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the challenge

Care for a Ride co-founders Shawn and Shelly Szydlowski.Amber Bracken/The Globe and Mail

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

Shawn and Shelly Szydlowski have always been interested in helping the elderly. Shawn still remembers the gut-wrenching feeling he had as a kid the first time he saw an older fellow struggle to cross the street.

When he met Shelly when they were in their 20s, she was working at a long-term care facility. They realized that they shared an interest, and in 2009, after nearly two decades in the work force, they decided to turn that interest into a business.

Over seven years, their company, Care for a Ride Inc., has gone from a single vehicle driving senior citizens to a 33-employee business with a fleet of 20 company-owned cars shuttling more than a thousand regular clients in the Edmonton area. They pride themselves in going beyond delivering elderly or disabled clients to a destination: They'll take clients inside, wait until they're finished, then take them home.

When seniors need a ride, they usually turn to family and friends first, Mr. Szydlowski says. "If that's not an option, they turn to the public system. And if that doesn't work they usually resort to cabs."

But, he says, "that doesn't fit the need for everybody."

After researching the marketplace, the Szydlowskis found that some seniors and people with disabilities worry about being a burden to friends and family. They also might struggle with public transportation. The husband and wife decided to create a more effective option.

Care for a Ride charges a flat rate based on distance, rather than relying on meters, and they try to ensure their round-trip rates cost less than a cab would.

Where Care for a Ride differentiates itself is in the extent of its service, Mr. Szydlowski says. Depending on clients' needs, employees can come to their doors and help them with their shoes and jackets. If the appointment is at the hospital, drivers will take clients past the hospital door to the appointment itself, and can wait and drive them home again.

"We get to know people, and become friends over time," he says.

Mr. Szydlowski insists the company's margins are "fantastic." The secret, he says, is in the company's employee base: recently retired baby boomers. Care for a Ride used to advertise that it was hiring, but now potential drivers come to them excited to work, either having heard about the company through friends or having seen their decorated vehicles.

"The people that we've hired, they've paid off their mortgages and raised their kids. They're not working because they have to work; they're working because they want to work," he says. They're not quite ready to retire, love seniors and love driving. As boomers retire, he says, "there's an unlimited pool to draw from."

People have started contacting the Szydlowskis about setting up similar businesses in their cities.

That led the pair to consider expansion, possibly with a franchise model. But Care for a Ride is also trying to catch up with organic growth at home. The Szydlowskis are in the midst of implementing software to manage their workflow, scheduling and operations, and they could use some strategy-minded people to help manage the operational side.

Care for a Ride's growth potential is big, but its founders need to know the smartest way to wrangle it.

THE CHALLENGE: Should Care for a Ride focus on refining operations at home or begin expanding to other markets?

Joyce Tustian, national managing director, Western Management Consultants, and director, Seniors Association of Greater Edmonton

I think they should franchise elsewhere if they can duplicate the model. The one place I think they've got some room to move is price, because a franchise fee could increase their prices. Unless they start charging more to clients, drivers will either stop having fun or have to drive more to make up the commitment.

And I think that's doable, though not for all clients. Many seniors do live in poverty. But a lot of seniors are healthier and have better incomes – that's a trend, and that's the group on which they're focusing. The market is clearly there. And demand will continue for quite a while. Some of the service demands in this area have more traditionally been handled through volunteerism, but volunteerism is down everywhere, and certainly for things like this.

There is room to grow at home, too. While they're known in the industry and held in high regard, they have not taken many opportunities to make their services available to other senior-service agencies across town. There, they'd have a captive market.

Joel Gehman, assistant professor of strategic management and organization, Alberta School of Business, University of Alberta, Edmonton

Personal relationships and tailored services are a key part of this company's purpose and competencies. Has its growth placed any stress on its ability to fulfill on this promise? Were it to franchise, what systems – both formal and informal – does it have in place to ensure franchisees are able to deliver the same high standards? Having a robust approach to delivering this value proposition seems to be a key performance indicator for this company to monitor as it grows further.

Turning to the local market, just how much room for growth is left? Some sense of market capacity and potential competition will be important as Care for a Ride decides how to allocate its scarce resources in terms of local versus national expansion. Perhaps it can reduce its need for growing its own car fleet by partnering with a company like Pogo, Edmonton's car-sharing leader.

The company should also consider building a specialized app. Think of it as Uber but tailored for the seniors they serve and the boomers who drive for them.

Karen Shinn, co-founder, Downsizing Diva, a senior home-downsizing company that has expanded across southern Ontario and two other provinces, Toronto

The best advice I can give is to make sure all your ducks are in a row at home before you go further. Make sure you've created systems for everything you do, from answering the phones to working with clients, to how you do everything the way you want it duplicated.

The bigger part, the next big step, is to write your operations manual. If you don't have an ops manual, you can't duplicate what you've got. The goal is to take your little business and to cookie-cutter it, and have someone else take the information and run the same thing.

The next step is do your homework on expansion options. Maybe you want people to buy a license? Maybe you want to own the branches and run it from a central location? That might work in the province you're in, but not farther afield. Of course, there's franchising, but it's a different kettle of fish. There are a number of companies that will help you build your business into a franchise, and they can hold your hand as you do that, like through the Canadian Franchise Association.


Partner up across town

Other senior-service companies around Edmonton may lap up the chance to introduce their clients to Care for a Ride.

Survey clients

As Care for a Ride has grown, has it kept its personal touch? It's worth checking before undertaking a multi-city expansion.

Make an operations manual

It's smart to have every system written down.

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Interviews have been edited and condensed.