WOMEN IN BUSINESS: Home operator turns passion into profits

BENZIE COUNTY – Retailers beware. If Donna Malecki, Benzie County resident and executive director of Valley Residential Services, walks in your establishment, pay attention. She may help you turn a major profit.

Back in 1987, when Malecki was working as a residential program superintendent with Saginaw Community Mental Health, a boss suggested she start operating homes of her own. Intrigued by the idea, she went after her first contract…and got it.

Within four years she had turned that contract for one home into contracts for 14 homes. Now, 11 years later, Malecki oversees more than 23 homes and six apartments designed for developmentally-disabled adults.

Malecki first started working in the mental health system back when patients were provided with the proverbial “three hots and a cot.”

Then, even the most functional of the developmentally-disabled received little more than three square meals and a place to sleep.

Yet, while Malecki may have been trained in institutions designed to provide the most minimal of services to massive populations, that’s not how her homes are run. In fact, in the Valley Residential homes that care for the most medically-fragile patients, the ratio of staff to patient is four to one. In homes with less medically-fragile patients, there is a two-to-one ratio.

So how does a woman trained as a clinical care giver make herself into a successful business woman? Primarily through sheer will and determination. Malecki openly admits that when she earned the first contract, she had no clue how to manage the business end of the endeavor. While the state built the home, it was her responsibility to furnish, staff and operate the home.

Malecki created her supplier base out of local businesses in her home town, St. Charles, Mich., which still serves as home base for Valley Residential Services. Her first trip was to her accountant, who agreed to do her payroll and take care of the books. Next she visited her bank, where, with milk-toast smiles, they agreed to handle her $200,000 per year banking. The local pharmacy, not a big retail chain, was given the responsibility of all the medications for her home and a St. Charles furniture store was given the task of furnishing the special-needs home. A friend in the paper business agreed to provide the home with toilet paper, adult diapers and other essentials.

As for herself, Malecki spent that first year as a modern day Ben Franklin. She hired a director for the home and made herself an apprentice. The intense learning experience paid off. Malecki now oversees a staff of 304 employees at 23 homes and six apartments. Valley Residential serves 110 patients in those homes.

Malecki, though, isn’t the only one who has benefited from all her work. The bank that once refused to provide her with enough change bags for each of the home’s patients is now responsible for $7 million in banking every year. The friend with the paper goods company now supplies 80 Michigan homes and the pharmacy handles all the prescriptions for 88 homes.

As for the furniture store that first furnished a home for developmentally disabled adults on a mere $14,000 budget, it now furnishes every home with true personal flair. When it’s time to remodel, the patients–who often communicate with only monosyllabic sounds–meet with the store’s staff to choose the furniture and decorations that fit them best.

Judging by the scrapbook her employees gave her in celebration of the corporation’s tenth anniversary, Malecki inspires both loyalty and independence in her employees. Read what they say and you’ll learn that to help them grow she preens their feathers, then walks away. Listen to her talk on the phone and you’ll find she doesn’t solve problems, her employees do.

As an example, a few years ago Chris Blanchard, home manager for the Big Rapids AIS Home, called Malecki fuming. The clients in her home were being considered too high maintenance to attend a party for developmentally-disabled adults. Malecki’s response? “What are you going to do about it?”

Five years later, the patients in all the Valley Residential homes are preparing for their fifth annual Valley Residential Spring Fling Dance. Best of all, the party has grown to extend to nearly 300 additional patients who are cared for in homes not operated by Valley Residential.

Of course, turning one project into a major success hasn’t tapered the flame on Malecki’s candle, it’s fueled the fire. Currently she and husband, Mike, are finishing restorations on their two-story house in downtown Beulah, which they plan to convert into an inn.

As for the day she turns her position at Valley Residential Services over to someone else, Malecki says she’ll hardly retire. Most likely she’ll continue to work in the mental health field as a consultant, keeping a finger in everything she’s started so far.

Until then, Malecki will provide as much direction to her staff as they desire. She’ll also stay connected with the patients her staff cares for. And this year, when it’s time for the annual dance, she’ll don a costume, sit back and watch 400 adults grin in delight at the party her employees have created just for them. BIZNEWS