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July 2010
Healthful Home Provider
By Heather Head

     As the 28 percent of the total U.S population represented by baby boomers begins turning 65 this year, many increasingly require wheelchairs, lift chairs, respiratory equipment, and other medical equipment and supplies.

     Fortunately for Charlotte baby boomers, locally owned and family-operated Griffin Home Health Care has been connecting people with medical equipment, supplies and services for more than a quarter of a century and is poised to serve the aging population—and many others who require home health care equipment and supplies—with the quality service and care they expect.

     It all began at the local Eckerd’s soda counter where 15-year-old Bill Griffin was working and dreaming of owning his own business in the mid 1960s. By the time he was 17, he had been promoted to become the youngest assistant manager the drug store chain had ever had. He would spend the next 50 years living up to the promise his employers saw in the eyes of that bright teenager.

     Today, Griffin Home Health Care is one of the largest home-health companies in the Charlotte region, providing a wide variety of medical supplies and accessories with a heavy dose of service and customer care.


Caring Background

     While in school, Bill’s father moved to the eastern part of the state to join a boyhood friend in the funeral business. Bill became interested in the business and did a couple of science projects on embalming and funeral service.

     In an industry that many young people prefer to avoid or ignore, Griffin saw an opportunity—in his words, “to serve his fellow man.” At the age of 19, he went to work for the Harry & Bryant Funeral Home in Charlotte. In fact, he lived at the funeral home prior to his marriage.

     Although he loved the industry, he says he had a “yearning desire to be in business for myself,” and the funeral service business was too expensive for a young man of moderate means to start on his own. With regret, Griffin left the funeral home and started climbing the rungs towards business ownership.

     He went back to work for Eckerd’s, where he was put in charge of turning around a difficult store in the Cotswold area that had received a number of complaints. Following his success in that venture, in 1977 he moved to New York to serve as director of merchandise for a small drug chain encompassed under the Shop-Rite supermarket chain. Moving back to Charlotte, he converted that success into a position as merchandise administrator for about 70 Eckerd stores in the Carolinas.

     “But I still had that yearning desire to be in business for myself,” he remembers. “So I joined with a friend as assistant manager for an independent drug store over on Graham Street. I was frank with him: ‘I’d like to be in business for myself, and I’d like to be in the service industry.’”

     Griffin’s moment came in 1983 when he and his venture partner traveled to Asheville for a 3-day seminar on home medical equipment: “I knew before I left Asheville that this was my calling. Number one, I could be of service to my fellow man, which was very important to me. And number two, I could be in business for myself because I could get into it in a small, progressive way.”

     So later that year, Griffin opened a new venture in a corner of his friend’s drug store on Graham Street. The partnership worked well but by 1989 it was clear that Griffin’s business was ready for expansion. They moved into about 2,400 square feet of their current location. Unfortunately, the weekend of their move was the same weekend the legendary Hurricane Hugo hit Charlotte.

     “That weekend was crazy. I was delivering oxygen tanks to people who didn’t have power, and moving equipment and inventory to the new location,” remembers Griffin. But with the determination that characterizes everything in his business, Griffin met both demands and the company quickly got settled into their new location.


Serving His Fellow Man

     When most people think of home health care products or medical equipment, they think of hospital beds, mobility assistance and bathroom equipment. When Griffin decided to pursue the industry, he was thinking of service: “I wanted to be of service to my fellow man.”

     “People don’t want to need medical equipment,” he says. “But sometimes they have to.”

     So he strives to make the experience as pleasant and easy as possible. He says in every transaction there are three groups of people to consider: The patient, the stockholders, and the company team members. He adds that the patient also includes the insurance companies, government (Medicare/Medicaid), physicians and referral sources, and other institutions that pay the bills.

     “If we consider all three groups of people in any decision that we make, we will not make a wrong decision,” he explains. “We consider the safety of the employees, the satisfaction of the patient, and the profitability of the company.” But ultimately, he says, his goal is to serve the families, and to serve them well.

     And customers take notice. Every month, the company sends out customer service surveys to ensure they are meeting their goals in that regard. And every month, the surveys come back with satisfying comments. In May 2010, for instance, one customer exclaimed, “We have always experienced helpful, courteous service any time we have dealt with your company. Perfect!”

     “Pleasant people,” “Very professional,” and “Great service and great products,” are among the comments Griffin says he can’t hear often enough.

     In this industry, part of the equation for good service is making sure the employee is trained to think on behalf of the customer. “There are many things to think about when a loved one is coming home from the hospital,” Griffin explains. “And the patient may not have the experience to know what they need to know.”

     For instance, when scheduling a hospital bed delivery, the scheduling staff are trained to make sure the recipient understands that he or she needs to be present to receive training on the equipment. These are the sort of details Griffin’s staff are trained to think through on behalf of the patient.


Healthy Growth

     Despite Griffin’s emphasis on training and long-time experience, as in all companies, there are challenges. Staffing is one of them. Griffin says his son, who is general manager for the Charlotte location, handles many of the staffing functions for the company and has taught him some valuable lessons in managing the people.

     Nevertheless, mistakes do happen. Griffin sighs uncomfortably when he admits that his company recently failed to call a customer with a quote before performing a repair. In a business that caters to the elderly and those with medical challenges, many customers are extremely price conscious and must be very careful of their funds, so a mistake like that, even in amounts less than $100, is no small affair.

     Of course, the company made it right with the customer and Griffin says he accepted the incident as an opportunity to ensure the mistake would not be repeated. With new training and procedures in place, hopefully future customers will not face that frustration.

     But whatever frustrations customers may face, they can be assured that they will not do so alone. Griffin says he makes a point to call customers about two days after each delivery to ensure their satisfaction. “We call it the sunshine call,” he smiles. “And it is the sunshine call. But it’s also a nip-it-in-the-bud call. If Grandma says the mattress is kind of lumpy, then we will have someone come out and replace the mattress for her right away.”

     Griffin’s emphasis on service and his commitment to providing quality products that meet market demands have served the company well. About 10 years ago, the company began to outgrow its original 2,400 square feet and Griffin approached the landlord to request more space.

     The company now occupies 9,800 square feet, including a warehouse with a delivery bay, a showroom, and several staff areas. Down one hall are restrooms and a fitting room where the company will soon install a therapy bed for respiratory equipment fittings.

     Additionally, last year the company purchased a second location in Gastonia, which is operated by Griffin’s brother. He says he hopes to grow into other communities with new locations either by building new stores or absorbing other businesses.

     The business has grown in terms of services and products as well as space and locations. Griffin says the advent of sleep apnea treatments represented the largest shift in emphasis within the medical equipment industry of his career.

     Sleep apnea equipment sales now represent a significant portion of the company’s revenues, enough to justify the hiring of two respiratory care practitioners who work in and outside the store and assist patients with set up and proper fit of respiratory equipment and supplies.


A Healthy Future

     The company’s growth has raised its own challenges, not least of which is the need for new computer technology. Griffin says the company has recently switched all of its data to a new online computer system that provides scalability for the future and also allows multiple locations to access the same data.

     Like many industries, medical equipment sales and service requires revenue streams from multiple sources in order to remain viable. More than most industries, Griffin Home Health Care must rely on two large and powerful bureaucracies for much of its livelihood: government, and insurance.

     In fact, says Griffin, between 65 percent and 75 percent of his company’s revenue comes from government and/or insurance. Another 15 percent results from contracts with hospice care and similar organizations, and the remaining 10 to 20 percent comes from private individuals.

     Because of the company’s heavy reliance on governments and insurance, Griffin has been involved in lobby efforts to keep health care options reasonable for families relying on government or insurance for their medical needs. Additionally, the company must constantly be alert to changes in legislation and insurance practices.

     About 15 years ago, Griffin was instrumental in organizing a network of medical equipment suppliers in North Carolina to help independent providers remain competitive in a market that was quickly changing thanks to the onset of managed care. The resulting corporation has become the most successful network of medical equipment providers in the country.

     Griffin says he’d like to see his company become a chain of locations throughout the Southeast, serving more families with better service and products. He expects plenty of surprises and plenty of challenges, but he’d like the next 25 years to be as good as the last.

     Change is the name of the game,” he says. “It has been, and continues to be a wonderful journey.”

Heather Head is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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