeth met Cummings a few years ago and kept her card. Cummings came to the house when Elizabeth called and helped find the right person to help out once or twice a week. She says, “ It’s a good feeling to know that there is someone who can back us up if something happens.”

Although Cummings is a serious woman, she spends a lot of time laughing, especially when she’s talking about her husband, Scott, whom she married in August 2005. They met in the spring of 2002 on Match.com, an Internet service. “We were both busy professionals, not really into the bar scene,” says Cummings. “We used to tell people we met in a bar, though, because we were really embarrassed to say anything about it. Now, we love to tell about it. 

“Before we got married we discussed the fact that being a business owner is your life just as much as your marriage. Luckily, Scott is equally ambitious. I’m lucky, too, that as an engineer at IBM, he is very good with math so he helps me figure out whether a new service will be worth it financially. While he understands when I work late, he also knows that it’s not going to be forever.”

Not working late —“not working like a dog forever” — was part of Cummings’ business plan from the get-go. Building her staff so the business will run smoothly day to day and she can be more involved in the company’s creative growth was part of it. “The time I’m putting into it now is an investment. I’m going to take Armistead to that next level, when I won’t have to work like a dog.”

She is planning for the day when Armistead is successful enough to start giving back to the community through grants to low-income Vermonters and educational opportunities for caregivers “I’d like to see employee ownership down the road. My staff puts in as much work as I do and I’d like to see it benefit them. I want to have a retirement plan. I’m not in this business to be a millionaire but to improve my community and the lives of my employees. 

“I want to make a good living, don’t get me wrong,” Cummings says. “I want to be able to support my family and provide opportunities for them, but Armistead is my family, too.”