Administration and Leadership, EMS Insider

An Interview with Acadian Ambulance CEO Richard Zuschlag

In 1971, Richard Zuschlag co-founded Acadian Ambulance Service in Lafayette, La., with two ambulances and just a handful of medics. More than four decades later, Zuschlag is the CEO of a company that employs more than 4,000 people and provides ground and air medical transport, as well as other services, in more than 70 counties and parishes in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi.

Zuschlag was the recipient of the 2016 Pinnacle Lifetime Achievement Award, which was presented to him at the Pinnacle EMS Leadership Forum last summer by Jay Fitch, PhD, a founding partner of Fitch & Associates and chair of the Pinnacle Program Committee.

Zuschlag will be sharing the story of Acadian’s growth and success during a session at this year’s Pinnacle, August 7–11, in Boca Raton, Fla.

We talked to him about his 46 years with Acadian and how the company continued to engage its employees even as it grew from a one-county operation to one of the largest ambulance services in the nation.

Photo Courtesy Acadian Ambulance

JEMS:  How do you and your management team communicate with so many different employees? Is it difficult to get important messages through the ranks of the company?

Zuschlag: A lot of it is done by email and video conference, but it takes the human touch. We’re trying to get supervisors to spend more time out of the office and in the field, which is a bit of a problem; the newer people do a better job of that than the old guard.

I send out an employee-owner update every Wednesday morning covering the latest trends, activities, problems, successes, congratulations. I do some of that by video, and I do some of that in writing. I try to make it short … but I still have a hard time getting more than about 60% of our staff to look at it and read it. I’m working on improving that number.

We try to be very transparent and very open. [Our medics] may not have a copy of the executive committee’s salaries, but they have an idea of what the medics in all the areas are making and what the supervisors are making. They might not know every final dime in the whole operation but we try to share quite a bit with them so they know how we’re doing every month, which units are reaching target and which ones are not, which ones have the safest environment and which ones don’t.

It causes a little competition between them; nobody wants to be in last place. I got a big kick when I took the top 20 executives, including me, and put a black box in everybody’s company vehicle to track their behavior with seatbelts, speed limits and braking. Every Monday all 20 got an email with the category of where they were, one through 20, and boy did that cause some squeaking and some hollering.  They all wanted to get off the bottom [of the list]. It really improved our maintenance and our safety, including mine. That was hard on me but I can’t have them do something unless I do it.

JEMS: How has your leadership style changed over the years?

Zuschlag: About two years ago I came to peace with myself. I’d been entertaining some sales of the company, and it caused me to be jittery and a little uptight. I went through two and a half years of that.

When I finally made the decision that I loved what I was doing and I wanted to leave a legacy of an employee-owned company serving the communities, and my family signed off on that, it brought me a lot of peace.

I’m starting to learn to delegate more. I’ve got great people working for me. I’ve had some great people that built me up to where I am now who retired. In some cases, I thought I couldn’t replace them but the replacements have all done well, and in some cases, better. I’m kind of nervous now that when they replace me they might do better than me.

JEMS: In 1993, Acadian created an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP). How has that benefited Acadian?

Zuschlag: We did a 30% transaction in 1993, then, in 1998 when American Medical Response did a pretty big run at us, we did a transaction that bought my two partners out. I sold a little bit of my stock, so now I retain 20% and the employees own 80%, through a trust. You really have to dot your i’s and cross your t’s because every transaction you make has to be fair for both the employees and my family and me.

There’s no question in my mind that the ESOP has built a significant retirement savings for employees and particularly upper management [who] have been given a small equity share in the company—that’s why they work so hard and never leave the company.

I feel proud of our patient care, our quality assurance program, the hard work we’ve done on staying accredited and going out of our way to make sure that our people have a great retirement.

I often refer to the fact that I was raised in Pennsylvania, and I used to help my dad deliver milk in the summertime. I always felt bad that his dairy didn’t have supplemental retirement and he had to live on government social security. I thought if people work hard for you, you should have some kind of a supplemental retirement.

JEMS: What kind of voice does the ESOP give employees in company operations?

Zuschlag:  They have a chance to give input, but they don’t have final say. There’s an ESOP advisory council, which will come to the executive committee and make recommendations, so we try to get as much feedback from the employees as we can, and I think there’s [a provision] that if I was to vote my 20% for an outright sale, the employees would have the right to vote their shares for or against that. So, they could all vote on the change of control.

JEMS: Does the ESOP help keep Acadian employees engaged?

Zuschlag:  In most cases yes, but you always have a faction who are never happy. For the most part, we try very hard to keep as many of them—and usually it runs around 75–80% of them—pretty darn happy. Some of the younger ones say we don’t want the ESOP to go up as much and want a bigger raise. You have to deal with those kinds of issues.  

In 90% of the [companies] we buy [the employees] think they landed in heaven because they’ve never worked for a company that has as much compassion, as much good equipment, as much organization and efficiency as we do.

JEMS: It can’t be as easy to keep employees engaged as the company continues to grow. Besides the ESOP, what do you do to maintain the atmosphere that has kept some people working for Acadian for 30 or 40 years?

Zuschlag: We try to create a family culture in each area. It’s hard on me not knowing all these people any more. We spend a lot of time teaching servant leadership and other supervisor training programs. I was not supportive of Just Culture initially; I let them try it out, and I’m a big fan of it now.         

I’ve been on this big kick lately to try to get each supervisor to know all of the families of the employees that work for them. So we ask them to reach out and be kind towards the family, and not just trying to get the highest data point and [meet the metrics] that we set up.

They’ve got to do more than just have a high score with analytics and data. They have to be able to know how many people are in each family and who needs help and who doesn’t. [The field personnel] aren’t working for me; they’re not working for Acadian Ambulance; they’re working for that supervisor. I’ve been working really hard to drill down on that.

JEMS: Does having an ownership stake in the company change how employees view decisions to improve efficiency?

Zuschlag: Sometimes they question us and think we’re pushing them too far and we need to add more unit hours. When we recognize issues like that we try to accommodate. We’re pretty sensitive to our employee needs, but not 100% [of them]. Every six months we do employee surveys and we monitor that pretty closely.

JEMS: What have you learned from conducting regular employee surveys? How have they contributed to Acadian’s success?

Zuschlag: We learn sometimes they’re not happy about uniform issues, or there’s a particular area that’s more over worked more than another, or they’re not happy with their supervisor. So we watch that pretty closely, and try really hard [to address issues].

When you have an organization this big you’re always going to have pockets of failure, so you just constantly work to improve it. Our reputation is pretty strong in the areas that we serve;we get a whole lot more accolades then complaints. But every time we get a complaint I take it very seriously.

I remember last year, I got a big chuckle: one of those visiting accreditation people  asked a medic who’s been working for us for 18 months in Dallas, “Have you ever met the owner of this company yet?”

[He responded] “Yep, that’d be me, I own part of this company, that’s why I like working here.” And the guy with the accreditation group was just blown away that he had that kind of an attitude. It’s a small piece, but it’s a piece.