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Business Observer Friday, Jul. 8, 2016 2 years ago

Slow down

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The challenge of managing fast growth nearly swallowed entrepreneur Jennifer Phelps. She fought back with a courageous move.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Health care executive Jennifer Phelps was in an enviable spot in 2012.

The company she founded in 2008 while in graduate school, Tampa-based Engage Behavioral Health, was overflowing with clients. The firm had 50 employees, and nearly $2 million a year in revenues. Its niche in providing Applied Behavior Analysis therapy to help children with autism, Asperger's syndrome or developmental disabilities resonated — with kids and their parents.

Then Phelps made one of the gutsiest calls of her career: She shut the doors to new patients. Engage Behavioral Health, she says, grew too fast. It didn't have the right internal systems and processes to provide good service for clients. She also believed the company's hiring and retention strategy was jagged and hasty, and was a long-term risk to the company's mission to create lasting change.

“The demand for service was there,” says Phelps. “But we had to help the back end catch up with the front end.”

Phelps, 36, led the catch-up mission. The company kept its current client list, but it turned away new ones, referring parents to other entities or providers. For Phelps, who knew she wanted to work with autistic children when she was 12, when she sketched out a clinic, it was painful to turn away people in need.

Four years later Engage Behavioral Health, now with 85 employees, remains in fast growth mode and has ambitious plans to expand, both in and out of Florida. It had $3.67 million in revenues in 2015, up 11.5% from $3.29 million in 2014. The company works with most insurance companies, at least ones that accept ABA therapies. It also takes Medicaid and private pay clients.

More important to Phelps than financial growth, the temporary shutdown of the company proved successful, in resetting hiring systems and getting things in order to prepare for sustainable growth. “We continue to grow rapidly,” she says. “The key was to get our processes under control.”

One of the first moves Phelps made in 2012 was to enhance the company's electronic health records, an extensive process. She later hired Tampa-based Firm Solutions, a consulting firm that worked on employee policies, training, HR, conflict resolution and other aspects that got sidetracked in the fast-and-furious growth stage.

Engage Behavioral Health also implemented a personality profile program called True Colors. It's a variation of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, and in this case a color — blue, orange, gold and green — match where a person excels.

The colors help Phelps figure out where to assign managers and caseworkers, based on their skill sets and personalities. For workplace culture, True Colors, says Phelps, identifies a variety of important factors, such as who likes to communicate over text and who prefers email. It's especially helpful, she adds, with younger employees. “It has created an environment where people can identify and accept their different skill sets, as well as style of communication,” Phelps says.

Engage Behavioral Health has three offices in the Tampa area. It has another clinic in Tallahassee, where Phelps founded the company while in graduate school at Florida State. Possible expansion locations include Port Charlotte, Sarasota and Orlando. Phelps is also considering an office in Georgia.

The root of the growth potential, beyond the forced shutdown, is Applied Behavior Analysis therapy. The approach, says Phelps, is based on how each client's environment influences his or her behavior, and what techniques and principals to use to increase or decrease those behaviors over time.

The success with ABA therapy, and the success with the firm's calibration, drives Phelps to aim even higher with Engage Behavioral Health, where goals aren't only financial. “I didn't start a business to blow the roof off sales,” she says. “I did it to help families.”

Follow Mark Gordon on Twitter @markigordon

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