Bob Wilson, owner of Fort Collins-based Columbine Health Services, is one of those lucky people who found their calling early in life.

Wilson grew up on a farm in Iowa, came to Colorado to attend CSU and then turned a job as a maintenance man at a Fort Collins elder care home into a highly successful career.

Forty years after becoming the manager of the facility, Wilson is sole proprietor of 22 businesses, including four health and rehabilitation centers, along with three independent-living and two assisted-living facilities for the elderly.

Columbine also provides home-care services and operates a pharmacy, a medical equipment and supply business, a geriatric education center, and a health club.

“I was attracted to the job originally because I enjoyed being around the people who worked (in the home),” Wilson said. “I had a flair for business and it's worked out.”

Wilson has been an innovator from the start, said Yvonne Myers, Columbine Health's director and Wilson's second-in-command.

He bought a defunct grocery store and turned it into a successful restaurant, lounge and catering company.

He also hired a computer firm to develop a software program that schedules 75 rides a day aboard Columbine vans for residents to go shopping, to medical appointments or other errands.

Columbine also keeps track of all patient prescriptions electronically, so that the pharmacy, nurses and physicians can have simultaneous access to records, Myers said.

“It's not the norm for nursing homes to record medications electronically,” she said. “We're very much on the cutting edge of a long-term care company.”

Wilson expanded to Loveland in 1978 by taking over a nursing home there.

In 1991, he established the first of three independent-living facilities, The Worthington, in Fort Collins. From that point on, Columbine Health added 12 new buildings, serving a gamut of elder care and affiliated businesses, to its portfolio.

Elder care is labor-intensive, Myers said. Columbine has 1,350 employees to take care of about 1,100 resident and home care clients.

“Seventy percent of our costs are employees,” she said.

Columbine employs a wide spectrum of workers, from dishwashers, cooks and gardeners to pharmacists, speech therapists, social workers and registered nurses.

As much as the company has grown and prospered since Wilson took over in 1971, there are challenges ahead.

Long-term care is expensive and Columbine administrators wrestle to put together funding for each resident's care from a combination of Medicare, Medicaid and private financing.

Federal and state government reimbursement rates are falling, adding to the challenge of keeping up with rising labor and supply costs.

The federal government cut its support of nursing home rehabilitation programs under Medicare 11.1 percent on Oct. 1 and Colorado is cutting Medicaid 2 percent to 3 percent.

“Dealing with the government is the challenge going forward,” Wilson said.

The company tries to holds costs down by buying in bulk.

All the facilities agree on purchases of flatware, silverware, glasses and dishes to create economies of scale.

“We're figuring out what we are going to do with fewer dollars and not have it affect patient care,” Myers said. “If you run out of reimbursement, you end up relying on the private pay individual and you price yourself out of the market.”

Wilson regards his greatest success as the longevity of the business, being able to care for the children and the grandchildren of the residents who were there when he arrived.

“To have the people come back generation after generation is a big success for the company,” he said.