What would have been a crisis moment for many families turned out to be the very push that led Crystal Miller to find her professional passion.
While six months pregnant, Miller was laid off from her job on Nov. 30, 2004, the very same day her husband, Steve, had planned to be the final day at his own job.
Over the few years prior to that, the couple had “softly stepped” into acquiring real estate. Now both jobless, they decided it was time to dive in fully.
On April 1, 2009, they launched Frontida Inc. with three senior living facilities in Milwaukee. Initially, the Millers managed the financial side of the business and hired an administrator to oversee operations. Within a few months, however, they realized the administrator didn’t share their same values and they needed to get involved in the day-to-day affairs of the business or it would fail.
Steve decided to stay home with their three young children, allowing Crystal to commit fully to Frontida.
The early days were challenging. In January 2010, surveyors with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services visited one of Frontida’s three facilities. They ultimately issued a list of 17 violations.
On Feb. 22, Frontida’s administrator quit, leaving Crystal entirely in charge of the business.
“We were scared,” she said. “We received the email at 5 a.m. on my birthday; it was really exciting and really scary. But now we celebrate it as the day we took over our own company. We call it ‘Frontida Day.’”
With Frontida’s probationary license set to expire, Crystal worked day and night to support her team and correct the violations over the course of three weeks.
“I worked my tail off; we were so determined not to fail,” she said.
When surveyors returned, they confirmed they saw “substantial compliance” and granted Frontida its license.
Within a few months, Crystal discovered how much she enjoyed the work of leading a team of employees.
“I realized I was truly born for this,” Crystal said. “I loved putting a team together and was passionate about helping our caregivers to be successful. I didn’t have any clue that was a part of me.”
Since then, Crystal and Steve have added several locations to their portfolio, including homes in New Berlin, Fond du Lac, Racine, Kenosha and Kimberly.
In 2016, Frontida opened Azalea Place in Kenosha, a 20-bed facility serving older adults with mental illness. This year, Frontida added a facility in Kimberly, which provides memory care and specialized assisted living in two separate buildings.
Crystal said it’s important for Frontida to maintain the environment of a family-owned and -run business by valuing the input of all employees.
“We want to get buy-in from everyone on the team,” she said.
The company has worked to combat the high turnover rate in the senior living industry.
“It was about five years ago when we realized that if we don’t care for caregivers, we’ll lose the talent war,” she said. “We began to do small things to make them feel important. It required a small change in our thinking.”
Since beginning to monitor Frontida’s retention more than two years ago, the company has seen a 100 percent increase in one-year employee retention.
Crystal attributes the company’s success in part to acknowledging when she doesn’t know the answer and seeking it out from someone who does.
“It’s being willing to ask for feedback and accept it, even though I’m in charge,” she said. “There is so much I can learn from our caregivers and leadership.”[gallery type="square" size="full" td_select_gallery_slide="slide" ids="449417,449416,449415"]