Jul 11, 2012

Experiencing & Connecting

Dave Curtis

The Story

A few years back, my Dad met a fellow Michigan-based healthcare company operator, Dave Curtis, President of Residential Home Health (www.residentialhomehealth.com), and he was impressed by his interesting path while also struck by how his early years resembled mine to some extent. He recommended I reach out to Dave but I never did—until now.

Both of Dave’s parents were in business for themselves, he was always around entrepreneurs—“independent minded people,” as he put it. Dinner table chatter was about clients, employees, sales, lawsuits, etc, not work hours, politics of the office, and the like. He saw their work ethic, benefited from the fruits of their labor, and this exposure shaped his early interest in entrepreneurship.

At Princeton University, Dave started a newspaper delivery company during his freshman year. It grew to 100K in revenue per year while employing 50 people. He vividly remembers loving the translation from hard work to profit and everything that entailed: Generating sales, planning a marketing attack, managing employees, dealing with payroll, finances, and so on.

Dave wanted to go to Wall Street to be an analyst, because, hey, most of his peers coming out of Princeton did, but in 1992 the job market was poor, quite arguably worse than 2008’s so he felt fortunate to land a position in Flint MI, not too far from home, working for a large (close to 1B in revenue) family-owned company selling printer ink + inputs to newspapers and commercial printers.  Selling products, experiencing rejection, and witnessing the politics and turf wars were big learning points but as Dave describes it, he was “doing nothing, making nothing,” so he decided to go get an MBA. He strove for Harvard but wound up at the University of Michigan (Ross), which, at the time felt like settling, but it actually catapulted to #2 in the national rankings by his graduation in 1997, and was a very well-rounded program.

He was then hired by Diamond Tech Partners, a consulting firm founded in 1994 by a group of McKinsey, Booz, and Accenture guys, and now a part of PWC. He chose consulting for the typical reasons—exposure, paid the most, and he got to travel.  He greatly enjoyed all three, particularly the exposure to different types and stages of companies, a variety of industries, etc but he could never escape the reality that his role was constantly helping others build and improve on works of their own, but “To what end?” His love for entrepreneurship/small business ownership fostered through his childhood and experience at Princeton was always present so he constantly wanted his endgame to be becoming the one in the owner’s seat, improving his own work, not that of others. He also recognized that the “money was good, lifestyle was terrible,” and he knew he personally would have struggled to raise a family in that environment, so he quit in 2001 and moved back to Michigan.

He had no professional nor personal obligations at the time (single, had money saved up, etc) so he decided to make a go of it on his own and began consulting for himself, landing about 15 assignments in 3 years, bringing in approximately 500K-1M per year. His focus throughout was using consulting as a stepping stone to business ownership.

One company he was exposed to while consulting independently was Residential Home Health and he recognized the huge market potential that existed as well as the company’s inability to fill that potential, as it was undercapitalized and thus undermanned. In 2005 he took on partners and purchased the company, which at the time had about 40 employees, 150-200 patients, and did approx 5M in revenue per year. In 2009/10, while Michigan continued losing jobs, Residential Home Health actually added 250 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oQoD7cwx4lk) en route to now employing 500 people across 3 lines of business (Home Health, Hospice, Medical) in 2 states (MI + IL), doing 60M in revenue per year.

He says in addition to his persistence and being true to his passion, part of his key to success was becoming a proactive networker during his time consulting independently back in Michigan. He made a list of 100 people he wanted to meet with and actively sought them out, taking many a stranger to breakfasts and lunches, one of whom became the person he bought into Residential Home Health with and who remains his business partner to this day.

The Takeaway

The connection my Dad made between Dave and myself became extremely clear early on in our call—nearly everything he said exactly matched how I would describe my upbringing, my initial exposure to entrepreneurship, and my first realization that that’s what I wanted down the line. Dave said he witnessed his parents’  work ethic day in and day out and what came as a result, and I too would sum it up similarly. I admire how hard my Dad works and how much satisfaction he receives watching his hard work generate growth and value not only for our family, but for those he employs. I want to earn the same respect through business stewardship that my Dad has, while maintaining the lifestyle I’ve become accustomed to via hard work of my own, not just as an offshoot of my Dad’s successes.

Additionally, Dave seemed to have fallen in love with being at the helm of a business while running one as early as his freshman year in undergrad. I too began running my former company, Bear Discounts, during my freshman year in undergrad and I too would describe it as by in large my best, most rewarding experience to-date. It seems we both loved every minute of it and every facet of it. Watching your blood, sweat, and tears amount to exactly what you had intended, and then some, is really powerful and addictive, it’s a feeling you want to replicate. My business education was terrific but being responsible for a business with actual money at stake, a partner relationship to manage, a product affecting many people in different ways, and more, yielded a type of learning unobtainable in the classroom. We both also acknowledged that we loved the lifestyle that went along with it. As captains of the boat, we were able to cater the work to our schedules, ramping up the hours when we needed to, while kicking back and reaping the benefits at other times. The older I get, the more I’m able to appreciate what control over one’s lifestyle can really mean, it’s a luxury.

Lastly, Dave’s highlighting of what he sought to and was able to do via networking struck me. I’ve always been told the business cliches, such as, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” as well as the idea that an MBA is much more about networking than academics. The importance of networking was further reinforced by my contacts at WashU over my time there, by Venture For America during my current job training program, and now by Dave—it’s even more clear now how powerful it can truly be.

Similar to how Dave used his early sales and consulting positions as well as networking as a stepping stone to business ownership, I too hope to use my experience as a young professional to gather the skills and connections I need to make that step up.