One of Patti Priestman's enduring regrets – and greatest inspirations – stems from her mother-in-law's wrenching move from the family home she had lived in for more than 50 years in Kitchener, Ont.
Ms. Priestman's father-in-law was ill, the family rallied, but the whole process was way too rushed.
"My husband and I would roar down from [our home in] Peterborough to Kitchener [roughly 300 kilometres] after a 40-hour work week and have the weekend to try to help them. My husband's brother was there, too. My mother-in-law would be stressed, she wanted to have tea, she wanted to talk, and we didn't have much time, we had to get this done. It was heartbreaking," recalls Ms. Priestman, who founded her own business, Home Suite Home Transitions, in Peterborough as a result of the experience.
"I thought to myself there has to be a better way than this. It was just too stressful for all of us," says Ms. Priestman, who was working as a manager at a veterinary clinic that treated horses at the time.
She launched an online search, came across the U.S.-based National Association of Senior Move Managers and went to a conference in Florida to learn more. "Fate kind of brought things together. I ended up being downsized from my job, and I became a certified relocation and transitions specialist."
A government-funded self-employment course taught her the basics of laying the groundwork for a business.
Working out of her home, Ms. Priestman took $20,000 in savings and set up shop in 2011, investing in radio ads to reach her target seniors' market and establishing a Web presence to reach their adult offspring. (One sleepless client, overwhelmed by the prospect of moving from a four-bedroom house to a one-bedroom apartment, heard the radio ad at 5 a.m. and called later the same day.)
The Home Suite Home team walks clients through their moves every step of the way – starting with decluttering and deciding what to sell or give away, packing, meeting the movers at the other end and ensuring everything is put in place at the new home.
There was no other service quite like it, Ms. Priestman found when she researched the Peterborough market. She knew, intuitively, this would be "a useful type of business."
The Greater Peterborough Chamber of Commerce agrees. "Home Suite Home Transitions has made a significant impact on the lives of seniors in and around Peterborough," the chamber said in presenting a business excellence award in the microbusiness category to Ms. Priestman's company in 2013.
"Downsizing and relocating seniors is a newer initiative, sparked by demand in an aging population. Their staff cater to the unique need of each client while offering a range of services, respecting the very personal process of downsizing cannot be rushed."
While not disclosing precise dollar amounts, Ms. Priestman says Home Suite Home is making a go of it. "I have doubled our revenue every year and … we are turning a profit."
She has hired four other women to meet the demand. Already this year, Home Suite Home has moved more than 40 clients, who choose from a range of services and fees. Ms. Priestman's first hires were two former co-workers when she could no longer handle the workload herself. "I knew they had a great work ethic," she says, adding she hires for attitude and trains on technique.
Depending on how much help the client requests, the price can range from $300 for a move out of an apartment all the way to $5,000 for a move from a long-time, five-bedroom home. "We have done many complete two- to three-bedroom transitions that were in the range of $1,500 to $3,000," Ms. Priestman says. Clients downsize from big houses to smaller houses, from houses to condos and apartments, or into retirement residences.
According to the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, small operations such as Ms. Priestman's form a vital part of the Canadian economy. "Of the 1.2 million or so business locations with formal payrolls in 2013, more than half [55 per cent] employ fewer than five people and a further 19 per cent have between five and nine employees," the CFIB said in a recent report.
Royal Bank of Canada, sponsor of the annual Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards, has added a microbusiness category this year in recognition of the contribution that business owners (with revenue of less than $1-million) are making, not only to the economy but to their communities.
There are many excellent microbusinesses that have been established by female entrepreneurs, says Carolyn Lawrence, president of Women of Influence Inc., RBC's partner in the annual awards ceremony.
"We believe that women often go into business for different reasons than men," Ms. Lawrence says. "They are not as quick to say that they are driven by money as men are."
As much as these female entrepreneurs want to operate profitable businesses, many are also interested "in adding value and having an impact … and making something better than they found it," Ms. Lawrence says.
Ms. Priestman, whose company is not up for an RBC award, says she enjoys being able to assist seniors, and she enjoys helping them donate some of the items they no longer need to women's shelters or other community organizations. "I call it rehoming. We have even sent things like curtain sheers to Haiti because they use them for mosquito netting."
It's gratifying that people are willing to pay for the services that Home Suite Home offers, she says. It is a service Ms. Priestman wishes had existed when she and her husband were trying to help her in-laws from a distance, juggling career demands with family needs.
Moving is a huge transition for most people, but especially for seniors.
"They need someone who can actually listen and hear them say how much they happen to love this frying pan. The strangest things, but it matters to them."