Atlantic Respiratory Services (ARS) is among South Carolina’s most successful independently owned and operated home respiratory equipment suppliers. With locations in Charleston and Walterboro, it is the oldest and largest independent respiratory healthcare player in the Low Country area, a picturesque geographic and tourist rich region along the South Carolina coast that includes the counties of Charleston, Dorchester, Berkeley and Colleton.
Home HealthCare TODAY went behind the scenes to interview TJ Thompson, president of Atlantic Respiratory Services, to look at a uniquely successful American home healthcare business, how it grew, why it grew and where it is headed.
Founders Jim and TJ Thompson started Atlantic Respiratory Services in the late 1980’s after looking for a business they could run together. TJ had earned an MBA from the Citadel, Charleston’s world famous military academy and before starting ARS she had been putting that MBA to good use, working as relocation director for Merrill Lynch. Jim’s background includes extensive travel in Europe and South Africa for various business opportunities, fire fighting experience with the Baton Rouge, Louisiana fire department, and service with the U.S. Navy.
Jim also had what TJ refers to as “a great eye” for art and marketing that has played a significant role in the growth of the company. It was Jim who developed Atlantic Respiratory’s distinctive yellow wings and big oxygen logo, a memorable image emblazoned on the company’s seven delivery trucks.
Known as the ‘Air Patrol’, the logo on the trucks has given Atlantic Respiratory Services great recognition throughout the Charleston and Low Country region. As the ARS trucks crisscross four counties, this hard-to-miss yellow and blue logo against a black background has patients who want to “breathe better” in South Carolina thinking of Atlantic Respiratory Services first. Artistic talent runs deep in the Thompson household. Both their children are accomplished artists in their own right.
HHCT: Please tell us about Atlantic Respiratory Services. How did you get the company name?
TJ: As for the company name, honestly we wanted a name that started with an A so we would be at the top of any lists and we are located on the Atlantic Ocean so we liked Atlantic Respiratory. Also, we have been a specialist in respiratory from the day we opened.
HHCT: How big an area does ARS service? What is the Low Country?
TJ: At this time, our focus is South Carolina. Atlantic covers four counties in Coastal South Carolina or the ‘Low Country.” The term Low Country was originally coined to mean the coastal part of SC below the Fall Line and the part of the state above the Fall Line was considered the Up Country.
Charleston residents in particular are extremely proud of being from the Low Country. I was born and raised in Charleston and I’m very proud of my city and my heritage. Charleston is consistently ranked one of the top destinations in the world. In 2015 Conde Naste magazine rated Charleston the Number 1 City in the US and Travel and Leisure ranked Charleston the second best city in the world and the number one city in America and Canada.
HHCT: Where would you rank ARS in size compared to your respiratory competitors in South Carolina and maybe against other state HME/DME’s also?
TJ: I’m not actually sure where we rank in terms of our com.petitors overall, but we are the oldest and largest indepen.dent respiratory provider in the Low Country. We have a big presence in the Low Country and in the industry.
HHCT: The ARS logo looks really cool. Can you give us the story behind it?
TJ: My husband is extremely creative and artistic and he created the logo with a nod to both his military and firefighting backgrounds. As with most great ideas, it was simply something that ‘came to him’ and the shape of our vehicles is reminiscent of the old military MASH vehicles. We both love the yellow and black combination. The goal was to have something that wouldn’t be too ‘medical’ but would stand out and give us exceptional brand recognition. The Air Patrol fleet has been a big hit in the area. Patients don’t always remember the name of their HME provider but they always remember that they are with the company with the ‘wings’. Patients and their families (especially children and grandchildren) love to see the ‘Air Patrol’ pull up to their house.
HHCT: Speaking about artistic talent, you have two children and a daughter-in-law with exceptional art talent. Tell us about them and are they working in the business now or plan to come into the business someday?
TJ: We have two boys but they are both artists living in NY and have their own careers. Taylor, our oldest, is an accom.plished graphic design artist and film editor and Cheyney, our youngest, is a world-renowned painter and sculptor. Our daughter-in-law, Eileen Quinlan, is also an internationally known artist who specializes in abstract photography.
HHCT: Your husband has a strong military and firefighting background. Can you tell us how that experience has influenced your company?
TJ: Jim was a Petty Officer in communications in the Navy and served in the Baton Rouge fire department for four years. I think the work ethic and discipline learned from his military and fire fighting backgrounds have absolutely carried over into the way we run ARS. He is very interested and involved in safety and efficiencies.
HHCT: ARS currently has a fleet of seven trucks. Tell us about them and how many miles they might rack up per day or month?
TJ: I would say we usually have three-four on the road at any one time. The mileage varies depending on the tech and the route… it can be anywhere from 900 miles/month to 2000-2300 miles/month. We rotate the vehicles based on mileage and route as well. One person oversees the ‘fleet’ management but each technician is responsible for the daily and weekly maintenance and cleanliness of his/her own vehicle—it’s a team effort.
HHCT: What are you most proud of at ARS?
TJ: We are most proud of our team of employees. Our employees demonstrate professionalism and compassion to our patients, their families, their caregivers, and our referral sources. Because of our employees, we are able to give back to the community, take care of our patients and provide a valuable resource to local physicians and referral sources—without them we wouldn’t have the image and the reputation we have been able to build over the last 27 years.
We pride ourselves on treating each of our patients like a member of our own family.
HHCT: What are the biggest challenges you face in the business?
TJ: I would say our biggest challenges are Competitive Bidding, low reimbursement, audits, documentation and compliance requirements, and the rising health insurance costs for our employees.
We have had to dedicate a full-time person just to handle audits even though our error rates are very low. The additional administrative burden makes it difficult to dedicate our resources to patient care where it should be.
Being a respiratory provider, Medicare patients are a large part of our demographic and between the reimbursement cuts, Competitive Bidding and the additional administrative burden of audits, we are finding it harder and harder to continue to service these patients.
We are actively working, through AAHomecare and VGM, to try to affect change and I encourage all providers to get involved.
HHCT: Where do you see the greatest growth prospects for for home healthcare in general over the next 5 years?
TJ: I believe the sleep business is the largest area of growth for us as a respiratory company. The baby boomers are of the age that they may be candidates for sleep therapy and OSA is one of the most undiagnosed diseases in the US today. Sleep affects your health and quality of life in such dramatic ways, we can definitely change people’s lives by getting them therapy when they need it.
HHCT: How do you advertise? What was the smartest thing you ever did to grow the business?
TJ: Our Air Patrol fleet is probably our best advertisement—the branding and name recognition we receive from our vehicles has been enormous. In addition, our employees advertise for us every day by providing exceptional service. Also, word of mouth from our patients and referral sources, our marketing representatives and social media (website, Facebook) all provide great marketing for ARS.
HHCT: You mentioned that your employees have made it possible for you and ARS to give back to the community? Can you elaborate?
TJ: We sponsor several local sports teams and schools. I am currently a Lung Force cabinet member for our local chapter of the American Lung Association and I am on the HME/RT Council for AAHomecare.
In addition, we have always felt very strongly about providing respiratory equipment for indigent patients and those without insurance whenever we can. We also donate nebulizers to our local schools.
Also, the respiratory students at Trident Technical College do their DME rotation every semester at Atlantic. We have each student for one week so they can learn about homecare as part of their curriculum. The director of the Respiratory Department has always said she wanted her students to learn from ‘the best’.
HHCT: Any interesting trips coming up or special hobbies?
TJ: We’ve always been involved in racing, and we’ve been attending the Indy 500 for over 30 years. In 1996, we helped sponsor our friend Davy Jones in the Indy 500 through another one of our companies and he finished in second place. Our close family friend, Ed Carpenter, has been the Pole Sitter for the last two of the last three years and is the only Owner-Driver in the race this year.
My husband loves to golf. We both share a love of racing, sailing, boating and travel. We also both love diving.
HHCT: What do you do to help get physician and other referrals?
TJ: We focus on building relationships with the physicians and their staff. We want to make their jobs easier. We also provide education to them on the equipment and insurance requirements. The referral sources know they can make one call to ARS and their patients are taken care of. We understand that when they recommend our company to a patient, we become an extension of their reputation. We take that responsibility very seriously.
HHCT: Have shows such as Medtrade and state healthcare organizations been useful?
TJ: Absolutely. We are members of AAHomecare and our state association, SCMESA, in addition to Medgroup and VGM. We try to go to Medtrade at least once a year. The interaction with other company owners and industry experts and the education provided are invaluable.
HHCT: Is there any particular saying or belief that inspires you and your husband every day at work?
TJ: We have been truly blessed to be in the respiratory business for 27 years and to have the opportunity to care for thousands and thousands of patients and their families. We believe in the Golden Rule. And we believe that every patient and every employee should be treated as if they were a member of our own family.
We try to live by biblical principles both in business and in life. A scripture that we try to live by is: ‘Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and He will establish your plans.’ ~ Proverbs 16:3