Helen Kent: Adapt to changes or perish

Thursday, August 31, 2006

When it comes to her success as an HME provider, Helen Kent has shown a remarkable--and necessary--ability to reinvent herself to survive a market crazy with change.
A respiratory therapist by training, Kent found herself unfulfilled working in a hospital setting and decided to make the switch into home care. After a short stint with another HME company, Kent decided to strike out on her own, starting Progressive Medical out of her home garage in 1983. She first specialized in pediatrics, but a 1986 California budget crisis meant she wasn't getting paid. She then focused solely on rehab and DME products, but after losing several big contracts realized another change was needed.
"I had to reinvent my business again," she said. "So in 1999 I decided to only specialize in sleep and respiratory, and it's been wonderful."
Today Progressive Medical serves the San Diego area with sleep and respiratory therapy. Kent focuses on what she considers to be an underserved population--patients with neuromuscular diseases like ALS.
"As RTs, we're trained to handle the obstructive diseases like COPD, but there's less focus on the restrictive diseases like ALS," she said.
That's why she works closely with local ALS doctors, and spends two days each month volunteering at the local ALS Center.
"That's the hardest part of my job," she said. "Seeing the neuromuscular patients who start out healthy, gradually get sick and die."
And the best part?
"Fixing the sleep patients, who usually come in as grumpy old men," she said. "But then they'll come back and tell us how we changed their lives."
Although in the early years she saw many barriers to women in the HME business, today Kent feels those barriers have been lifted.
"Now I can go to a banker and he won't ask for my husband's signature anymore," she said. "I think all business is much more open to women than ever before."
But there are definite differences between the way she runs her business and the way a man would, said Kent.
"You think differently, you're more emotional and more involved with employees," she said. She also says she's more nurturing with patients, which often translates into a greater willingness to work with them financially.
"When a patient comes in with a death sentence of ALS and they can't afford it, you just have to work something out," she said.
As for Progressive Medical's future, Kent says, she's planning for additional locations: "First in Southern California, then Northern California, then after that we'll see." That expansion will undoubtedly be guided by Kent's willingness to adapt to a changing industry and her persevering business philosophy.
"Never give up," she says. "I just keep going until I get what I want."

Years in business: 24
Company/location: Progressive Medical, Carlsbad, Calif.
Size: $1.5 million net
Position: Owner, president, respiratory therapist
Professional associations: California Association of Medical Product Suppliers (CAMPS), AARC, AAHomecare
Business philosophy: "You have to be nimble in this industry."