real estate
Monday, October 8, 2001
The Turning Point
Licensing opens new doors
Smooth Transitions helps families: household downsizing or details after a death

By Wayne Tompkins
The Courier-Journal

When an elderly family friend died in the mid-1990s, Barbara Morris cleaned and packed up his Southern Indiana home.

She found boxes and boxes of stuff to sort through, some of it overdue for the trash and other things salvageable. Inside the home, there was barely enough room to walk.

About a year later, Morris helped her mother-in-law downsize from her home to a retirement community.

From those two experiences, a business was born.

''I realized there were a lot of folks who either don't have family, or their family members live out-of-town,'' Morris said. ''For what it would take for them to come into town and orchestrate everything . . . I could do it for them.''

Smooth Transitions, Morris' 6-year-old ''household downsizing and estate dispersal'' business, recently hit a turning point when she licensed her company's name to similar services in Cincinnati and Indianapolis. She hopes to license Smooth Transitions to other regional cities.

''I'm basically a facilitator,'' Morris said. ''I don't do yard sales, but I arrange for things to be donated or sold through an auction house or for a trash pickup. In many cases I work with the families and they'll want things shipped to different family members.''

When an elderly family member dies or needs to move to an assisted-living setting, Morris also will arrange for the move and the movers, switch the phone service, cancel the cable, pack, unpack and ''dispose of the things in the home.''

She charges $40 an hour, a price that she says family members willingly pay.

''Generally, the items that are sold pay my fee,'' Morris said. ''By the time they come to Louisville, take time off from work, even if they are living here, to orchestrate what I do it would cost them far more.''

Morris said moving a one-bedroom condo takes an average of 13 hours, costing $520, while a four-bedroom house can take about 50 hours, or $2,000.

Smooth Transitions is an example of the sort of business that can be run from home -- as Morris' does -- with little or no start-up capital.

''E-mail is wonderful because I can correspond with all the siblings at one time,'' she said.

Before launching her business, Morris spent 15 years as public relations director at the old Methodist Evangelical Hospital, which later became part of Norton Healthcare. She said that as she goes through houses, she uncovers a lot of family treasures that ''less personalized services'' might just throw away.

''There was a beautiful opal necklace in a chest of drawers that the auction people might have just taken and sold,'' she said. ''It had a nice note in it -- it was a special note for a special occasion.''

She put that and other potentially valuable items in one spot for family members to sort through.

Along the way, she's found other oddities reflecting the eccentric nature of the residents -- including a collection of fishing lures that lined the walls of a living room and kitchen.

Morris markets her business largely through word-of-mouth and speaking engagements at retirement homes and to such organizations as AARP.

She speaks to audiences of both forward-looking seniors and anxious relatives.

''Barbara is very comfortable to hear because of her relaxed presentation style, peppered with her wonderful combination of humor, experience and practicality,'' said Anita Kuvin, director of marketing at Louisville's Wesley Manor Retirement Community. ''It's clear that she understands the pain of transitioning and downsizing for seniors, but she adds a special twist that makes it seem so positive.''

Morris has also developed a workbook for do-it-yourself parent movers, ''Moving for Seniors -- A Stepby-Step Workbook.''

''Some people just need to be told what to do and they can do it themselves,'' Morris said. ''It's not brain surgery.''

With millions of aging baby boomers approaching retirement, services like Smooth Transitions seem destined for rapid growth. Others also are spotting the business potential of such services.

About a year ago, Morris went to Cincinnati to give presentations to a retirement community.

''They bought a bunch of my workbooks to give away. While I was there, I met a woman who wanted to do Smooth Transitions,'' she said. ''She had helped her parents and thought this would be a nice system. So she became a licensee. I have one in Cin-cinnati and one in Indianapolis.''

Nancy Forbush, Morris' Indianapolis licensee, said that she also became interested in the transition business after moving relatives.

''I moved my own parents from California to Indianapolis about a year-and-a-half ago,'' Forbush said. ''I had found out about a company called Gentle Transitions out there. They helped me move and I could not have done it without them. I was pretty intrigued with the idea.''

After being downsized from a company, Forbush pursued the idea, turning down a franchise from a Nashville, Tenn., company after finding it too expensive and too consumed in red tape.

Deciding to go out on her own, she incorporated with the name Senior Transitions when she got a lead on Smooth Transitions and received a copy of Morris' workbook.

''I just called her (Morris) thinking she would sell me some consulting time,'' Forbush said. ''Two days later, I was down in Louisville spending the day with her and decided to do the license agreement with her. She was providing for me what I needed, and that was comforting.''

Morris said licensing not only helps her concept expand but also makes it easier for licensees to get their operations running.

''I trained them and that got them going a lot quicker than if they started from scratch,'' she said.

The biggest challenge: ''Getting people to realize that they can't keep everything. I had one lady that just cried and cried and cried because she just couldn't keep everything,'' Morris said. Much of her job involves hand-holding while persuading already stressed elderly homeowners to suppress their inner pack rat and let go.

Morris concedes that would be dif-ficult for her as well. ''What I try to do is find good homes for things.''

She's also there as a friend, problem solver and, when needed, a shoulder to cry on.

''I'm not a social worker, per se, but I do work with geriatric social workers,'' Morris said. ''I work with elder attorneys. I work with trust officers.''

Her plans for the business are modest. She'd like to sell more of the workbooks and do a little more speaking in the region.

''This is not something you're going to get rich quick on,'' Morris said. ''I really feel like I'm providing more of a service. I could probably do more with it, but I'm 53 and I've had a career, so I'm not trying to make a million dollars.''

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©2001 SMOOTH TRANSITIONS™ • Illustrations ©1998 Carol L. Cornette