Growing with Intention
In extraordinary times, Reliable Medical’s CEO Katie Stevens sees opportunities to care for both clients and employees
- By Laurie Watanabe
- Dec 14, 2021
It is hard to imagine a more intense trial by fire than the one Katie Stevens has faced the last two years.
A veteran of the Complex Rehab Technology (CRT) industry, Stevens spent nearly 14 years at National Seating & Mobility, most recently as its Regional VP of Operations. In January 2020, Stevens became the VP of Operations for Reliable Medical, a CRT and home medical equipment (HME) provider headquartered in Minneapolis.
Soon after, of course, the world was engulfed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Stevens served as VP of Operations in a year of uncertainty and change. Then, in January 2021, Stevens became Reliable Medical’s CEO.
Preserving a People-Centered Culture
While 2021 saw the world battling back against COVID-19, it was still a challenging year marked by new realities and the need to create new ways of accomplishing everyday tasks at home and in the workplace. As Reliable Medical’s new CEO, Stevens was tasked with leading 15 branch offices across seven states: Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin.
In June, Reliable Medical was named a 2021 Top Workplace in Minnesota for the seventh year in a row — an honor Stevens said at the time was especially rewarding. She hadn’t been sure the company would win in 2021 “after what had been a difficult COVID year for every business. We’ve had to make some changes. I thought this might be the first year out of seven that we might not be chosen as a Top Workplace, and I understood, based on all the changes that had occurred.
“But I think there was a level of trust based on our actions during that difficult COVID year, [and] morale remains high. Despite my being new to my role, people bought into what our leadership team had been building.”
That includes, Stevens pointed out, embracing Reliable Medical’s history as a “smaller, family-run organization” and preserving the company’s people-centered culture.
“There was a real focus on a culture of connectivity, and having fun events, and knowing one another,” Stevens said of the company’s history. “And I think that’s certainly a core part of our culture as we move forward and expand in scale as an organization.”
Reliable Medical continued to grow in 2021, but Stevens noted that growth is not the only goal the organization has.
“Our current management team is deeply invested in a redefined mission, where we’re not just looking at improving the lives of our customers, but really committing to improving the lives of our team,” Stevens explained. “For us, that goes beyond connectivity and having fun. We’ve spent the last 18 months focusing heavily on quality of life: flexibility in terms of scheduling and work environments, increasing levels of pay, becoming a more competitive employer in terms of not just compensation but benefits, and extending some of the benefits that maybe historically have been for more tenured employees or more senior employees to even the newer members of our team. I think we’ve taken a more generous approach out of the sincerity of wanting to improve lives.
“I think a lot of Complex Rehab and HME companies talk about improving lives of our customers, and that’s always going to be important. But we’ve really dedicated ourselves to becoming a destination employer, not just for ATPs, but for the entire support team and everybody we consider a part of our family. It’s been an interesting evolution from being a family-owned organization to a reimagining of what family means… what our family values are.”
An Accelerated Evolution
In fact, Stevens says the pandemic “accelerated an evolution” for Reliable Medical that has been beneficial “in terms of the ways we were embracing technology, embracing remote work and more flexible schedules and formats that I think employees desire. Of course, our immediate priority was keeping our team and our customers safe, so before there were even any mandates, we started moving people home [to work]. People who could be home were given that option, and many of them have actually preferred that format and have found that it achieves greater work-life balance, and we’ve really embraced that. While it was a challenging year, I think some of the evolution it accelerated and some of the perspective it gave us actually helped our organization in the long run.”
In the early portion of the pandemic, Stevens said Reliable Medical focused on what she calls an intentional rebuild of the business. “What I mean by that is we had a financial impact and clinic closures, and we had some of those lean months that others experienced,” she noted. “But it gave us a crystalized understanding of where our weaknesses were, where our opportunities were, and how our employees were feeling. It forced a lot of that conversation.
“I’ve heard the phrase when the river is low, you find all the rocks. As the tide has begun rising again, we have a better course set so we’re able to navigate around those rocks. I think over the last 12 months, we’ve established the best leadership team that I personally have ever had the pleasure to work alongside, and we’ve added a lot of business intelligence and operational tools to the company, and we’ve grown our team and presence pretty significantly, despite all of the restrictions.”
Stevens added that some good things have emerged: “While it certainly was a challenging year and one that many of us want soon to forget, for us it was an opportunity to reinvest as an organization and redefine our culture and mission. And our rebuild both in terms of recovery of business volume and else wise has been one with a lot of attention and a lot of sincerity.”
As for growing the company, Stevens said Reliable Medical is taking a thoughtful approach: “Certainly, we’re excited about bringing our mission to new places and partnerships. In my mind and in the minds of our leadership team, we occupy a somewhat unique, but increasingly meaningful position in the industry, because we’re a very culture-focused organization. Maintaining connectivity and engagement with our field is really only possible in a meaningful way with a leaner group.”
Therefore, Stevens said, Reliable Medical isn’t just looking to acquire every available CRT or HME business: “As we grow, we want to grow with intention. For me, that means two things. Yes, we’re seeking partnerships, but really only where there is genuine cultural alignment. We’ve walked away from a couple of potential acquisitions because my perception was that they might deteriorate our culture.
“It’s important that we keep our mission intact as we pursue growth. For that reason we have a respectful integration process that actually embraces the ideas of our partners and doesn’t dismantle their process or what made their organization special and what was working in their market. And then the other thing outside of finding the right partners is it’s about growing at a pace that doesn’t compromise our team’s quality of life. Many members of our management have been on the other side of that, and we don’t want to place so much pressure on growth that we experience deterioration of culture that sort of inevitably follows that focus.”
Progress in a World of Change
Stevens is proud of what Reliable Medical has accomplished the last two years and excited about looking forward.
“We have financial strengths,” she said. “We have strong momentum. We’re excited about that. But ultimately, our mission is what’s driving us, and we think success follows that if it’s a genuine commitment. We’re not looking to conquer the world here. We’re not talking about some of the same growth that we’ve seen other companies enjoy. We want to be selective and intentional, and we’re not looking to get too big to maintain and keep our arms around our culture.”
The entire Reliable Medical family is anticipating being able to see more of each other in person, though the work-from-home model created as an answer to the pandemic won’t completely go away. “We’ve really embraced remote work. We’re looking at modified schedules and allowing certain departments to work a four-day work week. We’re really wanting to represent progress in this world of change. We’re thinking very open mindedly and flexibly around what that looks like in the future. A lot of our teams, despite the reopening and the vaccines being made available to them, have remained home, and we support that. It’s working well for them, it’s working well for their families, and if that means keeping good people on our team, then we support it.
“Of course, our culture of connectivity is one that remains important to us. As we move more fully out of COVID, we’re excited to be planning more events and gatherings, not just for our ATPs, but for all of our team. For us, those relationships and that feeling of belonging is important. So while we’re very embracing of the technology that’s allowed us to move folks to a remote work environment, we want to make sure we don’t lose the feeling that we’re working alongside family and knowing one another personally.”
Future growth will continue along those same people-first lines, Stevens added. “Certainly our growth is not just looking at partnerships. It’s probably even more heavily finding the right team members and opening locations where that makes sense and helping to develop our existing locations. It’s not a one-size-fits-all strategy.
“It feels almost like organic growth, the way we’re approaching these partnerships. Meaningful growth to us is a few great partnerships in a few great markets every year — that’s the pace we’re looking at. Our current financial partner is a long-term investor, so we’re not looking to just build the company and flip it or sell it. We’re actually looking at a long-term growth plan.”
Stevens indicated that the last two years have made her optimistic for the future. “We’re pretty excited about the culture that we’re fostering. The folks that have joined our team have a variety of experiences with companies of different sizes and have landed here because they have a sincere belief in what we’re building: a great and sincere culture.
“We set out with that mission wholeheartedly. Our pace allows us to be selective and allows us to talk to a lot of folks and find the ones we know are going to support what we’re doing and fit in well on our team. That’s not just ATPs and partners; that’s leaders as well. It’s a matter of quality over quantity.”