Jim and Suzanne Ducharme decided to advance the timing of their career plans when they moved to Grand Rapids 15 years ago. Rather than wait to move to Itasca County when they retired, they chose to work where they wanted to live. Buying MEDS-1 last year confirmed that they made the right call.
“We both had good jobs in the Twin Cities metro area,” Jim explained. “I was a partner in an engineering firm while Suzanne worked as a program director for a group of supported living facilities.
“Even though we grew up in the Twin Cities—Little Canada and St. Anthony Village—we loved the lakes and forests of the Grand Rapids area,” he continued. “Suzanne’s extended family is from Grand Rapids (the Frasers and Bonaventuras), and we always dreamed of someday living in this area.”
Jim and Suzanne lived in East Bethel, and by the time their son, Blake, was 3 months old, the couple had decided it was northern Minnesota or bust. They wanted to move up north. In 2001 Jim convinced the engineering firm he worked for to open a branch office in Grand Rapids, and for three years he was busy building a client base. The global recession in 2009 slowed many sectors of the economy, and Jim was laid off. He looked at career options. A few members of his family were professional firefighters in St. Paul, so he was familiar with emergency services work. He decided to take a four-month EMT (emergency medical technician) class at MEDS-1 to get his foot in the door with some emergency services organization. He soon discovered that emergency medical services work was fulfilling and exciting, and he applied for a job and was hired by MEDS-1 in 2010.
After one year working part-time as a MEDS-1 EMT, teaching emergency services classes and pinch-hitting as an engineer, Jim decided to go all in and earn a paramedic degree. His role at MEDS-1 then expanded and he became the education coordinator.
About two years ago Kevin McNichols, the founder and owner of MEDS-1, began openly discussing his plans for selling the business as part of an exit strategy into retirement. Kevin and his wife did not have anyone from their family to take over the business, and once word hit the street that a sale option was being considered, there were several interested parties.
“A few of the larger players—Sanford, Essentia and Allina—expressed interest, and I knew Kevin was going to have to take those proposals seriously,” Jim explained. “Suzanne and I discussed the idea of buying this business at great length, and we even talked it over with our son Blake (14 years old at the time). This was going to have to be an all-family commitment, and we spent time making sure we knew what we were getting into.”
The process of negotiating the purchase of the business took nearly 12 months. In addition to agreeing on the purchase price and timing, Jim and Suzanne’s offer to retain some of MEDS-1’s core values (remaining a family-run business with the same dedication to the community the McNichols’ had cultivated) helped secure the deal.
As the Ducharmes contemplated the purchase, they approached different banks. It was important to them to work with a local bank, so when Jim and Suzanne met with Nate Lloyd, GRSB vice president-business banking, they were astonished at the speed with which he was able to handle their loan application.
“Nate did a phenomenal job, and he handled it quickly,” said Jim. “Once we explained what we needed to do, he took the ball and ran with it. We really appreciated his help throughout the process.”
After the purchase, Jim had to work through the transition from being a “coworker” to “the boss.” While he had supervisory responsibility in his prior MEDS-1 role, he had to cope with a little resistance from some employees who were seeing him in a new role: owner.
“I was able to use technology to our advantage,” said Jim. “I’m 46 years old, and we have quite a few 20-somethings working here. We actually did some homework on how to communicate with and manage millennials, and we are glad we did.
“We learned that we needed to explain our business plan and to help them see the big picture of what we were doing and why we were doing it. We told them about every step.”
Jim and Suzanne began with a team meeting every morning but quickly discovered there were communications gaps. To solve that problem, they used some new-old technology: they found a smart phone application that provided them with an intranet, an internal communications network, and this has become a very vital communications link with all the employees.
“This app puts us in touch with everyone at all times,” Jim explained. “We still meet daily, but when people are on a call and unable to attend, or on vacation or out for whatever reason, the intranet app keeps them plugged in.”
The application provides business updates, recognizes employee achievements and milestones, posts the weekly schedule, and offers employees the chance to ask questions and receive answers from management. The 41 employees have grown accustomed to Jim’s and Suzanne’s management style, and the pair seem to be equally as comfortable in their new roles.
“Kevin did a great job building this company to what it was when we bought it,” said Jim, “and we need to work with the people here—a new generation of employees—to move the company forward.”
Jim visualizes the business in three segments. The primary work is emergency response and transport. The other lines of business are education (EMT and medical training for numerous businesses and organizations) and community paramedic services. These services, now employing three people full-time, could grow to employing eight over time. These ideas are just one portion of the Ducharmes’ five-year plan.
Grand Rapids State Bank recently sponsored Suzanne and Jim in a two-day Profit Mastery course, a financial management program specifically designed for the owners of small businesses. In addition, Jim and Suzanne appreciate the ongoing help Nate has provided them as business owners.
“It’s a good relationship,” said Jim. “The bank wants to see us remain successful, and that’s a good feeling.”