Once reticent, CEO now speaks out to build ‘authentic’ life
“Vote No. Don’t Limit the Freedom to Marry,” urge the bright-orange signs in Paul Blom’s office. He’s owner of a Right at Home franchise in Minnesota, and he’s taking a public stand on a contentious social issue.
Although large corporations in Minnesota have come out against the effort to pass an
amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman, including General Mills and Cargill, it’s the rare small-business owner who will take a stand on a controversial social issue at company headquarters. Voters will decide the issue in November.
It hasn’t always been so for Blom. “When I first started my business I was paranoid about that,” Blom said, worried that saying his business partner, Bob White, is also his life partner would turn away the elderly clients his company serves. When old ladies teased him, asking him when a good-looking young man like him was going to find a nice gal to marry, he’d laugh and say nothing.
But singing with the prominent and public Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus, working to raise $10 million to defeat the marriage amendment, and trying to build transparency into his company convinced him to change. “I thought, You know what, why am I pussyfooting around on this?” Blom said. So now he replies, “I would be married if it were legal.” Rather than rejection, he says that response leads to interesting conversations.
“At this point in my evolution it’s all about being authentic,” Blom said, and we asked him to explain.
Paul Blom: Bob and I have been life partners for 19 years. Fifteen or 16 years ago we moved to St. Paul. Both of us had life experiences of seeing people end up in institutional care sooner than they had to.
Myself, when I was a teenager, I had a lawn mowing business, and Gladys was one of my clients. She was born in 1900, which I thought was cool. I would mow the lawn or trim the bushes, and when I was done I would come in and she would give me a Pepsi, and we would visit. And then she would play me an organ recital, and she’d end every recital with “My Wild Irish Rose.”
As a senior in high school I was going to be going to Iowa for college. By then I was doing everything for her—grocery shopping, helping in the house. With my leaving, her family decided she needed to go to the nursing home. She went in and in two weeks she didn’t even recognize me. She lost the will to live, and died. At 17 years old that was hugely impactful on me. To me the nursing home killed her because there was nothing wrong with her.
Same thing in St. Paul. There was a neighbor with dementia, and we were the neighborhood “boys.” She would bring cookies and visit. Once she came over to our house in the middle of the night, confused about something. Her family put her in memory care. At the same time Bob’s Mom was working for an agency that provided home care and companionship.
We had been saving money. I worked in IT, and when Y2K came and went, my company was laying off. One day I was investigating franchises, and I about fell out of my chair. There were these franchises doing exactly what we had talked about: Home Instead, Right at Home, maybe Comfort Keepers at the time. And we drove to Omaha, met with the owner of Right at Home, and we became franchise owners Number 3.
FT: What about Right at Home did you like?
Blom: There was a conference table, a couple of cubicles. Allen Hager, the founder, drove a Ford Taurus. They were the nicest people in the world. We thought, he started this for the right reasons. It was just one of those gut feelings.
FT: What were those life experiences you mentioned, that informed the way you developed your recruiting and training process?
Blom: Bob and I had a 93-year-old live with us from ’93 to ’97. You realize in a different way how people feel about needing home services. You can intellectually understand that having a home care person come in puts you in an incredibly vulnerable position. But then when you have it—it’s a very real thing. You have a real sense of this barometer inside that says, I don’t trust this person to come into my home. Bob still does all the hiring of our care-giving staff. It comes down to, would I have this person take care of my mother?
FT: Tell me about your advocacy against the marriage amendment. I don’t often see signs in small-business owners’ offices on controversial topics.
Blom: I sing in the Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus, and serve on the board. Like all non-profits, we’re looking for more funds. Our community is really tapped out, after raising almost $10 million to try to defeat the marriage ban. One of the things we did at a board meeting was ask, What does it mean to you? What does it mean to be a member of the chorus?
Before I joined the chorus, I thought, I’m gay and I’m out, but I never had a sense of pride in that way it’s displayed at the annual pride festivals here and around the country. But talking about that topic, it changed my sense of what it meant to embrace my whole self.
Now I’m very intentional about the idea of living authentically. That means I work very hard at being the same person in every setting. That means striving to be authentic to myself based on the core values in myself. I can’t any longer not be gay. When I first started my business I was paranoid about that.
FT: What effect has the change had on your company?
Blom: For the last three years we ranked third, then second, then first in the Star Tribune’s best workplaces ranking for mid-sized businesses. As part of that ranking, a third party research firm surveys the staff, and they named me the top CEO for mid-sized businesses, based on the confidence staff had in the leadership. When reading the staff’s responses, it all points back to authenticity.
We do an annual meeting with any employee who wants to come and a guest. I share numbers, and then we watch a show. People like the transparency, people like the authenticity.
One of my favorite things about owning a business is you get to establish the culture and create the environment. Here, we support each other. It’s pretty supportive and that translates to how your field staff treats each other.