By Joseph F. Schuler Jr.. If you want to study a company that took a fresh look at an old industry, or that knows how to find and train employees who take customer service to heart, consider Sunrise Assisted Living. Paul and Terry Klaassen learned about the senior care options available in this country when Terry's mother was terminally ill in the early 1980s. They decided to create an alternative to what they perceived as the sterile options of elder care.

They built a system modeled after assisted care houses in Holland, where Klaassen had visited his grandparents, called verzorginstehuizen. The new model meant no fluorescent lights, no corridors, and no institutional designs. It meant porches, lots of common areas, cut flowers and tablecloths, a concierge, and service to rival a hotel's. Care was personalized, allowing assistance at a resident's convenience, not at the facility's.

"Physical environments have a huge impact on quality of life," says Paul Klaassen. "Look at the billions spent in remodeling. People like to surround themselves with good lighting, good architecture, good finishes. This is more true for seniors, because frail seniors are in one environment all day long."

At first, the Klaassens only renovated existing buildings, then in 1987 they opened a Sunrise-prototype Victorian-style home, dedicated to assisted living. From their Tyson's Corner, Va., headquarters, the now-public company operates more than 205 homes. Sunrise's success helped launch the assisted living industry. More than a million Americans live in 20,000 residences, according to the Assisted Living Federation of America, founded in 1990 by Klaassen.

Because it spends more on facilities and care, Sunrise charges 20% more than its competitors, and the company is comfortable in that niche.

In finding the right staff, Klaassen says Sunrise hires hearts, not skills. He prefers hospitality or restaurant training to health care experience. Turnover is 40%, most in the first few months. (Industry average is 100%.) However, if employees stay, they stay for years.

"Our founding value is the belief in the sacred value of human life," Klaassen says. "We simply need someone who has the right heart to begin with. We can teach the rest."