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the challenge

Juggling 80 care providers and clients on her smartphone, Anita DeVille needs a better way to manage her emergency care business, especially if she wants to expand.Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

Each week, we seek expert advice to help a small or medium-sized business overcome a key issue.

Imagine you run a business where you don't know what the demand is going to be each day. Or whether you're going to have enough people in the right places to do the work.

Imagine That Family Care Services Inc. faces that delicate balancing act. The Toronto-based company contracts with businesses, then provides emergency care for their employees who need it, from infants to the elderly, even if they're mildly ill, sending care providers to the client's home. Corporate employers, such as Boston Consulting Group and Ernst & Young, keep Imagine That's number on hand for when employees' care arrangements are disrupted, or an employee needs to travel.

The company also works with hotels, for guests who request child care through concierge services, and is affiliated with EduKids Child Care Centres in the Greater Toronto Area, York Region Children's Aid Society and the Children's Aid Society of Toronto, offering backup and after-hours care for families.

With only one full-time administrative employee and 80 casual part-time care providers with no set hours, Imagine That's president and managing director, Anita DeVille, is constantly on her smartphone – texting, e-mailing, juggling. Not only is she balancing the clients' demands with the supply of workers, she is also matching the right person with the right job and ensuring both are in the same geographic vicinity.

But the ongoing challenge goes beyond that. Ms. DeVille must also make sure there's a constant supply of work or she risks losing members of her army.

"If I have too many care providers and not enough work hours for them, many will look for other means of income," says Ms. DeVille, who works from home or on the run. "But not having enough care providers means I can't provide services to all my families."

She follows up after each job, with both client and care provider, seeking feedback. She pays her workers an hourly rate as well as CPP, EI and vacation pay, and conducts orientation and training.

Ms. DeVille, 46, is a relatively new entrepreneur. Previously, her business was part of Bartimaeus Inc., an Ontario-based company that provides family and behavioural support services. Ms. DeVille worked for Bartimaeus for five years until she bought that part of its operation last year and now runs it independently.

Now Ms. DeVille wants to expand her business to cities across Ontario, making her balancing act even harder.

But first, how can she better forecast and manage worker supply and client demand? Would she be better off having a core group of full-time staff, or continue with the flexibility that specialized casual workers can provide?

The Challenge: How can Ms. DeVille better structure her business so she can expand?


Heather Shenton, senior manager, strategy, talent and organization, Accenture, Toronto

Supply and demand are always tricky to manage. It's all about planning and leveraging your knowledge. It's knowing who your clients are and all about their businesses. For example, do they have key dates for their corporate functions or projects where employees may need to work extra hours? Also, does she know when all the professional development days are for the different school boards in her area? That's often when parents can't find anyone to watch their children.

Leveraging that data – plotting out when she's going to have potential peaks, what staff she has on hand to handle those peaks and when the down times are – will help her forecast what demand is going to be.

When she contracts with her corporate clients, part of her process should be seeking data from them to better understand the demographics of their organization.

As Ms. DeVille expands, managing her relationships through texts and e-mails is going to become impossible. She needs some type of relationship-management software to keep track of her clients and her part-time employees, including their skills, preferences and even client reviews. She's going to want that information centralized when she's looking to book appointments.

Another thing she could be doing to have consistent communication across the board is sending out a monthly or bi-monthly newsletter to all her part-time employees to keep them in the loop about what's happening in the business.

Laura Croucher, partner and national lead, People and Change Services, KPMG Canada

A ratio of 80 part-time people to one full-time employee assisting her is too high. Given that she's going to be doing a lot of recruiting plus business development, she's got a lot of demands on her time. It would be better to bring that ratio down and have three to five maximum permanent employees. They don't have to be full time, but maybe they could be permanently guaranteed 20 hours a week. That would allow her to have more people for maintaining contact with both the clients and the employees.

For expanding outside Ontario, I understand that she's trying to monitor her costs, but this is a service industry and she has to be mindful of where the tipping points are – where she needs to spend the money and the impact in the long run.

I admire what she's doing here. She's onto something and doing a good job, but I'd caution her about expanding too quickly, particularly outside the GTA or Ontario.

Mark McKenna, owner, A McKenna Plumbing Ltd., a family-run business offering emergency repairs and plumbing services, Oakville, Ont.

Our four full-time employees look after the emergency calls, and our subcontracted people do most of the jobs that are booked ahead of time. That's how we always have people at the ready. We learn ahead of time what they're good at and pick up business based on that.

To handle emergency calls, you have to have the right type of people available who know the business well and know what they're in for. That's where having those full-time employees comes in. They have stake in the game. They know this is where their income comes from so they can't fool around.

To make sure your subs are readily available when you need them, you have to make sure you're a steady business. These guys recognize that and gravitate toward it. Most of our subs have monetary minimums that they want to achieve, so we leave them the bigger stuff, but I don't guarantee them a minimum.


Explore tools

Look at relationship management software that would keep track of clients and your workers.

Stay in contact

Send a newsletter to all part-time employees so they know what's new and what's happening in the business.

Bring on more people

Hire more permanent staff, either full-time or part-time, with guaranteed hours.

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Interviews have been edited and condensed.