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Doctors Express Franchisees Are Our Top Entrepreneurs for 2012

Neither Rick Crews nor Jim Brennan remembers many of the specific details from that lunch they had together at Max’s Tavern in the late fall of 2009.

What they do recall is that, by the time the check came, they had a plan — or at least the resolve to begin the process of putting one together.

And it was certainly an ambitious plan.

Indeed, instead of going into business together and operating a single franchise of a growing national chain of urgent-care centers called Doctors Express — which was one of the options they discussed at that lunch — they decided instead to become what’s known as master franchisees, overseeing not a location of this chain, which offers an alternative to crowded emergency rooms and the primary-care physician’s office when it’s closed, but a region, in this case most of New England.

Taking that step would be a radical career departure for both Crews, who was essentially downsized from his job running the Springfield office for the financial-services giant UBS and looking for his next opportunity, and Brennan, who owned an investment-management company bearing his name that specialized in small-business investment, mezzanine financing, and commercial real estate.

But they believed they had the necessary ingredients — from entrepreneurial drive to trust in one another’s instincts and abilities — to take the plunge.

“The enthusiasm that we both showed for the idea was a big factor in allowing us to move forward,” said Crews. “We both saw a great opportunity, and we were on the same page on a lot of different things; we had, and still have, a shared vision of where we can go.”

Fast-forward roughly two and a half years from when they opened the doors to their first location on Cooley Street in Springfield. The two partners now have two locations locally (the other is in West Springfield), with plans for others in the formative stage. They also have two locations in the Greater Boston area (with three more on the way) opened as part of a large initiative funded by a capital raise in 2011, as well as five other Eastern Mass. sites now operated by franchisees. And there are plans being considered to take the brand into a number of other markets, from Central Mass. to New Hampshire and Maine.

Brennan said the goal is to have perhaps 30 locations throughout their New England territory within two or three years.

Beyond the physical expansion, though, what has been equally impressive is the trailblazing nature of this enterprise, which operates in a field, urgent care, that is still a relative unknown in some parts of the state and the New England region. The two partners have become a model operation for others exploring the Doctors Express franchise with regard to everything from marketing and generating press to finding new and different ways to improve the patient experience.

These include everything from high-definition TVs in examination rooms at some locations, to help ease the wait for the physician, to water bottles and cookies for all patients.

In recognition of the speed and efficiency with which Crews and Brennan have taken the Doctors Express brand across the state, and for the aggressive yet calculated way in which they carried out the plan they outlined over lunch, Crews and Brennan have been named BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneurs for 2012.

Thus, they are the latest recipients of an award the magazine initiated in 1995 to pay homage to this region’s long history of entrepreneurship and to recognize those who are adding to that legacy and writing new chapters for an ongoing story. They join an eclectic roster of winners that includes Balise Motor Sales President Jeb Balise, former Springfield Technical Community College President Andrew Scibelli, Maybury Material Handling President John Maybury, Cooley Dickinson Hospital President Craig Melin, the Holyoke Gas & Electric Department, and last year’s honoree, Herbie Flores, director of the New England Farm Workers’ Council and aggressive investor in downtown Springfield.

“Rick Crews and Jim Brennan embody the true spirit of entrepreneurship,” said BusinessWest Publisher John Gormally. “They’ve dared to dream big and, in the process of doing so, have assumed a great deal of risk. They’re ambitious, confident, and imaginative, but above all else, they’re determined to succeed.

“And their impressive track record to date and promise for continued expansion makes them worthy recipients of our Top Entrepreneur award,” he went on. “Together, they’re a great addition to a long list of inspiring entrepreneurs and those who run their organizations with a decidedly entrepreneurial mindset.”

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an indepth look at how far Crews and Brennan have already taken their joint venture, and where they want to take it next.

 

Taking the Pulse of a Business

The front lobby of the West Springfield Doctors Express location was crowded on this Friday afternoon, with most of the two dozen chairs occupied by people of different ages and with varying degrees of discomfort.

Most were exhibiting flu-like symptoms, said Brennan as he sat down with BusinessWest for this interview. Both he and Crews would then go on to quote both newspaper articles and medical-industry reports about what was already a heavy flu season and would likely get worse as the winter wore on.

“With this epidemic of the flu, we’ve had to adjust our staffing model and put on more providers and healthcare staff,” said Brennan. “These are things that weren’t planned on and forecasted, but they’re part of doing business in healthcare today; you adjust to the need that’s out there.”

This subject matter is a world or two away from what Crews and Brennan knew professionally only four years ago. It’s certainly a far cry from what they might have been talking about had things gone differently when Crews took his search for a new career path to a higher level in the summer of 2009 after opting to leave UBS and take a severance package rather than go from full-time to part-time.

By then, he had logged several meetings with Steven Rosenkrantz, owner of the local office of a franchise called Entrepreneur’s Source, which, as the name suggests (sort of), matches aspiring entrepreneurs with franchises.

“I was looking for something where I could be the boss, and also run a business where people would leave happier than when they came in — those were the two priorities,” said Crews, adding that Rosenkrantz put a number of possibilities in front of him, from Cartridge World, a toner-cartridge sales enterprise, to Sports Clips, a haircutting chain. He even looked at opening a sports bar in South Hartford.

“I’m really glad I didn’t go that route,” he told BusinessWest, adding that Rosenkrantz eventually put Doctors Express, a chain started in Baltimore by an emergency-room physician, on the table for consideration.

Actually, there were two proposals — a single location of that franchise, or the master-franchisee designation, which would involve Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and a portion of Connecticut.

“I liked the master-franchisee concept, but I’d knew I’d need a partner to do that, and Jim was the first person I thought of,” Crews explained, while setting the scene for that aforementioned lunch on Springfield’s riverfront.

The two had known each other for years by then and done some business together, and there was also the requisite comfort level and shared vision needed to create a business partnership.

“He coached my son in basketball, and I coached his son in baseball,” said Crews. “We had a good friendship prior to this, and we would often talk about going into business together someday.

“We got along, and we had a lot in common,” he continued. “We’re great dads, good husbands, we’re family-oriented and community-oriented … we coached sports. We made for a good team.”

Equally important, though, were the things they didn’t have in common, said Brennan, noting that their vastly different business skill sets have meshed nicely.

“Rick has been with a Fortune 500 company and managed 30 type-A personalities plus administrative staff, and that’s not my forte,” he explained. “I’m more independent, and while I don’t want to say I’m more creative, my skill set would be creative financing, expansion of a growing business, mezzanine financing, real estate, and small-business speculation. Having these skills and putting them together with Rick’s has made for an outstanding relationship, and that’s the key to our success.”

 

In the Right Vein

As they talked about all that’s happened since they became business partners, Brennan and Crews said that, while success has seemingly come quickly and easily, there have been some intriguing learning curves and growing pains to contend with, and that process is ongoing.

It has involved everything from honing the art and science of choosing locations — the basic theory is to choose a site with 50,000 people within three miles of the front door, but it’s far more complex than that — to the process of educating patients and healthcare professionals about the emergence of urgent-care facilities, especially in the Boston area, where it is still very much a foreign concept.

And then, there was simply the matter of learning the business of providing healthcare itself, which was outwardly daunting, because neither had anything approaching experience in medicine.

Crews took on that assignment aggressively and creatively, making himself chief administrator of the Cooley Street location for the first nine months of its existence. When asked what he learned on that job, he glanced toward the ceiling, offered a heavy sigh, and said, “what didn’t I learn?”

As he explained, “I wanted to learn the ins and outs of the business, and what better way to do that to actually run the center? I learned about healthcare — about insurance companies, coding, billing, staffing, scheduling challenges, working with doctors … how to run an urgent-care center.

“It was challenging, but it was also fun,” he continued. “Every day I was learning something new.”

Tracing the progression of their venture, or franchise territory, Crews and Brennan said that, even as they were cutting the ribbon on the Cooley Street location, there were discussions taking place about where to go next.

And ultimately, those decisions involved both ends of the state. Locally, after consideration of several locations, the decision was made to expand into West Springfield, with a facility that could draw residents from several neighboring communities, including Agawam, Westfield, and Holyoke; that location opened in 2012.

Meanwhile, only a few months after the Springfield facility opened its doors, the partners embarked on a capital raise aimed at netting $4 million to fuel a push into the Greater Boston area. That offering attracted the attention of investors locally, but also from across the country, said Brennan, adding that the first location funded by that group opened in Saugus early last month. Another, in Dedham, will open soon, and a letter of intent for a third, in Arlington, was recently inked. Eventually, there will be five sites sprung from that Boston offering, for which Crews and Brennan are general partners, with a 50% stake.

In addition, the partners operate a management company with five Boston-area franchisees under it. Those locations are in Braintree, Natick, Waltham, and North Andover, with another facility to open soon in Watertown.

This growth has necessitated expansion of the company’s corporate offices in Longmeadow, said Crews, adding that the team now includes Project Manager Melissa Nelson, charged with helping franchisees get their operations off the ground and running efficiently, as well as Controller Tim Sterett, who helps the partners plan and forecast for the future.

There are also people on the ground in various markets, including Western Mass., but especially the Greater Boston area, educating various constituencies about urgent care, how it is cost-effective for those who seek it, and how it can reduce congestion in the emergency room while also becoming a feeder service for hospitals.

“We have a business-development manager who is out in the community every day talking about urgent care,” said Crews. “We’ve also formed a co-op amongst all our franchisees, with the money to be spent monthly on advertising. Starting in a week, we’ll be doing our first TV commercials in Boston; we’ve been doing radio for the past month.”

 

Charting Results

Together, the team that Crews and Brennan has put together is scouting new locations in several areas of Massachusetts and a few bordering states, while also continuing that process of educating the public and the healthcare community about the concept of urgent care, and also striving to constantly improve the patient experience.

Which brings Crews back to those TVs in the examination rooms — now standard equipment in the Boston-area facilities and likely to be added at local locations.

“When someone goes into an exam room, they don’t like to wait for a doctor,” he explained. “So we have a policy that no one is supposed to wait more than 10 minutes for a doctor. However, depending on what you’re there for, you could be in the exam room for a long period of time. Having a TV in there helps to distract them from thinking about how long they’ve been there, and that’s especially true if you have children; it’s nice if they can put on Spongebob or the Disney Channel.”

Such attention to detail and the patient experience has helped Doctors Express gain acceptance and solid word-of-mouth referrals, said Brennan, adding that, from a big-picture perspective, success has come by creating relationships and making connections on a number of levels.

“When we go into a market, it’s important for us to create relationships not only with the primary-care physicians and hospitals, but also the medical groups in those areas,” Brennan explained. “There’s a new world of ACOs [accountable-care organizations] out there, and it’s important that we stay in contact with them and provide our services to those groups.

“Whether it’s Boston or Worcester, or wherever we go, one of the first things we do is reach out,” he continued. “We need to explain our story and what our plans are, and to date, we’ve been received very well. Originally, it was ‘who are you guys?’ because no one had ever heard of us, not just in our marketplace or in Boston, but in general. Now, most people have at least heard of Doctors Express.”

Looking ahead, the two partners said they are exploring a number of growth options. Locally, they’re looking for a location north of Springfield, perhaps in Chicopee. Meanwhile, they’re eyeing the Worcester market as the next possible expansion point, but also looking at potential opportunities in New Hampshire and Maine.

And from a bigger-picture perspective, they’re considering the possibility of taking their territory public, a move that would provide the infusion of capital needed to place dozens of proverbial push pins on a map of New England.

“That’s an aspiration, and there’s a way to get there,” said Brennan. “It all starts with the success we’re having, and we need to keep growing — it’s a snowball effect. I don’t think we’re there yet, though; we need to expand our business and get a good handle on what our revenues will be. If we continue to grow the way we are, maybe in a year we’ll know a lot more about whether that’s something we want to do.”

But the success of this venture can’t be measured simply by how many, and how quickly, locations can opened, said Crews, adding that there must be a balance between physical growth and maintaining high standards of quality in the locations already up and running. And the partners work hard to achieve that balance.

“You can’t just open center after center after center,” he told BusinessWest. “You have to make sure each location is successful and doing things properly, and that the service you’re providing is consistent and excellent. So there’s a lot of detail involved with every center that we open, and we also have to make sure our franchisees are opening with the same level of detail, service, and everything else. You have to spend the time and make sure you’re doing it right with each one — and it does take time.”

“And that’s the great thing about the master-franchisee concept,” he went on. “We can bring in great people under us to replicate exactly what we’re doing.”

Evidence that they are doing things right comes from the steady stream of phone calls from current and potential Doctors Express franchisees looking for advice and guidance about everything from marketing to staffing levels.

“I think I field at least two calls a week from people around the country, either current franchisees or potential franchisees,” said Crews. “They’re interested in what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, and why we’re so successful.”

Added Brennan, “with continued success, opportunities arise. Our goal is just to keep moving forward, continue growing, and keep our focus on what has made us successful and not deviate from that.”

 

Polishing the Script

Looking back, both Crews and Brennan are quite happy that they didn’t take the Cartridge World route or open that sports bar in Greater Hartford — not that they wouldn’t have been successful with either entrepreneurial gambit.

They just believe that, in Doctors Express, they’ve found a perfect match between a potential-laden business opportunity and their own talents and entrepreneurial drive.

“There hasn’t been a day when I haven’t gotten out of bed and looked forward to going to work — I love it,” said Crews. “I love the challenges — getting pulled in a million directions is where I thrive, and as we get bigger and busier, I get pulled in more directions. Yes, there are a lot of challenges that we face, but it’s exciting to work through them.”

Listening to that, it’s clear that the prognosis is continued progress for BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneurs for 2012.

Previous Top Entrepreneurs

• 2011: Heriberto Flores, director of the New England Farm Workers’ Council and Partners for Community
• 2010: Bob Bolduc, founder and CEO of Pride
• 2009: The Holyoke Gas & Electric Department
• 2008: Arlene Kelly and Kim Sanborn, founders of Human Resource Solutions and Convergent Solutions Inc.
• 2007: John Maybury, president of Maybury Material Handling
• 2006: Rocco, Jim, and Jayson Falcone, principals of Rocky’s Hardware Stores and Falcone Retail Properties
• 2005: James (Jeb) Balise, president of Balise Motor Sales
• 2004: Craig Melin, president and CEO of Cooley Dickinson Hospital
• 2003: Tony Dolphin, president of Springboard Technologies
• 2002: Timm Tobin, then-president of Tobin Systems Inc.
• 2001: Dan Kelley, then-president of Equal Access Partners
• 2000: Jim Ross, Doug Brown, and Richard DiGeronimo, then-principals of Concourse Communications
• 1999: Andrew Scibelli, then-president of Springfield Technical Community College
• 1998: Eric Suher, president of E.S. Sports in Holyoke
• 1997: Peter Rosskothen and Larry Perreault, co-owners of the Log Cabin Banquet and Meeting House
• 1996: David Epstein, president and co-founder of JavaNet and the JavaNet Café

 

George O’Brien can be reached at obrien@businesswest.com


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