Genuine. That’s the word colleagues and business associates use to describe April (Bullock ’89) Anthony, the entrepreneur who never planned to be one.
Anthony has had a big year. In 2017, Encompass Home Health and Hospice, the company she founded and leads, was named No. 1 in The Dallas Morning News’ Top Places to Work 2017. So far in 2018 it has earned similar awards 20 times including being named by Fortune magazine as the #2 best place to work in health care. Last fall, she and her husband, Mark (’86), cheered on the Wildcats at the first game in the venue the couple helped make possible, Anthony Field at Wildcat Stadium.
And in February, the day after she led her first meeting as the first woman to chair her alma mater’s Board of Trustees, she was honored as ACU’s Outstanding Alumna of the Year.
So a lot of words fit. Successful. Generous. But genuine comes up most often. Genuine, and faithful.
Luke James (’04), chief strategy officer for Encompass, went there first in trying to describe his friend, mentor and the only boss he’s ever had.
“The word that comes to mind most often – everything here is genuine,” James said. “She is so plugged in at such a granular level and cares so much about us having success and having it the right way – it’s infectious to those who interact with her. We all feel called to work at a higher level than we’re naturally inclined to do on our own.”
Outstanding Alumnus of the Year: Provides timely recognition of the lifetime achievement of an individual who has brought honor to ACU through personal and professional excellence and service to the university, the church or the community.
The sentiment was repeated by employees at a recent iteration of the three-day professional development program that brings 50-75 new team members to Encompass headquarters in Dallas approximately 45 weeks a year. April speaks at all of them, telling her story and preaching the gospel of the Encompass mission, “A Better Way to Care.”
Dustin White, a physical therapy assistant in Winchester, Tennessee, met April there for the first time. “She’s so genuine and sincere,” he said. “She’s very in touch with the employees and the best interest of the employee.”
They talk about her as though she runs a small family business, not the fourth-largest home health care company in the U.S. and the largest in Texas, with more than 9,000 employees serving 185,000 patients.
That Monday morning, about 75 employees filled the classroom, most dressed casually, many in the scrubs they wear to work every day.
“If we can create a better way to care for our team members, you will deliver that to our patients,” April told them. “And they will tell their neighbors and friends and their referral sources.”
Taking care of team members includes compensation well above industry norms, company cars “large enough to be on the Hertz upgrade list,” and 30 paid days off in year one. That commitment pays off with a 15 percent turnover rate in an industry where 30+ percent is typical. The PowerPoint slides are detailed, the facts impressive, but her passion and humor command the room.
None of this was part of her plan.
Culture. That’s the word April uses most when she talks about Encompass Home Health, the company she built from the ground up and sold to HealthSouth for more than $725 million in 2014.
She’s told her story numerous times – on the ACU campus and to Encompass employees at the road shows she takes to all 280 office locations in 36 states over a two-year cycle. She’s told it to journalists who have written about her and her company each time she earned another personal honor (Ernst & Young’s 2006 Entrepreneur of the Year and 2015 Innovator Award from the Healthcare Leaders Conference), or one of the many Best Places to Work awards Encompass has received around the nation.
She says she never intended to be an entrepreneur, just to have a family, stay at home, be president of the PTA and run the tennis league. Just a year after she married Mark, at the end of a particularly rugged busy season, she left public accounting at PricewaterhouseCoopers in search of a job that would be a bit more family friendly. She received four offers, and took the one in an industry she knew nothing about – health care.
“But it was a controller position, and I figured it was better to be in charge than not in charge,” she said, laughing at herself. As controller for a company that owned four businesses, she quickly determined that one of them was losing money.
“This is going to get worse,” she told her boss. He said to sell it. She talked to lots of people and finally went back to the owner.
April has told this part of the story a thousand times but still enjoys it, laughing easily at herself and what she now calls a combination of ignorance and arrogance.
“With no forethought I said, ‘What if I just buy it?’”
“Oh, I don’t have any money, what if I just take it?”
So she went home that night and told Mark, “Honey, I’ve got good news, we’re going to buy a home health care company.”
“With what?” he asked.
“They’re giving it to us!” she assured him.
And so Liberty Health Services was transferred to her name. She was 25 years old and had 58 days of experience in health care.
For four months she worked nights and weekends at her old job, so she’d have a salary, and spent days running her new company, hoping they could make it to the end of the year. She let go everyone in the back office except the billing clerk and began doing all their jobs herself in an effort to dig out of a $175,000 hole. By year’s end she was $10,000 to the good, and they were off and running.
Doing all the back-office jobs included sales, and she thought she had a good elevator pitch until one day a physician asked her what her staff did for COPD patients. “Well I’d have to talk to our nurses – I’m not a clinician,” she told him.
The physician continued with more medical questions, peppered with unfamiliar acronyms, “and I’m thinking, I’m an accountant. I don’t know about health care.”
The next morning, that began to change. For two weeks she did ride-alongs with clinical staff. She asked to watch what they did and told them, “While we’re riding between patients, teach me what we do in a home. Teach me how we make a difference for patients.”
Two decades later she still describes in detail that first visit to an east Fort Worth home in a run-down neighborhood. The woman didn’t have any family. The nurse checked the mostly empty refrigerator and opened the pantry sparsely stocked with high salt and high sugar foods that were cheap but counter to her diabetes and other conditions.
“The lady lived alone, she had lots of co-morbid conditions, none of which meant anything to me. But what I noticed was the way she hugged her nurse,” April said.
“I thought, that’s pretty cool. We went to the next home and I thought, this is super cool. These people have no one if not for us. I just started to think this seems like the kind of thing you’d do as a mission, not a job.”
Around the Encompass classroom, heads begin to nod. “By the afternoon, my brain was exploding,” she tells them. Her conversation with the nurse shifted.
“Can we talk about you?” she asked. “How did you get here?”
Everybody’s story was similar, she said. Nurses had worked 12-hour hospital shifts until they couldn’t take that anymore, only to move to nursing homes. “That was worse,” they told her. “So I’m here now. And this is not awful.”
That description stayed with her. “What if I could make it better than not awful?” she thought. “What if people could say, ‘this is the best job I ever had’?” She recognized that using people up and throwing them out was not just an immoral business practice, it was not sustainable.
“We need to pour into them,” she said. “I don’t know about health care, but I know how to take care of people – give them tools and resources and benefits, let them be a mom and a nurse and a person. Figuring out how to do that – that was the foundation of our culture.”
Liberty grew, propelled by her dogged commitment to efficiency and to a company culture that was committed to a better way to care, even though those words were not yet a mission statement.
In 1997, just five years in, she accepted an offer to sell to a publicly held corporation, a $40 million opportunity she quickly concluded was a mistake.
“It was nothing like our company – the culture was ‘use them up’ – nothing patient-centric about it,” she said. “The CEO was foul-mouthed, dropping obscenities in every other sentence. And I thought, ‘I have to build a wall of protection around my people.’ ”
After 11 months, the new corporate leaders got tired of April’s wall of protection and fired her – on the day her second child, Luke, was born. Initially a non-compete clause kept her from starting another company in the health care field, so she began consulting. Soon, however, the foul-mouthed CEO went to prison for Medicare fraud and the company was in bankruptcy, negating the non-compete. She began hiring back her old staff, buying many of the businesses for whom she was consulting, and in 1998 Encompass Home Health was born. “A Better Way to Care” was not adopted as the official mission until 2006, but was deeply ingrained in the new company from the outset.
Process. That better way had defined the culture April built at Liberty and was re-building at Encompass, but “culture follows process,” she reminds employees.
Encompass grew rapidly, and she determined that maintaining seamless and consistent processes across the company’s locations was its biggest challenge. An innovative software platform making use of handheld devices provided the solution.
“If the process is chaotic, no matter how nice you are it doesn’t work,” she said. “If you can create really smooth processes so your job is not crisis management 24/7, then we can lay our culture over that and it can take root.”
Ultimately, the tool and process built for Encompass was spun off in 2001 and rebuilt from the ground up as Homecare HomeBase. Four years later they added a hospice service line. April remains CEO of Homecare HomeBase as well as Encompass Home Health, though HCHB was sold to Hearst Corporation in 2013. Today, HCHB is the technology platform for about 38 percent of the home care industry and about 26 percent of hospice. Nine of the 10 largest home care companies and seven of the 10 largest hospice providers are powered by HCHB.
None of this was part of her plan.
Generous. That’s the word often used by ACU president Dr. Phil Schubert (’91) and others on the ACU campus.
“If you’d told me when I was a senior that we’d have a major part in contributing to significant infrastructure on the ACU campus I would have said, ‘That won’t happen,’ ” April said in a 2014 video announcing the Vision in Action (VIA) initiative.
But it did happen. Their $37 million gift –$25 million for Wildcat Stadium, $7 million for College of Business Administration professorships and other endowments, and $5 million for the Robert R. and Kay Onstead Science Center – jump-started a $95 million transformation of facilities for the sciences and for athletics.
Luke James, her young colleague at Encompass, recognized April’s generosity long before she and Mark became ACU’s largest-ever benefactors. In fact, he says their $37 million gift is “nothing compared to her generosity of spirit.”
Mark told similar stories in his tribute speech at the Outstanding Alumnus of the Year luncheon in February 2018. He told about an 85-year-old patient named Owen who called April one day and said he wanted to meet her, so she went to his home in Palestine, Mark said.
She told Owen to call her any time. He lost his wife, became frail and lonely. April stayed in touch, even stepping out of important meetings to take his calls. She supported him financially and became his best friend.
Mark told about a conversation April had on a weary flight home after a busy travel day. She sat next to a man who began talking about a Christian organization that takes care of wounded war veterans. April got details and as they were walking off the plane, she quietly handed him a check to go build a house for the next soldier in need.
Luke described her as one of the most generous people he’s ever met, one who models the James 4:17 reminder, “If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.”
“If she comes into the knowledge of good she can do, she really believes she should do it,” he said. “She’s been successful because she’s been faithful, beginning with very little and now coming into a lot.”
Faithfulness – in a little and in a lot – also underpins April’s approach as the new chair of ACU’s Board of Trustees. She believes that coming from a business where “we always have to figure out how to do more with less” will inform her leadership, “because patients won’t accept a lower quality of care.”
“I don’t think it’s a business,” she said of the university. “As much as I would like it to be sometimes, I recognize it’s not.”
But she does believe her experience in delivering a better way to care is relevant: caring for students, caring for faculty and staff, caring for the university through its shared governance.
“I think that’s where the things I’ve done and seen can help us evolve our model of governance into one that I hope drives a more healthy dialogue about oversight and accountability,” she said. She likens that model to a Venn diagram where linked circles of responsibility of the faculty, administration and board overlap in the middle.
“It’s in those intersecting circles where we dialogue. The most important stuff lives at the intersection. Everything else we do separately is more peripheral,” she said.
She brings new perspectives to the role because of her age, and as the parent of a current student (sophomore Luke), recent grad (2017 alumna Ashlyn) and a high school senior (Allie).
“I believe in my heart the promise of Jeremiah 29:11, that God is here to prosper us, not to harm us, and to give us hope and a future,” she said.
For more than 20 years God has honored that promise every day of her venture in home health care, she said.
“As board chair, I hear that promise ringing in my head again, a promise to prosper and not harm us, a promise of a hope and a future.”
And all of that is part of her plan.
April Anthony’s kids know what goes into their CEO-mom’s balancing act – and what’s more, they approve. READ MORE
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