Have Clipboard, Will Travel

Faced with diminishing Medicare reimbursements, this Minnesota ambulance fleet turned to an age-old method of keeping their revenues up: hiring out its expertise.

Because HealthEast has extensive experience outfitting ambulances and police cars, the electrical shop can handle virtually anything. The technicians have received factory training from major police and fire accessory outfitters like Road Rescue and Wheel Coach, and actually handle warranty work for both manufacturers. In fact, competing ambulance services often end up bringing their vehicles to HealthEast for their warranty work.

"The PM program goes further," Kabat explains. "We've been at 10,000 miles for about a year and a half, and we've been noticing with oil analysis that we can actually go further. We're looking to pull it out maybe 15 to 20 thousand miles. The only reason I think 20 thousand is about the maximum is at that point you're wearing out brakes and tires and things like that. The oil might still be good but you've still got to bring it back because of the wear and tear they get."

For Kabat and everyone else in the shop, quality maintenance is a personal matter.

"We work on my car," he says with a grin. "Everybody in the shop brings their cars in. A lot of our EMTs and paramedics bring theirs in, and I get calls daily from all the hospitals and care centers saying, 'Hey, can you get my car in?'

"Any HealthEast employee anywhere in the system gets a discount," Kabat explains. "They bring it in, they can get their car done while they're at work, and save some money, so they're happy. Then you find out they had their friends get something done on their car, so we get more and more business just by word of mouth."


It's not just vehicle owners who are coming to HealthEast for help; now vehicle manufacturers are knocking on the door as well.

Kabat and Gruening are excited about a new relationship with DaimlerChrysler wherein the OEM is directly addressing some of HealthEast's suspension and acoustics issues on their two Sprinter ambulances, and HealthEast is helping the OEM design a more durable emergency vehicle.

"We're in a position that, geographically, is of interest to DaimlerChrysler," says Gruening. "They want to work with us, so we've recently had a visit here to begin that."

That could prove to be a very fruitful relationship, as the fleet plans to add more Sprinters to the mix. "As far as maintenance goes," Kabat says, "the Sprinters pay for themselves."

For Kabat, the most satisfying part of the job is knowing that the ambulances he works on are helping keep people alive. And the most stressful part of the job is knowing that the ambulances he works on are helping keep people alive.

"It has to be correct," he says. "Comebacks have to be kept to zero, basically.

"When I started here three years ago, I left a job that I was unhappy at," Kabat recalls. "I was stressed out; I'd go home, and stress would go into my family. But every day I wake up and as I come here I know I'm going to have fun at work, because everybody is so great. And at the end of the day, even if I had the worst day, nothing goes right, I know that all the trucks that are on the road are helping people.

"When I worked at other places," he says, "when I did a brake job' you got a brake job. Here, you do a PM on an ambulance, you take care of something, every time that ambulance leaves the lot it's helping people; it's doing good for the community."


Is creating a retail maintenance business going to work for any fleet? Probably not, but the folks at HealthEast have certainly made it work for them.

In fact, business is so good, Ron Gruening finds himself facing "a good new problem:"

"We have added staff and added hours; our physical limitation has been reached," he says. "So, this summer, we're looking at moving into an adjacent property, probably four times this size. If that happens for us, I'll just have to reinvent the wheel, just make the wheel bigger and faster."

That's a pretty amazing turnaround for a maintenance organization that was considering cutting staff and services eight years ago. Turns out, these people aren't just good at fixing vehicles; they're pretty talented businessmen as well.

"If somebody was thinking about diversifying, my advice would be to really think through it and develop a comprehensive business plan before they just put a shingle on their door and say, 'We're open for retail business,' says Anderson. "It's a completely different animal from managing your own fleet.

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