In this era of full employment, when many businesses dangle bonuses and incentives to coax new workers into open positions, Gentle Transitions is in an enviable position.

“We have more applicants than we can manage; we turn away 70% of the inquiries,” said Diane Bjorkman, who co-owns Gentle Transitions with her husband, Bill Lehman. “We see industries that serve seniors being really challenged to find workers. We are fortunate we are not.”

The same internal practices and philosophies that consistently attract an abundance of workers are at the heart of why Bjorkman and Lehman earned the 2019 Top Workplaces leadership award for small businesses. The firm also won the award in 2014.

“We’ve created an atmosphere that reflects our values. Our employees are empowered and they feel a loyalty and a connection to the organization that is reciprocated,” said Lehman. “It’s important to us that they feel satisfied.”

Gentle Transitions is riding the rising demographic tide of aging homeowners in need of help as they downsize. The Edina-based company was the nation’s first to specialize in senior moves. Its staff co­ordinates all aspects of a relocation for older people heading to smaller homes, assisted living or memory care. Last year the company managed 1,200 such moves, from across town to across the country.

About half of clients who retain Gentle Transitions are the seniors themselves. But adult children or other decisionmakers with power of attorney also enlist the company to manage a move, along with trust officers and real estate agents.

“Moving is very tough for older adults and their families. It can feel overwhelming, but when they get settled and we’ve re-created space that feels like home, many times they are moved to tears,” said Lehman. “They never thought moving day would be a happy day, but it is.”

Sense of purpose

When the couple purchased Gentle Transitions in 2000, they managed 13 employees. Today, they have a trained workforce of 112, a predominantly female corps who range in age from their mid-40s to their mid-70s and work as packers, sorters, supply assistants and move managers.

“The work is flexible; it’s for people who want to be physically active and on their feet. They’re self-directed, self-starters,” said Bjorkman. “Those who want to do this are compassionate and are looking for a sense of purpose in their work. The vast majority of our clients are truly appreciative and they express that. It feels great to help them.”

While most of the team are part-timers, they are employees, not gig workers toiling without benefits or backing. Bjorkman and Lehman have never considered making them independent contractors.

Because the workers don’t come to an office but rather are on assignment in homes, the company stages regular get-togethers — training sessions, but also picnics, parties and barbecues — so employees can get to know one another and develop a sense of community.

“When I started, I knew everyone, but the company has grown so fast that now we need name tags at the social events,” said Candee Kaitz, 66, who has worked as a moving manager for a dozen years. “Bill and Diane go to great lengths to give us a chance to bond with people that we might be working with; our teams change with every job.”

Kaitz came to Gentle Transitions when the last of her four sons left home and she was looking for a change after holding an administrative job at a dental office for 27 years. She said she’s been “energized” by her new job and her ability to guide clients.

“Think of all the senior housing that is popping up like popcorn all over town. Every one of those people needed help to move in,” she said. “There’s a big need for this kind of service.”

Second act

Like their employees, working at Gentle Transitions is a second career for Bjorkman, who was previously employed in senior services, and Lehman, who has a background as an options and commodities trader.

“Diane does the marketing and training and I run the business. We have different skill sets but shared values,” said Lehman.

“We have the same goals and the same nightmares,” added Bjorkman. “We talk about the business all day and go home and have a glass of wine and talk about work some more. I hear people say, ‘I could never work with my spouse,’ but we’ve been lucky to have this partnership.”

Married 29 years, Bjorkman and Lehman are themselves empty nesters in their 60s, interested in leading their company as it expands.

“People ask us about our own transition, our retirement plans,” said Bjorkman. “Since we still love what we do, I don’t see a change coming.”

 

Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.