Most are aware the Chinese character for “crisis” is a compound of the words “danger” and “opportunity.”  Starting a business is definitely a crisis, but how we view the danger and the opportunity and respond to it is what separates those who take a dive or just survive from those who thrive.  Jim Barfield, president/CEO, and his partners at Luke & Associates stepped through that portal in 2004 and seized an opportunity to fill an obvious need in the health care services provided to our military.  Now they are taking that experience and expanding into other markets.  Their success is a story students of business will probably be examining and writing about for years to come.

SCB: Update us on what Luke & Associates has done over the past twelve months since you were named SpaceCoast Business magazine’s 2010 Business Leader of the Year.

JB: Last year we were the Inc. 500’s third ‘Fastest Growing Company’ and number one in government services.  Our revenues were around $85 million and our staff was probably half of what it is now.  This year, we will do no less than $120 million, but we’re ranked a little lower in the Inc. 500’s Fastest Growing Companies because our growth has slipped from 16,000 percent to 1,400 percent.

SCB (laughing): How do you live with yourself?

JB: I get that a lot.  Also we have added a number of people to beef up our marketing and business development side, as well as personnel to help lay the foundation for our expansion into other areas.

SCB: Let’s look at that.  A year ago you talked about using the systems (strategies) and software you created to deliver services to the military and move that expertise into the community health care arena.  How is that going?

JB: Because we have to do such detailed background and experience evaluations for personnel providing care for our military, that kind of due diligence and database has direct application to the community health care arena.  It is a huge market, especially with the new laws going into effect.  We realized we could offer staffing for hospitals and large organizations all around the country, either as a headhunter with a fee-for-service or we could find the people and place them, but they function as our employees.  In addition we operate emergency rooms for the military, which also has direct application.  We are in the early stages of this process, but it requires a different approach.

SCB: At the Melbourne Art Show, I saw a trailer for the Tommy Baldwin Racing Team, with pictures of Geoff Bodine and the No. 35 car and No. 36 Dave Blaney.  Emblazoned on Bodine and the car was the Luke & Associates’ logo.  Is that part of that different approach?

JB: That whole thing is bizarre.  The marketing machine behind NASCAR is phenomenal.  Initially we thought, ‘We don’t need NASCAR, it doesn’t make sense.’  But we agreed to go up to Charlotte to talk to the NASCAR people and discovered that the fan demographics have shifted dramatically.

SCB: How so?
A lot of fans, the majority in fact, are professionals and many are in the health care industry.  Then we found out that there are no health care providers sponsoring in NASCAR.  Interestingly, it isn’t about putting your name on the car; it is about all the other contacts you make through the NASCAR network.

When Geoff was qualifying at Daytona, the hits on our website went up almost 100 times.  This motivated us to expand into all the other social media arenas.  We actually are hiring additional marketing people to keep pace with this burgeoning interest and opportunity.  One thing is very clear, NASCAR wants you to succeed as a sponsor and they use every tool at their disposal to help you make meaningful, profitable contacts in your industry.  That is why DuPont has been at it for years and when Home Depot got in, Lowe’s had to follow.  We are using this to kick off our transition into the commercial/community health care arena and we picked races that are located in regions where there is a large health care presence.  Plus we see Geoff Bodine on ESPN in prime time talking about our company – how do you pay for that?

SCB: What other steps are you taking and how do you determine where you will expand next?

JB:  It is like stepping stones.  For instance, we may eventually consider buying some hospitals, because the new laws are going to hurt the nonprofits.  To get there you have to find the right people; we have that process nailed.  Next, you have to have the right systems in place to manage it; again we have worked through that step.  Then you have to be able to purchase the right materials cost effectively, which either we can do or we could outsource.  When you examine all these foundational requirements, we see that we will soon be in a position to rescue failing hospitals.  The process is looking at the steps necessary to accomplish the goal and see what you have or need to develop to move forward.

From the beginning we have been opportunity-oriented.  We started a company in the worst of times, but then and now we are not looking at what we can’t do, but what we can.  Fundamental to our thinking is the reality that companies don’t build cars or airliners, people on the line build them.  If we find and empower the right people for the job, we’ll succeed.  We have built a process that is so sound to locate, recruit and retain those people that the possibilities are limitless.  Whether you are looking for a neurosurgeon or an electrical engineer the process is pretty much the same.

[Health First CEO] Mike Means said, “You manage processes, but you lead people.”  We could staff for other companies, but we want to assemble the people who can be given the opportunity to flourish in businesses we are building.

SCB: There are a lot of employed and unemployed people that are looking at starting their own businesses.  What are the key points you would give to anyone taking such a leap?

JB: Number one, I would get good counsel; you don’t have to accept all of it, but get it.  Secondly, have a long serious discussion with your family.  Regardless of the hours you think you are going to be working, you will work longer and harder than you think; it is a sacrifice which everyone has to make.  Third, don’t get wrapped up in failure, focus on success.  If you make a mistake don’t dwell on it, you don’t have time.  If you are looking back, that is the way you are headed.  Success is a matter of trial and error.  Next, be flexible.  You may get into it and find what you thought was the right approach or arena isn’t it, so adjust as you go.  Finally, plan to be broke for a long time.  Either you are all in or you’re not.

SCB:  How would you recommend discovering or uncovering the type of business to go into?

JB:  Be patient, find out what you are really interested in.  If it captures your interests, you are going to be motivated to make it succeed.

SCB: What were the questions you asked from various sources from which you sought counsel?

JB: I still remember the most important question someone asked me when I went to them for counsel.  After the typical due diligence questions, he asked, “How long can you go without getting a paycheck?”  That was brutally honest, because when you start a company you have to put your money back in.  In addition you have to hire to support your growth, before you pay yourself.  Therefore you have to restrain yourself from eating your own profits.  What is more, no one is going to lend you money to pay your own salary.

SCB: What were the initial steps you took once you identified the market you were targeting?

JB: We spent a year building the infrastructure in terms of personnel, IT and accounting systems to be competitive and to know exactly what our costs would be.  That way you know what the actual numbers will be.  It is still a risk, but it is a calculated risk.  Therefore when you bid you know your overhead and your profit already.  The issue isn’t, at what price can I win the project, but at what point am I making a profit.

SCB: On a different track, what are the keys to maintaining your personal integrity and moral compass when experiencing the kind of success and pressures you deal with every day?

JB: I try and surround myself with people who know they have permission to tell me when my attitudes or actions are inconsistent with who I am and want to be.  I don’t want to be insulated from that kind of input.  Also, I ask myself, ‘if I lost it all tomorrow, would I continue to be the same person I am today?’  In other words, what is my identity really based on?  It is a relentless pursuit of wisdom as the prize that makes the success a blessing not a liability.  And honestly, I’m not sure how I would have handled all this when I was 40.

SCB: What do you enjoy most about the success you have realized?

JB: Besides being able to drive a really cool muscle car?  Without a doubt it is being able to have the resources to help others, both individuals and organizations, when a need presents itself.  And I am not alone in that; there are some incredibly generous people in this community.  But that is an awesome privilege.