Rich Smith, VP and Co-Founder of Atlas MedStaff, on How One ER Travel Nurse Changed His Life

In this episode, I talk to Rich Smith, Vice President and Co-Founder of Atlas MedStaff, about how one ER visit 20 years ago with his sick baby changed the trajectory of his career. We talk about how to show up for frontline travel nurses during the pandemic, breaking the 8 to 5 mold, and looking towards the future with optimism.

Delohery: Welcome to the Staffing Show. I’m here today with Rich Smith of Atlas MedStaff. Rich, thanks so much for talking to me today.

Smith: Thanks for having me.

Delohery: First I just wanted to jump right in, you have a pretty touching story of how you got involved in the travel nursing industry, you’ve been after, for the past 15 years in the industry. But it sounds like you got started in ’99 with a personal story that happened to your family. Can you share that story with our listeners?

Smith: Yeah, my first interaction with a travel nurse was when my now 21-year-old was three months old. I was a brand new dad. She was my first daughter and came down with Influenza A and was really sick. And I took her to the ER at Children’s here in Omaha. And I’m sure I was probably hysterical, because I was in my mid 20s. I had no idea what I was doing. Probably had no business being a dad that young in the first place, but was what it was. So I end up in the ER and the nurse that took care of my daughter, Riley was so gentle and kind, not only to Riley who was very small, three months old baby, but to me as well, to hysterical dad, not knowing what to do.

And later come to find out as I’m talking to her that she’s not from here, she was a travel nurse. And I had no idea what that was. All I knew was the person that was standing across from me, helping my daughter was sent from the heavens. She was exactly everything that both of us needed at that time. And that story always, it stuck with me. And I was in the financial services industry at that time, working for Ameritrade people know it TD Ameritrade now, here in Omaha. And I was very happy. I had a lot of friends and it was a great job.

It was a lot of fun and I didn’t really anticipate changing industries whatsoever. But the guy that they brought in to run the department that I was in left and after about a year, he called me and said, “Hey, I just opened this company called Medical Solutions and we’re staffing travel nurses. Would you like to come and join us?” And instantly I was taken back to that time when that nurse helped me. And it made sense. It absolutely made sense in my head. Like, this is a move I need to make. No matter how happy I am, this makes sense in my head and I need to do this. Fast forward, this many, what, 17 years later now, here I am at Atlas.

Delohery: I love that story because, well, first your daughter pulled through and obviously she’s good now. She’s 21 now, but I love that story because it really highlights the way travel nurses show up for families in the time when they’re most in need. When the chips are really down, in hospitals that need them the most. And this year has been such a time when we need travel nurses so much because of the pandemic. And I’m wondering how you have changed your business or the way Atlas works in light of the heightened need for travel nurses during COVID-19.

Smith: We’ve adapted and changed Atlas in a lot of ways. It’s more of an evolution quite honestly, but just in general, that story never left me. And it was that one-on-one personal care that even to this day, I’ll never forget. And it is really the basis of everything that I did up to the point where I left Medical Solutions. Then, when I started at Atlas and eight years later, how we still operate. It’s still all about the end user, the traveler in the hospital that is making a difference in those patients’ lives.

Every single day, contracts are important. And all of the rest of that stuff is very important, but nothing is more important than the experience that that nurse has while he or she is on a contract because it directly impacts patient care. And it goes back to how I felt that that night.

Delohery: I like to ask people like you who are supporting travel nurses in this way, for specific ideas of how staffing firms can really get creative about how they’re supporting frontline nurses right now. So you mentioned that it’s been an evolution. How have you changed the way you support these nurses that are right there with patients during this rough time?

Smith: It’s all about their experience while they’re there. Happy employees are better employees. It’s just a constant through the employee, the hospital relationship or the employee-employer relationship. So one of the things that we started doing way early on was something called the Atlas adventure, where you may be going to, I’ll use Albuquerque, New Mexico, for example. I’ve never been there. I don’t know what there is to do there. Quite honestly, it sounds like an amazing place.

And you could go there as a traveler and just stay in your apartment, not necessarily do anything. But from our side, so we don’t withhold money from their paycheck, from our side, we take $400 and we plan an adventure for them. Maybe through conversation, you find out they’ve never been in a hot air balloon and they really want to go do that. We plan that adventure for them, and then we send them on that adventure. So it’s just one of those ways that we can, as much as that nurse is doing everything they can in the facility, make that contract everything that they want it to be outside of the facility.

Delohery: That’s amazing. And especially right now, and it’s a little bit harder to come by adventure. That sounds like the perfect thing to help nurses on the mind and relax after a hard day.

Smith: We’ve gotten really creative. Like concerts or baseball games or football games, we send a traveler to the super bowl. They weren’t super awesome seats, but they were there. Ironically it fit within the budget, that $400 budget. It’s one of those little things that we can do to make that experience better for them.

Delohery: I’m sure this year has had a lot of impact on you and your recruiters too, or recruiting remotely instead of in the office. What are some things that you’ve done to make that transition smoother?

Smith: So early on, and this was pre COVID, so pre pandemic, we realized that Omaha is a great place for employees, for our recruiter pool, but there are great people nationwide that can do the exact same job. And everything that we do is either online or over the phone right now. So the traditional butts in seats method of an agency or recruiting or whatever was just old and archaic to us. So we’ve always hired and worked towards and had that work from home mentality. And it was very simple things like everyone had the same laptop and the same docking station and that type of thing.

So when the pandemic happened, it really was just as easy as flip a switch and say, “Okay, people in the office go home.” And the people that were working from home already, nothing changed for them. So we didn’t necessarily miss a beat when it came from recruiting either in the office or in that work from home environments. Now, what we didn’t anticipate was the staffing up. Hospitals were very diligent about staffing up and making sure that they were ready for this, which is great. But it didn’t hit as quickly as they thought it was going to in some areas.

And that’s when you saw the jobs cut in that May June time frame. We made it through, it wasn’t easy. It was difficult, but we made it through just fine. And we came out better and stronger, I believe than maybe we were before.

Delohery: It seems like we’re not out of the woods as an industry in terms of these fluctuations and uncertainty. And as we talk right now, the election is as of yet still uncertain. So the entire nation is on pins and needles to understand which direction we’re going to go. How do you think that uncertainty and even the election itself will impact the staffing industry?

Smith: It’s a super interesting question just because I think either way the staffing industry is going to be okay and I’ll tell you why. Even through the pandemic, the entire nation didn’t just get healthier. Like nothing from a health standpoint change, the hospitals may have changed how they could do elective surgeries, when they did surgeries, how long you can stay in the hospital. Like those types of things just based on COVID. But at the same time, there’s still going to be patients. And you can’t deny that the baby boomer generation is continuing to get older and age out of the workforce.

So the baby boomer nurse, who was an asset to the hospital as an employee has now retired and now has become a liability to the hospital. And I know these are very sterile terms, and I apologize, but, has become a liability to the hospital as a patient. So they’re not a nurse, they changed sides of the bed there or the room or however you want to call it. So there’s still that need has gotten much, much greater than it ever was before.

Delohery: There is this constant that will always need travel nurses, will always have patients who need that kind of care, the kind of one-on-one care that you got for your daughter. How do you support your team so that they can better support nurses in these situations where the future is more unclear than maybe it usually is.

Smith: First, is to understand that we’re all living in the same exact world, and we all have the same struggles and life has gotten a whole lot more difficult from a home standpoint. Kids homeschooling, virtual school and whatever that might be, life has gotten a whole lot more difficult. And to just take the time to understand each employee’s unique needs. Employee recruiter, accounting person, however on the company side. It’s not even to make accommodations. It’s just having that empathy because we’re all going through it at the same time. From a recruiter standpoint, it’s never changed. Think about the old ways, I talk about it like it was many many years ago. 

Delohery: Yeah, it was nine months.

Smith: But think about the old days.

Delohery: It feels like the old days. Yeah.

Smith: Agencies where they operated under the 8:00 to 5:00, Monday through Friday, where recruiters, most companies allowed them to communicate through their cell phone and text and whatever. Most because I say, I know of some that don’t, which is weird. But they still don’t. But the archaic 8:00 to 5:00, Monday through Friday schedule, the travelers don’t work in 8:00 to 5:00, Monday through Friday schedule. Most of them quite honestly are sleeping 8:00 to 5:00. Sorry, my doorbell’s ringing. I apologize.

Delohery: Okay.

Smith: That would be Amazon.

Delohery: Amazon. That’s okay.

Life doesn’t stop because you have a podcast. You’re at home and you get Amazon deliveries then school.

Smith: Then the dog’s barking and whatever else. Just that old 8:00 to 5:00, Monday through Friday, it didn’t match. It didn’t work. I want to say, because of the pandemic, we are in a better place now than we were before from an office setting. Before the pandemic, Steve and I had spent some time, Steve Ryan, the president of Atlas, had spent some time with our leasing company trying to negotiate the space right next to us so we could knock down the wall and put more cubes in and whatever.

And then realize now through all of this, this is working better than having a bunch of people in the office. Now that’s not true for every recruiter. Some A type personalities need other people around them or whatever, but there’ll be a time when you can get back into the office and you could have that limited capacity. Like I said, we’re better off now. I think we understand our business and our recruiters and how our travelers live their lives more than we ever have before.

Delohery: And maybe this is related, you mentioned empathy, which goes so far and really understanding your recruiters and their whole lives, not just what you see, in that 8:00 to 5:00. But, how does that relate to how you would describe your leadership style, maybe especially through this tough period of 2020?

Smith: It’s amplified who I always was in the first place. So I really believed in just giving them the tools they need. Give your employees the tools that they need, and then get out of their way. And some of them will sink and some of them will swim. And I believe in my heart that everyone has the ability to be successful. Whether or not they choose to follow through and really follow their dreams and be that person that they always could be and be successful in the end. Recruiting is not for everybody, I know that. It is a grind. It’s a very difficult job. 

But if you give them what they need and then don’t micromanage them, don’t count their calls. Don’t count their submittals, don’t count how many text messages did you send? None of that is important. The proof’s in the pudding. The proof is in when I talk to that traveler and I’ve talked to so many of them during, at the end of their contract, at the start of their extension or whatever.

And they say, “I love my recruiter. I am doing this because of my recruiter. And because they told me that Fargo North Dakota is not awesome, but the pay is pretty great. And the hospital fits my skills.” And they get there and they say, “That’s exactly what they said. They understand.”

Delohery: That’s such a good point because it really highlights how people talk a lot about recruiting being a people business. But the kind of empathy you model and leadership, it sounds like they have empathy or a deeper understanding of what their nurses need. That goes far beyond how many times they emailed them or how many phone calls they made to get them there. That shows that you foster a deep understanding of nurses, for your recruiters to have that deeper understanding of their nurses too.

Smith: No offense Fargo, North Dakota. I’m sure Fargo has a lot to offer.

Delohery: Well, there’s the movie. So maybe the movie goes ahead and sets the tone of the PR for those of us, who’s never been there, no disrespect at all to our listeners in Fargo.

Smith: We used to have a lot of nurses in Fargo when they get there, and they say, “You know what? It’s nothing like we thought it was going to be.” It’s one of those things. So you just don’t know until you know.

Delohery: Absolutely. And this is a little bit of a shift, but, I think a lot about how failure often sets you up for success later. And, you mentioned your recruiters thinking or swimming on their own. Has there been a pivotal failure in your life or, that later you look back and you’re like, that really was a turning point for me to getting me where I am today?

Smith: Without a doubt. It’s one of those things that at the time, it feels like the world has crashed down around you and then you come out of it and you learn so much. Eight years ago, about right now actually, I was fired from Medical Solutions. A job that I loved. I helped grow that company. I loved the people that I worked with. For reasons that are unnecessary to get into, that were completely all my fault, I was terminated from that job.

And I thought, this is the end for me. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. But out of that, and I credit my wife for a lot of this. Because that’s how Atlas started. And that was the reason why we started Atlas, me and the other co-founder who left about a year in. He figured it wasn’t for him. And that’s fine. He had the realization to understand that.

It was one of those things, like she said, “Look, this is not a negative, this is a positive. You need to take this.” I’m 46 now. I was 38 at the time. I was getting close to 40. I’m thinking, I want to control my own destiny. I want to live the life that our travelers are living. Like they control their own destiny every single day. I’m not ashamed of that at all. And out of it came a great company with great employees, and I’ll never think of that as life shattering ever again. It was meant to be, it was supposed to happen.

Delohery: That’s such a great reminder, especially right now, there’s so many of our listeners I’m sure are going through big transitions and big changes and there’s so much going on that can feel really shattering. But it’s a really good reminder that we don’t know the whole story yet. Four, eight years down the road, things simply look vastly different, because of what’s going on right now.

Smith: If you can somehow take this pandemic and turn it into a positive, and I know with the loss of lives and everything, I know it seems like a cold, difficult thing to say. But from a personal standpoint, if you can take whatever has happened to you right now and make that a positive and make this a jumping off point for the rest of your life, you will never regret it.

Delohery: And digging in right now, as we’re getting through, or as we’re trying to dig in, what has helped you in your life, what habits or even realizations have helped you to get through this pandemic so far with such a much more optimistic stance than many people that I talked to. So I’m wondering what’s helped you get through?

Smith: On a very basic binary standpoint, it was my new year’s resolution this year. So if you go back to before we even realized what was going to happen. January, we’re all making resolutions, like you’re going to lose weight and go to the gym or whatever other stuff. That you’re going to forget about 15 days into January, because that’s what happens. Use my calendar, I have to get more organized.

I still like to this day, when I emailed you earlier today and said, “Hey, are we still on?” I didn’t know if it was on Zoom or whatever, but it was on my calender. That’s not Richard of last year at all. Richard last year would have just been, he’d have his pants kind of guy. Like, Oh, what am I going to do right now? Now I have a meeting, now I’ve got this. Okay, fine. No clue. That’s very nuts and bolts.

Delohery: No, that’s great.

Smith: In general though, it’s a realization of, this is the hand that we’re dealt right now and I’m going to make the best of it. I’m going to make the best of the cards that I have, because who knows what happens first quarter next year, second quarter, next year. I’m dealt a different hand at that point or whatever. This is the hand that I’m playing right now. And I’ll be damned if it’s going to hold me down.

Delohery: That’s great. I love those very specific, it’s those things often that make the biggest change. Just the simple habit changes that you can see your whole life and even look into the future and you nail down what’s going to happen.

Smith: Right. Quite honestly, but the behind the scenes look is, that was my new year’s resolution for the past three years. And I never followed through on it for whatever goofy reason.

Delohery: Sometimes it takes that too. It takes failing for a few years before. I’ve done it, and I’m never going to stop.

Smith: Exactly.

Delohery: We were heading into the portion of the year where we tend to spend a lot of time looking forward at what’s coming. And this, it seems a little bit trickier this year than ever before maybe to look ahead, calendars or no. What do you see on the horizon for the staffing industry?

Smith: You can’t deny, and I know your organization and a number of others have talked about growth in the next year. Like I had said previously, we all haven’t magically gotten healthier. So I think there will continue to be a need at the hospital level. I think once we get back to some, I don’t want to say normal because I don’t know if it’ll ever be what we knew before. But I know therapy in general, physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, like those speech, maybe not so much because you can do it through Zoom, but physical and occupational therapy have been hit very, very hard. Because you don’t have that one-on-one anymore. I believe the doors will continue to reopen where they may have been closed for most of this year in different ways.

And so I think our industry in general will continue to grow into next year and into 2022, and then beyond. I think we need to be cautious though about not getting ahead of ourselves too much and being responsible with that growth. Because it’s really good right now. And it’s going to continue to be really, really good. Let’s not get over our skis.

Delohery: That’s great. That’s great advice. And where do you see Atlas specifically heading? Is there anything you’re excited about for the coming year?

Smith: No spoilers here. We did our first acquisition, a company acquisition, last year in 2019 and I anticipate another one. We probably would have had one this year if things had gone differently. But, I anticipate one in 2021 for sure. I continue to see us growing stronger, hiring more recruiters and just servicing the nurses that we have, the nurses, the traveling healthcare professionals. Because we do allied and all the rest. The majority of our staff are nurses though, but just continue to service them on the level that they’re used to. I don’t see any of that changing whatsoever, but the growth is definitely going to be there. And the possibilities are, I don’t want to jinx this, but somewhat endless.

Delohery: Well, that’s a pretty exciting place to be and an exciting place to end too. Is just to open us up to the possibilities that are always essentially endless.

Smith: Yeah. Especially after a year like this.

Delohery: Absolutely right. There has to be something else after this year. So hopefully looking up. Well, thank you so much, Rich. It was a pleasure talking to you today.

Smith: Thank you so much for having me. That was a lot of fun.