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Wise Words with Bob Paull

Sat., March 6, 2010

Bob Paull, physical therapist and small business owner, is a person others naturally open up to because he’s a question-asker as well as a good listener.

He believes that small business people have the ability to lead the country out of this recession, if they don’t forget the values of hard work, accountability and excellence.

Paull learned those values growing up in a family of five children in Butte, a town that endured a painful mining strike yet never stopped working for the betterment of its children.

This is the complete transcript of the Wise Words in Troubled Times interview with Paull. It was published in The Spokesman-Review March 6, 2010.

  • I was raised in Butte in a family of five. I was raised in the Catholic Church and Catholic schools. It was a community of immigrants, a community of people who didn’t have a lot, weren’t affluent, but they always had everything they needed. They all knew the value of working really hard to get what you needed, and you always put the community first. It was about “we” not “me.”
  • My grandmother was an immigrant from Ireland. She spent half of her day helping out, and worrying about, the people in her neighborhood, her family, the general community. Nobody had anything, but they had everything. They had family, community, religion. Everybody pulled everybody else up. If someone needed a shirt, or a dress for the prom, man, your whole neighborhood rallied around that. People worked hard, and they wanted everybody to be successful. You always felt secure and needed and wanted and loved and protected.
  • They were a lot of Irish, a lot of Italians. There were a lot of people from what was then Yugoslavia. And a lot of, what my grandma used to call Cousin Jacks and Cousin Jennys — the English people. When they came to Butte, they became miners. Almost all of them were miners.
  • How did I know my whole community cared about me? There are so many examples. We were always raised to be better. My grandma’s generation wanted my mom’s generation to be better, and we had to be better. My grandma got to eighth grade. My mom got to 12th grade. We got to college.
  • My mom and dad were just tickled pink, because my senior year at Butte Central, I was elected vice president of the student body. They all loved that. Then, I got to be part of the National Honor Society. Then, I got king of the prom. It was stupid as all get out, but they were so proud. A writer for the Montana Standard called the school and asked what was up at the school. And everyone at the school wanted that to be shared. It was little Bobby Paull and little Debbie Kingston, who come from the way middle income portion of the city, and they are doing better, they are making a difference, they are going places. Everyone was excited when you did better, when you got an award, when you scored the final touchdown or when Butte Central went to the state football tournament or when Butte High had a great homecoming. The whole town rallied around those accomplishments and shared in it.
  • My dad owned a dental supply company where they made dentures, teeth, partials, all those fun things. There was a strike in Butte that went from July 1967 until March 1968 – 260 days long; $34 million in lost wages. You had the entire Anaconda Copper Company operations shut down — the Berkeley pits, the mines and all the other stuff the company had. That brings a town to its feet. My dad at one point thought we might have to move to a different town. The nuns at St. Patrick’s School, in order to save paper, started writing stuff on overheads. The whole town held hands and walked through that. I was 10. I didn’t worry about money, but I became quite aware of it. In fifth grade, I came home and my mom said, “Mr. Harrington up the street needs someone to shovel his sidewalks.” We went up there and shoveled his sidewalks and he gave us $5 a time. That was a lot, like $50 now. What I learned about money is that if you worked hard, you could ride it through the tough times. You didn’t have to have a lot, but you had to have enough to make it. We learned about work and work ethic and saving money. I had a little Charles Russell bank that the bank gave us. I’d open it up with the key and shove the $5 into it.
  • I knew that times were tough but never once did our parents make us worry or feel like our world was collapsing in on us, but we knew it. I remember driving with my mom and dad to a grocery store to see if they could buy groceries on credit. And we weren’t the poorest kids in the city. There were a lot of other people in bigger and more dire straights than we were. I brought away from time the value of working hard, saving and that you don’t always get what you want, but we always had enough. We weren’t affluent, but we always had enough. And we were darn satisfied. We got a dryer at our house one time. My grandmother came over and sat in the basement to watch it spin. They were so excited to have a dryer. We weren’t poor. As my grandmother would say, “We weren’t getting hams from the ‘Sal’ (Salvation Army).” But they knew the value of working hard and they were proud. They would take $50 and parlay it into enough value for $100. They always had nice things. Instead of buying new curtains, she would dye the ones she had and so they’d be pink one time and purple the next. They made do.
  • What of that childhood experience did I carry into my adult life? Without a doubt, you have to work hard. When you get paid, you are thankful to get paid. It’s not like you owe me $50 just for showing up on time. You come early. You leave late. You might have to work during lunch. You always give more than what is expected. What we brought out of Butte, and I think every Butte kid brought this out, is you work hard. It’s about “we” and not about “me.”
  • Butte kids are certainly not perfect. Ask Jeff Philipps from Great Falls (now CEO of Rosauers Supermarkets). We got to know each other at the gym one day and he said, “Butte High, toughest place on Earth.” It was a tough town, but you know, you worked hard, it was about community, it was about one child being better and we’re all tickled to death. We’re excited as all get out, because you are us and we’re excited you’re doing well. And there was none of that jealousy thing.
  • We’re an outpatient physical therapy clinic. We started in 1996 in a crazy time, because it was the middle of health care reform. People said, “You’re nuts to do this. You’re not part of a big thing and you’re not going to make it.” It was either starting a new clinic or leaving the profession. I called Meryl Gersh, a physical therapist and one of my big mentors, now the chair of the department at Eastern (Washington University). I said, “Meryl, you’ve got to talk me off the ledge here. I think I’m going to go to law school. I don’t want to do this anymore.” We were part of a corporate culture. We had to see 20 patients a day it. It was go, go, go, go and make more money. We called the managers’ meetings, “the managers’ beatings.”
  • So three of us who were managers started Apex. We started with the three of us. No secretary, nothing. And now it’s up to 30 people and we have three clinics – in Cheney, North Spokane and Airway Heights. We have 12 therapists. We have five owners. We started at a time when conventional wisdom was “Don’t do it.” Three of the five partners are from Montana. Another is a farmer kid from Reardon. The other was born in Montana. We really hoped to deliver good care, a value service, do it well, make people feel important and comfortable. And then you know what, the patients did all the heavy lifting. They went back to the doctors and said, “These guys are knocking their brains out and really helping.” Then the clinic grew from there.
  • Now, have we done a lot of stupid things? Yes. When we were really growing fast, we selected some wrong people, we were not tough enough on bad behavior. It wore us down. We always joke we’re going to write a book on how not to do personnel management. When we’re at an owners’ meeting, I always do this analogy: If we all have to buy coats, guess what? Who is the last one to get the coat? Your mom. All the kids get their coats and their boots. It’s the same with us. We’re the last one to get that extra bonus. I always ask: “Who packs your parachute? It’s the people in the billing office, it’s the aides, it’s the people at the front desk. They pack your chute every day. We better treat them well.” And we took that away from Butte. Everybody says the unions were bad, but their real intent in the beginning was not to be bad, but to make sure guys weren’t dying at age 35, that people were working 40 hours, that people got paid a decent wage. Industry is industry is industry, be it 1850 or 1995. They are going to get what they can. Were unions good all the time? No, but their intent was good. Everyone from Butte takes that out.
  • Quick advice for those hoping to start a small business? Your intention has to be good. If you want to start any small business, your customer is the reason you are there. Whether you sell tires, change oil or do brain surgery, you better do a value-added service. You better do what you do and do it really well. One of the speeches I give to the new kids on the block: Tell them what you know and how well you do it. We have a bunch of referring physicians who don’t know what we do. I had two or three of them as patients. They were amazed by what we know and how well we do it. And that’s what it’s all about. What you know about tires and how well you do it. What you know about engines and how well you do it. What you know about picking the right produce and getting it out the door.
  • Do naysayers have a role? It’s almost like make my day, I want to prove you wrong. They make you step back and they make you think, but they can’t stop you. The naysayers are important. They do make you step back. They make you stop for a minute to think, “Am I doing this right?”
  • You know on my big decisions, like when I got married, had Andrea, decided to do the clinic, I didn’t know it my head, but I knew it in my heart. Not being impulsive and not being wild and foolish, but knowing deep in your heart this is the right thing, and we’re going to do it. I remember talking to a physical therapist on the West Side of the state, and I told him we’re going to do this and he said, “We’re going to do it too. I’m really nervous, but you know Bob, you can’t get home when you’re hugging first base.” And so we did it. We ran around the bases and got hit by balls, but we slid into home base.
  • How have we weathered the recession? No. 1, we had three therapists leave, and we have not replaced them. We didn’t replace them, because business has slowed down. Why? It slowed down because people now have big deductibles and big co-pays. So if your child sprains their ankle in a basketball game, you might be able to send them to physical therapy three times, but six times is way too much money. So we really noticed people were more conscious about how much they were spending. We’ve had to retool secondary to that. People can’t come as much as they used to. People are demanding a big value. If I have $100 to spend on health care, am I going to spend it on chiro or PT or massage or heller working (a deep massage)? If I have $100 to spend, I’ll spend it wisely and I want to get value for the money I spend. We have to be as good as we can.
  • If you have fewer patients, or fewer customers to buy tires or if you have a big competition between Safeway, Rosauers and Albertson’s, you really have to provide customer service, from the front door to the back door. When you call, you have to be warmly greeted and made to feel the most important person on the Earth. When you get there, we have to treat you very well, from the front door to the back door. When you get into the treatment room, we have to quickly access what’s wrong and do the best to do the innovative and best stuff. When the patient leaves, they have to leave knowing everyone was on the top of their game. So we hope when people leave our place, they felt like they were the most important person. I went to a hardware store and I thought, “I won’t go back there.” Our customer service has to be over the top. When you do what we do, you have to be the best you can be. We have to make sure everyone who is a PT with us knows the latest and the greatest, and they always strive to be better. I was talking with a PT the other day and he said, “I’m the stupidest guy on Earth.” I think that’s a good place to be. I know there is a lot more out there I need to tap into and going for and trying to be better. Not beating myself to death, but knowing that I need to be better. So the guy at the tire store, at the oil change place, needs to know that he or she needs to be as good as possible.
  • Will the customer service emphasis last? I have a horrible feeling that when the going gets good again, we’ll forget it. During the economic boom, we went to a physician’s office in the Valley. They aren’t there anymore, and maybe this is why. We stood at the front desk and there were six of them yakking. And no one turned to say, “Hello, good-bye, what are you doing here?” It was horrible.
  • Where we really noticed the stress (in patients) wasn’t this economic downturn, but during the Ice Storm (in 1996). It was crazy. We had more patients coming in all tied up. People’s (emotional) bathtubs were full. Now you throw on no power, no heat, can’t get around, and it floated them over the top. If you’re really suffering from the recession, you’re not going to choose PT. You might have to go to your general practitioner, but if you don’t have good coverage or the co-pay, you’re not going to go to PT.
  • What’s cool about what we do, people tell you everything. You get people behind our curtains for 45 minutes and sometimes, it’s too much information. People talk to us all the time and all our PTs are so open and kind, people tell us stuff all the time. People do talk about their 401(k)s and say “Holy Smokes, I’m not going to retire this year.” When people are trying to figure out whether to retire, those people definitely have physical manifestations of that stress and trying to figure it out. People do talk about their jobs and how they might not have a job tomorrow or might have to cut back to 32 hours.
  • Are small business people the key to this recovery? Yes, as long as they build businesses based on good, solid principles. And they don’t need to grow fast. And they need to deliver some good value and service. Then people will come back. People still need to buy tires. If they sprain an ankle, they’ll still need PT. You’ll still need to buy insurance, but you better have a good value-added service. They have to hire slowly and methodically and remember that you don’t have to go from one person to 100 in one day. I don’t want to work for a company that is just going wild crazy. You know the bubble is just going to burst. And those people you hire need to know you are building and that they are not going to get paid a zillion dollars an hour and that they are part of the solution, too.
  • The front desk person is as big a part of our success as the PTs. So how do you encourage the people who work for you to pretend they own the business, too? How do you get those guys so excited about the company and how they can be better and the company is then better. If you’re a checker at the grocery store and I don’t give a rat, that’s not good. Your behavior affects your company more than you think. By your bad behavior, you are jeopardizing your co-workers, too. If we have to start laying people off, they will have to go, too. These people are raising families. They have car payments and house payments. Your behavior extends much farther than just you.
  • When we do our initial interviews, I spend the whole first hour with the person telling them about us. This is what we do. These are our values. This is how we market. This is about us. The person is sitting there waiting for how much we pay an hour, what’s your benefit plan? We never got into that. Instead it was this is who we are, do you think you fit into this? Everyone says, “Yeah, yeah, I fit in.” That’s the tough part. Do I know in my heart when I first meet someone if they have those values? I thought we did on some people and it shocked me when they didn’t. When we go back to hiring, I hope we can do that again. You better spend the time upfront hiring, because she’ll be a pain-in-the-you-know-what (if she doesn’t work out.)
  • When you’re part of a community, you have a responsibility back to that community and your behavior has to be a little bit better. I think of my grandmother and her contemporaries, I hope before I die, I’ll be half as wise as they were. Most of those people went to eighth grade or 12th grade at the most, but you know what? They were so wise. How were they wise? They knew who to be around and who not to be around. Or to quote my grandmother: “He’s a bad actor.” They knew who they should surround themselves with and who they shouldn’t. They were practical. They knew everything from medicine to finance.
  • I’m learning and watching and now the mantle’s been passed to me. Oh my gosh, I hope I brought some of that insight and wisdom and work ethic and morals and values. But I’m not anywhere near where they were. I’m still way down here in kindergarten land. When you’re part of a small community, you are cared for and mentored and then the mantle is passed on and hopefully, you are passing those onto your kids.
  • Why do so many Montana “kids” settle in Spokane? It’s the biggest town between Minneapolis and Seattle. And Spokane is a big-little town. We’re close geographically, too. Unfortunately, some come here because the opportunities are not always there in Montana. It’s never been known to be the big commerce place of the United States.
  • My brothers and sisters are better because of my parents and grandparents. I have a lot of people to thank. I am who I am because I was part of that community. Now they expect me to be better and carry it on. I try to do that in business by always remembering who packs my chute. The lady in my billing office is important to me, and if her kids need a new set of orthotics, I’m going to give them one. And we’re going to deliver a good service. And I care that my name is attached to that. In my personal life, I hope to be a good friend. I hope in my neighborhood, they see those values. A guy who lives down the street says, “Every time I go down the street, you are out in your yard doing something.” I said, “Because, you know what, my grandmothers and grandfathers were always doing something. They were proud. They wanted their houses and their neighborhoods to be better.”
  • I’m humbled and challenged every day as husband and father. I hope I treat Julie like my dad treated my mom. He treated her so kindly. Am I as patient and kind and enduring as my dad? It’s not my personality. My brother John and my brother Tom are much more like my dad. I’m a mixture of my mom and dad. Have I instilled in Andrea the things that were instilled in me? I have tried very hard. It would be my hope. Here’s a glimmer. She said to me, “Can I borrow $20 off you – that wasn’t the best part – but she said, “My friend’s mom died. I want to bring them dinner.” I thought that is such a Butte thing. You were listening, you were watching. She has a big heart.
  • In August 2008, I had an aortic valve replacement. I was going to be the stellar patient. I’m sitting up 10 hours post. I’m Rambo. I did quite well. In March 2009, I got what I thought was a horrible case of the flu. I went to the doctor and said, “I feel horrible. I haven’t slept. I’m sweating through all my clothes.” We went down to Sacred Heart. What they found was on my aortic valve was a huge infection. That was on Sunday morning and by Wednesday, we were going to replace the valve. Then it embolized. It came off as junk wrapped in a blood clot and went down into my abdominal aorta and got stuck on both sides. If it had gone up, I would have been dead. They sent me home on godawful medicine. I went back on April 22, and they did the valve. Two days after the valve, my left leg hurt so bad I couldn’t stand the pain. I got a foot drop. I thought, “I’ve herniated a disc.” They did an MRI and no disc problems. They did a CT of my pelvis and there was what they thought was a tumor in my left pelvis. So they put me in a CT scanner and they took a biopsy needle and shoved it in, and it was an aneurysm. It blasted back at them. They did an emergency stenting in the CT scanner because they couldn’t move me. I toodled home from there thinking I was OK. Then I had to do the right side.
  • I wonder: “What am I supposed to learn from this?” I learned one thing: Everybody was on their game. When I had my aortic valve replacement done again, I was one of probably 600 patients at Sacred Heart Medical Center that day. I felt like I was the only one in the whole building. Everyone knocked their brains out. When they rolled me into the operating room, the nurse said, “Hey you guys, this is Bob!” Everybody turned around and said, “Hi Bob!” It was like walking into “Cheers.” What was really fun about it was she was from Montana State University. Half doped up, I said, “Hey guys, I want to get something clear here. There are two kinds of people in this world, those who went to school at University of Montana and those who wished they had.” I was the most important person there. So when you come to my clinic, I want to be on my game. It’s my way to give back.

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