‘Families are counting on us’: Former music retailer Stephen Bleeker finds new rewards as home-care entrepreneur

Stephen Bleeker
After winding down CD Warehouse, Stephen Bleeker wanted to launch a business with a social impact and a solid business model, he says. (Photo by Caroline Phillips)
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Former music retailer Stephen Bleeker is anything but a one-hit wonder.

Since leaving the world of vinyl and compact discs, the Ottawa entrepreneur has created a high-end boutique company specializing in quality care for seniors and the elderly who want to continue living at home. In 2019, Assurance Home Care was recognized as one of the best new businesses at the Best Ottawa Business Awards.

Assurance provides a wide range of services, such as meal preparation, companionship, transportation and errands, housekeeping, and 24-hour, personal, respite and/or dementia care. Ultimately, it’s about families realizing they can’t do the caregiving alone, and need help.

“It’s been extremely rewarding,” says the 51-year-old chief executive officer. “Knowing the difference that we can make in people’s lives is a huge responsibility; it weighs on me much more than I thought it would. We realize how responsible we are for people’s care and how much families are counting on us.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to an increase in business, with many adult children removing parents from nursing homes and calling on Assurance to provide additional home-care services.

Bleeker Stereo & TV

Bleeker was born and raised in Ottawa and is a second-generation businessperson. His father, Hans Bleeker, 84, is your classic rags-to-riches immigrant story. He came to Ottawa as a young man after the Second World War. He’d repaired electronics while serving in the Dutch airforce and used those skills to start Bleeker Stereo & TV. He also got into commercial real estate.

Bleeker learned as a kid to work hard and always exceed customers’ expectations.

“If you did that, the rest took care of itself,” adds Bleeker, who chose to go out on his own, rather than help run his family’s business.

Bleeker is probably best known as the former co-owner of CD Warehouse, an award-winning indie music store that grew to four locations throughout Ottawa. He and his wife, Janice McDonald, ran the company for 24 years.

They were young. They were cool. They were successful.

“It was a really fun ride,” Bleeker says of those years and of meeting legendary artists such as David Bowie and the Rolling Stones.

That was all before digital disruption yanked the needle off the record store industry. By 2014, the couple decided to close their doors and wind down CD Warehouse. Bleeker was eager to delve into the entrepreneurial world once more. This time, he was going to focus on creating a values-based business.

Avoiding obsolescence

“I wanted to start a business that I knew would have a social impact,” says Bleeker. “It also needed to have a solid business model. I didn’t want it to become obsolete or have that disruption that (CD Warehouse) faced.”

Bleeker became hip to home care after his own father, Hans, suffered a stroke down in Florida. The incident helped Bleeker realize the significant role a personal support worker (PSW) can play in an aging adult’s life.

Bleeker was encouraged to set off in this new direction by McDonald, a successful entrepreneur, best-selling author and mentor for other female entrepreneurs.

“She felt that I had the personality and empathy for it, and saw there was a real opportunity,” he says.

Bleeker also credits his wife with coming up with the name: Assurance. 

The company was launched in 2016 but, because Bleeker was starting from scratch, he still needed to build a sterling reputation. Assurance gained credibility in the community when seasoned health care professional Kristine McGinn joined on as chief operating officer and co-owner. Not only is McGinn a big thinker with great ideas, he says, but she has a background in nursing, clinical research, mental health and holistic nutrition.

“I think the naive entrepreneur thinks they can do it all, and you quickly learn that’s not the case,” says Bleeker. “The two of us make a pretty good team. She really complements me well, in a yin and yang kind of way.” 

Bleeker was raised in a traditional household, but his pattern of partnering with businesswomen, from McDonald to McGinn, has been a winning combo.

“I believe that companies are better run when they’re diverse from all perspectives and, specifically, from a gender perspective,” he says.

Assurance has enjoyed “phenomenal” growth by doubling or tripling revenue during each of the last four years, says Bleeker, who focuses on the company’s business strategies. Nearly 150 caregivers work for Assurance and the company is looking to expand this summer into the Toronto market. It also has its eye on Montreal.

“Our vision is to be Canada’s most trusted name in home care,” says Bleeker.

Five things to know about Stephen Bleeker

  1. He can often be seen riding around town on a 1965 vintage baby blue Vespa.
  2. He sits on the board of directors for Ottawa’s historic Beechwood Cemetery.
  3. He met Janice McDonald, his wife of nearly 30 years, on the tennis courts when they were both in their youth. 
  4. He’s lived his entire life in Ottawa but son Alexander, works in London, England. His daughter, Veronica, is studying law in Dublin and son Bennett is in acting school in Los Angeles. “We love seeing them pursue their dreams but we really miss them a lot,” he says.
  5. He studied marketing at Algonquin College, art history at University of Ottawa and returned to school later in life to earn his Executive MBA from Queen’s University.