Insights from the Ackerman family on 35 years of community service
by Kristin Easterling
April 2, 2018

Steve Ackerman founded Spectrum Medical in 1983, after the HME company he worked for was sold to another company. Spectrum serves the Washington, D.C., metro area from the Silver Spring, Maryland, store.

Ackerman, CEO, and his wife, Carol, have three grown children. Two children, Justin and Meredith (Hendrie), work at Spectrum each day. Justin is the operations manager for the organization, and Meredith runs financial services and human resources as the chief financial officer. In the 35 years the company has been in business, the HME industry has changed significantly. “When we started,” said Ackerman, “insurance reimbursement comprised 90 percent plus of the type of business we were engaged in. That figure is now below 35 percent.” Spectrum has been an approved Medicare provider since 1984.

Competitive bidding, audits, reimbursement requirements and other issues have led to the decrease in reimbursable offerings at Spectrum and, Ackerman said, for providers across the industry. Ackerman said Spectrum, like others in the industry, is “actively working to diversify away from being Medicare dependent.”

Spectrum Medical offers a traditional mix of products to serve its customers, including wheelchairs, scooters, aids to daily living, beds, oxygen equipment and more. The product mix has remained relatively unchanged even as reimbursement has changed.

To celebrate the 35th anniversary of the store this year, the company is planning a cruise on the paddlewheel ship “The Cherry Blossom,” out of Alexandria, Virginia, with a gathering of old and new friends responsible for the company’s longevity.

Relationships and Culture

Managing family relationships in the workplace can be a challenge, but the Ackerman family has it down to an art. “Imagine you get to work with two of your very best friends on a daily basis,” said Ackerman. “Having said that, there is a definitely a different level of trust and responsibility in play to make this work. From 8:30 to 5:00, it’s about making Spectrum Medical the best it can be, and the rest of the time, it’s about family. I’m Steve during the day and Dad during nights and weekends.”

Justin echoed his father. “The best part of working with family every day is I really do love and have a wonderful relationship with my father and sister. With new colleagues, you never truly know what you are going to get; but with my dad and Meredith, we obviously have a long-history filled with trust and mutual respect. The challenges can be many, but mainly it’s separating family issues (good or bad) from the task at hand.”

“Working with family comes with an inherent trust and a unique natural rhythm,” said Meredith, emphasizing the separation of work and family time. “For me that has meant the ability to try new things and to take on bigger challenges without fear of having to simultaneously prove myself. The biggest challenge is setting boundaries and not bringing work up all the time when we are together.”

Any company relies on a warm and positive culture to thrive through tough times, and Spectrum Medical is no different. Ackerman describes the culture as “professionally relaxed,” and said the “millennial influence” on the company is keeping them current with technology and the best practices for employee retention.

“The critical mass of family members on the team has helped create a familial office culture," Meredith said. “Our team genuinely cares about each other and has a lot of fun together.”


It's Not All Business

Justin and Meredith at computerJustin and Meredith

What are you listening to?

STEVE: “I Can See Clearly Now” by Jimmy Cliff
MEREDITH: “Seeing Blind” by Niall Horan and Maren Morris
JUSTIN: “How I Built This” podcast with Guy Raz

What are you reading?

STEVE: “Leonardo da Vinci” by Walter Isaacson
MEREDITH: “The Zookeeper’s Wife” by Diane Ackerman
JUSTIN: The Wall Street Journal


Transitions—Personal and Professional

Justin came on board the Spectrum team in 2009 after graduating from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. “I wouldn’t say I always knew I was going to work in HME,” he said. “However, being around my father at work as a young boy and listening to him talk about the business, I’ve always had an interest in it. I decided to give it a try for a bit in college over the summers, and from there, I knew that this could be a great career for me, too.” In his spare time, Justin is a volunteer firefighter and EMT with the Bethesda Chevy Chase Rescue Squad.

For Meredith, working at Spectrum Medical was not originally on her radar. She spent five years in education, specifically with Teach For America. She taught Spanish at an alternative high school before joining the D.C. Regional team, raising funds and awareness for Teach For America. As she spoke with her dad about professional goals, “I could hear the gears turning as he realized that what I was looking to do was exactly the role Spectrum Medical was looking to fill,” she said. Meredith quickly realized that what she thought would be a temporary role was a career, joining the Spectrum team in 2015.

Family-owned companies can be passed from parent to child. (Or from owner to employees—read the story here.) At Spectrum, that transition is still far in the future, but Meredith and Justin are starting to take on some of the responsibilities of running the company for their father.

“Justin and I have the utmost respect for our father and what he has been able to do as an entrepreneur and small-business owner,” said Meredith. “Having been in the industry for 35 years, he has been through many of the ups and downs. We take every opportunity to learn from him and to absorb the wisdom he can impart. As Justin and I become more comfortable with our roles and our understanding of the industry, we have been able to take on more of the day-to-day operations.”

“My father will likely always have some foot in the door of the business,” said Justin. “As the founding owner, it’s definitely his baby, and he provides great strategic direction and historical context. This transition grew along with the roles Meredith and I have assumed. It hasn’t always been linear, but it occurred in several areas first that were a more natural fit.”

Training

Spectrum Medical offers onboarding orientation for new employees. Ackerman said he is a big fan of cross training and mentoring in the company, so each person learns other jobs. “We operate in an open office environment,” he said. “You can hear how more experienced people handle different inquiries.” The company also attends the HME tradeshow, Medtrade, and manufacturer-sponsored training events.

The Future of HME

With the HME industry constantly shifting and changing, where does the Spectrum team see it heading? Ackerman said the industry will continue to play a role in the quality of life for seniors. “The model will be different from what we are familiar with, and that is what is unsettling,” he said. “The staff at Medicare has the unenviable task of having to maintain a viable, relevant program with ever- declining resources. As an industry, we need to stay actively engaged with them, as a partner, to ensure the sustainability of the program. The current program is not sustainable. It is important for everyone to stay politically involved.”
Meredith was a bit more reserved. “While I am not sure how the structure will look in the face of the cuts that have been made, I am confident that with a continued focus on service and solutions, we will remain a critical part of the larger health care system.”

Spectrum Medical’s service to the Washington, D.C., area was built on Steve Ackerman’s vision. Today, the CEO said he realizes he needs more sleep than he did when he started the company, and looking back, he can see the miscalculations made over the years. But Ackerman also sees the successes. “I once thought my decision not to scale the business more aggressively was a mistake. However, in retrospect, the ability to stay lean and nimble is what has sustained us through some very difficult times.” With his family by his side and a strong retail offering, hopefully, the company’s service and care for the community will continue for many more years.


Career and Recruiting Advice

Care for the community cannot continue without new employees. Meredith and Justin have advice for both employers and employees in the HME industry.

Do you have any advice for young professionals choosing a career in HME?
MEREDITH:
The services we provide enable people to live more fulfilling and, in some cases, longer lives. As we look to the future of HME, we must always keep these high stakes at the forefront. There are many challenges facing our industry, and given the importance of the services we provide, we must develop a solutions orientation and take these challenges head-on through advocacy and innovation.

JUSTIN: I’m not sure this is specific to HME—but with all work, you should connect with others in the industry. This doesn’t just mean when you are looking for a job, but during and after your search. It is a small community of like-minded people who would be happy to talk to you about their careers and experience.

Do you have any advice for business owners recruiting young people onto their staff?
MEREDITH:
In my experience, millennials have a service orientation and are drawn to opportunities that offer them growth and a fast-paced environment. This makes the HME industry a perfect fit for many young people. My advice is to optimistically convey the unique ways in which they can play an important role today and in the future.

JUSTIN: It’s not necessarily a sexy industry. Most companies will never have the workspace of Google or the free meals of Facebook. However, there are lots of benefits that are important to all people—not just millennials. There truly is work-life balance. It is an opportunity to be a part of a strong, growing industry, and at the end of the day you are providing a critical service to people that brings personal satisfaction outside of just a paycheck. By leading with these hooks, I think owners can definitely show young people that this is a good place to be, now and in the future.