Acadian Ambulance founder Richard Zuschlag say this region's loyal and dedicated workforce has been the key to success
Richard Zuschlag, for a half-century a Northern transplant in Lafayette, said the success of the $500 million company he co-founded here resides in the loyalty, dedication and grit of the Acadiana workforce.
"It's hard to find people who work harder," Zuschlag told an audience at One Acadiana's Lessons from the Corner Office series Friday. "We've been successful because of the employees."
Zuschlag, a rural Pennsylvanian, landed in Lafayette in July 1970 by happenstance. His background and training was in communications and he was working by grace of a government contract. He'd been given an easy choice by the company, too, for relocation: Saudi Arabia or Lafayette.
Transition to Lafayette — he arrived in an old Buick Skylark, sans air-conditioning — was tougher. "It was so damn hot" and rain fell as if in a monsoon, he recollected. The culture, too, was a challenge for about six months, until he fully embraced it.
One short-term job led to the next — after a spell, he slipped into health care and trained the unemployed, which bored him — but with the help of locals he encountered an opportunity to enter the ambulance business.
Prior to the 1970s funeral homes had transported vehicular crash victims — dead or alive — from accident scenes. If victims survived the ride, ambulances would transport them for care.
Lafayette needed an ambulance service, something more suited for treating the injured, because of enhanced federal standards that became too burdensome for funeral homes to deliver. Zuschlag, who had no health care experience, presented himself to Mayor Rayburn Bertrand as someone who, with the city contract, could create an ambulance company and provide services. Bertrand declined the offer several times but finally relented when no one else stepped forward.
That, Zuschlag said, was an important lesson: Be persistent.
Zuschlag and his co-founders opened the business with $2,300. They hired eight military medics who, if given the choice, would have opted to stay unemployed awhile to collect unemployment insurance. In fact, he said, they were angry about being hired.
But Zuschlag needed the medics. He was "scared to death of medicine" himself, he said, and was a bad driver, often getting lost in Lafayette.
The company prospered, though, fortified for cash by subscriptions from members who paid in advance for ambulance care and by federal payments for services. The company in its initial years developed its own culture, too, emphasizing its rescue services to save lives.
"We saved lives, then made money," Zuschlag said. Funeral homes had transported bodies, then turned over care of survivors to others.
"We were one of the first companies in the South to change that culture," he said.
Establishing that company culture provides another lesson, he said. It led to adhering to a balance of doing what is right both for the patient and for the employees, which has served all well.
In fact, he said, the company values employees enough that they own some 80 percent of Acadian Ambulance and he will sell the remainder to them.
Employees put in about 4 percent of their pay into a 401K plan, he said, and the company puts up some 8-15 percent. If the employees leave, he said, they can roll that money over into an individual retirement account. But because of the value Acadian holds for its employees, he said, retention is high.
That, too, is a lesson: Show loyalty to those who are loyal to you.
The company has mushroomed from its original eight medics to a multi-state operation that transports 2,000 patients a day. While the company has expanded into other services, about 70 percent of its business remains in ground transportation.
But as much as Acadian has expanded, he said, there's lots left for him to learn. As a condition of landing a lucrative contract, he said, he reluctantly took on a "CEO coach" — and he and the company have benefited.
Zuschlag said the company emphasizes team building, greater candor in management-employee relations, and seeks more consensus in decision-making. The lesson: "You're never too old to learn."
There is lots more:
- Work with community partners. Local banks have provided funding at critical junctures in the company's history. The University of Louisiana at Lafayette, and now South Louisiana Community College, have been partners in training employees.
- Be prudent in investments. Avoid stock losses, which worry employees, and work within your comfort zone in acquiring new companies.
- Strive for and encourage work/family balances for yourselves and your employees.
- Seek input from others. Zuschlag said in adding employees and promoting managers, he values viewpoints different from his own. More insights, carefully considered, result in better decisions.
This, too, he said is critically important: As the work world becomes more technology driven, remember to communicate personally. Talk on the phone, talk in person.