Success stories >> Connie Clerici, Closing the Gap Healthcare Group

Written by Susanne Ruder

The Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards recognizes five outstanding business women who embody passion, top leadership skills and vision in their industries–and helps put the spotlight on women’s contributions to the Canadian economy.

In a special five-part series, Xchange will share the secrets of success of these leading women entrepreneurs. This issue: Connie Cerici, CEO, Closing the Gap Healthcare Group. Winner of the RBC Momentum Award.

As a registered nurse working in Ontario’s overburdened health-care system, Connie Clerici always knew there was room for improvement, particularly when it came to patient follow-up at home. “I saw a need for increased accountability and improved access to home health-care services,” says Clerici. Working on the premise that she could do a better job of providing professional health-care services to ailing individuals, in 1992 she quit her job and launched Closing the Gap Healthcare Group.

Fast forward 15 years and today Clerici’s Mississauga, Ont.-based firm is one of the provinces leading health-care providers, specializing in home health care. The company’s services include physiotherapy, occupational and massage therapy, speech pathology, social work and dietetics. In 2007, Closing the Gap’s revenue reached $19 million, up from $5.7 million five years earlier.

Still, such growth didn’t come easy. Clerici attributes her success in part from taking advantage of “managed competition”, a system instituted in Ontario in the mid-nineties that allowed the firm to engage in a competitive bidding process to win large health-care contracts. But success is also due to the firm’s focus on quality, accountability and a strong reporting system, which have helped establish credibility, she says. “We’re accountable, we’re transparent, and easy to access and totally focused on quality.”

Establishing credibility was initially a huge sales and marketing challenge, says Clerici. The tough part is “knowing that you’re good, but not having the evidence to prove it.” To tackle the issue, “we became accredited by the Canadian Council on Health Services Accreditation, which accredits all public hospitals,” she says. “Then we invested more into the infrastructure to be able to gather more evidence-based data.”

Companies can also earn trust through its management and leadership. “I’ve been able to recruit some of the best, most respected leaders to join our team, whether it’s our advisory board or our executive team,” says Clerici. They bring a wealth of knowledge and new opportunities to us.”

Another key to sales is “building relationships–presenting who I am and my mission and my vision and slowly over time building up a trust relationship,” says Clerici. “We’re very personable, so we go around and make one-to-one relationships, as well as volunteering to sit on community focus groups, community boards. That has helped our revenues significantly, because once people get to know you and recognize that you’re a trusted professional in our industry, they tend to call you when an opportunity arises.”

Clerici has also parlayed being smaller than the competition into an attribute. Larger companies are slower to respond and have more infrastructure to support, she says. “We are the up and coming new people bringing innovative ways of providing service. We’re not caught in a time warp. We have a flat-line structure and we’re able to make decisions very quickly.”

Still, fast growth can put a financial strain on a small company. “The cornerstone of our business is not to break the bank, and to make sure that you put the dollars aside to fund your own growth and live within your means,” says Clerici. “I have always run the company that way, therefore we have not been vulnerable to any financial institution, ever.”

Clerici’s advice to other entrepreneurs? “Never lose sight of your values. Value people and the roles they play, no matter what level or position they hold in your company, and always hold true to that.”

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