Story by Graham Hadley
For the past several years, one Pell City business that prides itself in making life easier for its clients has consistently received top marks in the Alabama business world.
Always There In-Home Care, which specializes in providing medical care and assistance to people in the comfort of their own homes, has been ranked either No. 1 or in the top 10 female-owned businesses in the state.
Dee Harrell, the registered nurse who is the owner and founder of Always There, said she was surprised and “shocked might be the word” when she found out about the rankings.
Harrell said someone else had helped get them the recognition — she did not even know it was happening. Her focus is on the day-to-day operation of the business she built from the ground up.
“My husband said I should be proud, but it almost embarrasses me. I am proud, though. I give all the praise to God because I believe God has stood behind me all these years. I believe I had God’s graces behind me when I started the company,” Harrell said.
That’s not hard to believe given that Always There was born out of personal loss, the need to take care of her family and a strong desire to help others.
“We opened in 1999, just at the end of that year, December, and have been in business over 15 years now,” Harrell said.
“I worked in an adult day center for seniors in Birmingham. There was another company that provided private care and nursing services. I thought I could do a better job. I started doing research on what it would take to start a company. I was a nurse, and everything I read said do what you do best. I loved working with and taking care of seniors, talking with them,” she said.
“I took the plunge and started my company. I had recently lost my husband and had three small children. I thought, naively, that it would be simpler working for myself. I had no idea the commitment I would make. It ended up being twice the time.”
Though Always There may employ more than a thousand people in a year, with a steady payroll of around 300, in those early days, it was just Harrell.
“We were a hit from the beginning. I developed all our forms and procedures from the school of hard knocks. I really wanted to take care of a senior or family member (she stresses many of their patients are young, even children) when someone called — wanted to find the best way to get that done.
“I was the office manager, nurse. I did everything that first year. Then I hired one employee at a time until I was not the only one going out to make all the calls.”
As her business continued to grow, so did its reach. She opened another office in Tuscaloosa, which she later sold. Offices in Pell City and Huntsville soon followed.
After three years, Always There was so successful, she had the option to sell franchises in cities not in direct competition with her existing coverage area. Harrell said she has not really pushed that part of her business, but the option is always there.
“I have not pursued that because I enjoy running all the parts of the business in this area, but someone could buy one and open Always There in another city I am not in,” Harrell said.
And she remains a very hands-on owner involved in the day-to-day operations of her business.
“Most of the employees don’t know I am the owner. I am out there working with them,” Harrell said.
Currently, Always There serves right at 200 families in the Birmingham and Pell City areas and another 50 in Huntsville.
The services range from basic caregivers who do things like help with basic household tasks to skilled nurses who have the ability to go and administer medications, with many of their clients just needing a little extra help.
“Most people age pretty gracefully,” Harrell said. “The majority of people live to a ripe old age peacefully. To stay in their homes, they only need a little help. They can’t bend over to scrub the bathtub, or to go to the store, they may not be driving any more.
“Most of our clients are pretty sharp, pretty independent. They only need that little bit of help once a week or so.”
Other patients need more care, whether it is a child on a ventilator or someone who needs medications administered.
And that care extends not just to the patients, but to their families as well.
“We are there for the whole family. A caregiver can get physically sick if they are not getting sleep and rest, getting out of the house,” she said.
Equally important, Always There knows where to send families and patients to find any additional resources they may need. “When you need help, knowing where to turn for the best help is very important,” Harrell said.
One of the keys to the long-term success of Always There is that it is truly a family affair.
“All of my children are involved,” Harrell said. One son, who is a web and graphic designer has built their website and designed some of their brochures. Another son who is an attorney provides advice and counseling.
“My youngest daughter graduated from Alabama with an advertising degree. She is coming on board to do our marketing and advertising. She was at al.com and has grown up in the business and understands what I do,” Harrell said.
“My husband came to work for me about five years ago, he handles the billing, IT. I am the dreamer; he is the one who keeps it grounded.”