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What It Takes: Desire to help others guided successful career change

By Avis Thomas-Lester
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 5, 2010; 21

Toni Reinhart was working as an information technology manager 10 years ago when she decided she wanted to shift to a career that would give her the opportunity to help others. She was researching businesses to open when she came upon a Web site for a national agency that provides in-home health aides to ailing and elderly patients. A decade later, Reinhart, 55, is the proud owner of Comfort Keepers Northern Virginia, a licensed home-care agency with five office workers and 70 home health aides. Last year, Reinhart's franchise grossed $1.2 million and netted in the mid-six figures. The Dulles Regional Chamber of Commerce voted Reinhart's company the outstanding mid-size business in 2007. She lives in Reston with her husband and two dogs.

WHY SHE'S SUCCESSFUL

Reinhart was a successful IT manager before starting her own company. "I have always had the ability to learn what I need to learn when I need to learn it, which was how I survived as an IT trainer for so long ... I am an introvert, so going out and trying to meet people and talk to them is very intimidating to me. I think the biggest thing is to identify that thing that is holding you back, face it and do it. I heard a motivational speaker the other day say action overcomes fear ... Whatever fear was holding me back, once I identified it, I took action."

BIGGEST OBSTACLE

The fear of marketing her service to doctors. "I have a fear of rejection ... Usually when people meet me they like me, but when you are cold calling, you are interrupting them when they are doing something. You really have to [take advantage] of those few minutes to advance that relationship. It's tough to do. Even if you ask very successful salespeople, they will tell you that cold calling is tough. You are always afraid they are going to be mean to you."

FIRST JOB

Reinhart grew up in Hagerstown and Northern Virginia. Her father owned an insurance company and her mother worked as a receptionist for WTTG-TV (Channel 5) after the five kids all entered school. "My brother used to deliver papers, and he broke an arm or a leg or something and I delivered papers for him. I did babysitting. I modeled at Lansburgh's department store when I was in high school. There was a spread in The Washington Post. They took us to the zoo to take pictures ... I never had money, but I was very well dressed. We got great discounts."

WORST JOB

She attended Northern Virginia Community College, but dropped out of George Mason University. "I married early, divorced early. I was a very late bloomer. I was probably too pretty for my own good because life was more fun than school." After leaving school, she sold lingerie. "It felt like my whole life was nothing but folding up panties and putting them back in the right place. Hour after hour of folding up panties -- that's all you ever did."

BEST JOB

Comfort Keepers. "Sometimes in the morning, I'll come in and there will already be a crying daughter sitting here not knowing what to do, and I know I can help. To have that kind of impact on people's lives is what I wanted. I know how hard it is. People are so grateful. They really need help, and they don't know where to turn. Being able to offer that comfort is what gets me through the hard times."

WHAT MADE HER START HER OWN BUSINESS

"I was a female IT training manager facing a recession ... I was pretty tired of traveling on someone else's schedule to places where someone else wanted me to go. I made a list of what I wanted to do ... I wanted to do something that made me feel good by giving something back, making a difference in people's lives ... I wanted it to be a franchise so I wouldn't feel completely alone and I wanted it to be a service business. And I am a risk-taker, so I wasn't afraid to get up and do it. I felt because I was a good manager, I could make it happen."

BIGGEST MISSTEP

Reinhart invested $50,000 of her own money to start her business, which has grown steadily. "Four years ago, I decided to buy commercial space ... and you know what happened to property values. I bought it just in time for it to drop $100,000 almost immediately. We relocated the business to that place, and we will continue to have it for a very long time now."

PHILOSOPHY THAT GUIDES HER AT WORK

"I'm not really religious, but I believe that if you put good things out there, good things will come back to you."

WHAT INSPIRES HER

"My family members and the family members of the people I care for, just to see how much relief we can bring to them, how much hope."

WHAT LIES AHEAD

She'd like to help inform the public about home care. "You need a license for what we do, but because Virginia is very new at trying to get hands around it, there are a lot of unlicensed agencies out there ... that are really preying on the elderly. They won't call the police because they are afraid ... I would like to educate the consumer so they would know what to look for."

ADVICE TO THE ASPIRING

"Get up every day and do what needs to be done. Don't put it off."

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