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The Franchising Genius of Shelly Sun

In less than two decades, Shelly Sun (HCB, ’92) has built a $569 million home care company, BrightStar Care, using a franchise model to grow from a local business to a national enterprise.

From Accountant to Entrepreneur

Sun enrolled in the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, starting out as an engineering student but soon switching to business. As an undergraduate, she worked part-time jobs to pay her way through school and did summer internships at DuPont and EY, gaining valuable experience along the way.

After earning a master’s in accountancy in Colorado, Sun spent 10 years working for different companies before eventually moving to Chicago to take a job at an insurance company.

While in the city, Sun helped her family cope with her grandmother’s illness. “We were trying to put together resources for her to receive home care, and needed the dependability of an exceptional care provider,” Sun recalls. “I was really surprised by the lack of options.” The difficulty of the situation weighed on Sun’s mind and eventually inspired BrightStar Care.

Around the time of the 9/11 attacks when the transportation industry was undergoing major changes, she was on the move again, working for a subsidiary of United Airlines. After proving herself invaluable to the company, she negotiated a generous severance agreement with her entrepreneurial venture in mind. “That gave me a nest egg to start from, and I already had a passion to pursue my idea, knowing that other families were looking for higher-level home care for their family members,” Sun says. “Within a year of being a consumer of the industry I set about to upend, we were the first company that did homecare and staffing for both nonmedical and medical services in a way that’s led by nurses.”

Sun’s initial Chicago-based business expanded quickly, opening a second location in 2003 and a third in 2005. BrightStar Care was poised to scale widely using a franchise model.

Franchise Success

While in a training session for new owners and managers at a hotel she’d invested in, Sun had an epiphany. Franchising her business model made perfect sense. “The services we provide are so personal, you really need someone in charge who knows the local community they serve,” she says. “Franchising makes way for those local teams.”

Sun and her team laid the foundation for enfranchisement in 2005. Within five years, the company generated more than $100 million in revenue and served thousands of families annually. Today, BrightStar Care has 345 locations and is able to serve 75 percent of the United States from one of their locations. “Franchising has given us the opportunity to be local, yet scalable and consistent,” Sun says. “This type of growth would have been difficult to achieve as a corporate entity.”

Most franchise owners don’t come from a healthcare background, but Sun says many have personal experience with finding homecare for family members and are passionate about making a difference in their local community. BrightStar Care has worked hard to give franchisees ongoing support to expand their businesses and requires everyone to become Joint Commission accredited to help ensure consistency across the country.

During the COVID-19 pandemic many BrightStar Care franchise owners have continued to thrive and grow, due in part to Sun’s leadership. “We pivoted to where the business was going to be, particularly in screening and then vaccinations,” she says. “For example, our nurses were tracking those who were vaccinated to make sure there were no adverse effects. It felt really good to help our franchisees make a difference and get their communities operating again.”

Prioritizing People

When she started BrightStar Care, one of Sun’s priorities was ensuring that nurses and caregivers were paid adequately for their work. Today, the company’s caregivers are consistently paid 5 to 20 percent more than the local market average.

Over the past year, BrightStar Care made further efforts to support caregivers, purchasing $2 million of PPE including 100,000 N95 masks to distribute to franchise owners early in the pandemic. “We really try to do the right things for the right reasons,” says Sun. “Everything is grounded in our core values.”

The company also makes provision for two-way communication between franchise owners and the corporate team, hosting quarterly town hall meetings, performance groups, an advisory council, annual conferences for both franchisees and frontline leaders, and personalized training for new franchise owners. The goal is to clear a path to share best practices across the network. Sun credits a strong C-suite team with freeing up her time for leadership training with new franchisees. She also meets periodically with several owners at a time to learn about challenges and opportunities in their local markets, which allows her to prioritize resources at the national level.

Carrying on a constant conversation with franchisees and frontline workers means BrightStar Care’s business model continues to evolve. “We want to provide plenty of opportunities to deliver consistent messaging to franchisees—and to hear what they have to tell us.”

FRANCHISING AT HASLAM

After receiving Haslam’s Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 2017, Sun became involved with plans for a new program on franchising within the college, led by the Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation. Tom Graves, distinguished lecturer and operations director for the center, says the program will expand the awareness of business opportunities for new entrepreneurs. “Franchising is an integral part of entrepreneurship and a major driver of economic growth, creating $1.6 trillion, or about 5.8 percent of GDP, in the United States each year. It’s an important opportunity for students to be aware of, because franchisees receive much more support than they would if they started a business from scratch.”

Sun has partnered with Haslam faculty in an advisory position to develop plans for a franchising initiative. Eventually it will include a certificate program and introductory graduate level courses. Last year the college launched an undergraduate course in franchising. Graves, who teaches the course, says the students have been engaged and enthusiastic. “It’s really opened their eyes to the wide variety of business opportunities available under the franchise model—not just restaurants and hotels but many other types of business as well.”

Sun’s penchant for franchising is reflected in the continued growth of her business, but she says her greatest reward is the number of families BrightStar Care has been honored to serve. “That’s why I started the business and it’s what still gives me the greatest joy, drive, and passion to keep working as hard as I do.”

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Haslam Magazine is the premier publication of the Haslam College of Business at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

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