Jim Buncher Featured

9:04am EDT June 30, 2006
When Jim Buncher joined SafeGuard Health Enterprises Inc., he got a crash course in crisis management. In 2000, the dental and vision benefits company was within hours of being seized by regulators when new investors took control with a cash infusion. The company had expanded beyond its management and financial capabilities and was in dire financial shape. Buncher, who was brought on board as chairman and CEO, had to find a way to halt the company’s bleeding and re-establish profitability. In the last six years, he has expanded the company to 1.7 million members in four states through a series of strategic acquisitions, and revenue has grown from $105 million in 2003 to $200 million in 2005. Smart Business spoke with Buncher about crisis management and his strategies for running a successful company.

Don’t waste any time.
When you come into a crisis situation, you have to act quickly. You have to have a lot of confidence and take risks.

Sometimes you don’t have time for detailed analysis, so you have to have confidence in your judgment and experience. Time is money.

Get as much information as you can, involve the management that is closest to the issue and make a decision after getting their thinking and input. Not making a decision only causes you to delay the opportunity to impact company performance.

Find expendables.
Coming into a crisis, you look at everything. Nothing is sacred. You enlist all of the management to look at every expenditure, every commitment.

We took every expense category on the income statement and looked at all the detail of what was included in the category to see if it was essential, and if not, we evaluated the impact of doing away with it. We looked at each piece of business that we had, and if it wasn’t profitable, at renewal we implemented rate increases to make it profitable. And if the client didn’t agree, we let the business go.

It takes strong teamwork from all management with the CEO and CFO deeply involved and willing to make the hard decisions.

Get in the field.
To be successful, you’ve got to get in and really understand your business and understand the details of your business. It’s just a matter of rolling up your sleeves and digging in and understanding. Don’t hide yourself in a corporate shell.

You know your employees that are on the front line. You get to know your customers, and in our case, your brokers and consultants that help sell your products. Markets are different, have different needs, different competitors, different client needs, so if you don’t get that input, you can easily make a wrong decision.

I believe in a very flat organization structure. So, there’s not lots of layers and tiers and things, so you can stay close to your customers. Communication is quick, it’s clean, it’s not distorted by lots of people’s prejudices along the way.

Recognize good performance.
One of the ways you keep people is not only give them an opportunity to perform, but recognize that performance. We have what we call the Service Excellence Club.

Somebody who does something above and beyond what would normally be expected of their job may become a member. Customer feedback is one of many criteria that drives who gets into the Service Excellence Club. If we get a couple or three kudos about a particular employee’s help to a customer or member, that employee most likely will be brought into the club.

In there, they get some special benefits. They get periodic reinforcements in terms of we may give them gift certificates or some additional time off or something like that. So it isn’t a one-time thing. We continue that recognition and keep reinforcing it.

(Recognition) is what people need. People want to do a good job. And if you do a good job and somebody recognizes that you’ve done a good job, that’s very motivating, and so you keep seeking that recognition.

Set the bar high.
If we’ve made a mistake, we’ll stand by it — even if it means we’re going to lose money. And if we make a mistake, our goal is to identify it and fix it quickly.

But we have a culture of we try to stress that we are easy to work with and we’re responsive to your needs and we try to have zero errors. We are realistic to know that zero errors probably will never happen, but it still can be your goal. (Customers) can see that we work hard to not make errors.

Most anybody can duplicate our products, can duplicate a network of providers, can do the mechanical parts. But if we can provide a better service and support of our product, we can differentiate ourselves from our competitors.

Measure yourself.
We constantly monitor the availability of our member services and client services and broker services people.

How quick does the phone get answered? What is the abandonment rate? (We monitor) all of those kinds of mechanical issues to be certain that our service levels are there.

We also believe enough in it that we publish a quarterly report card on ourselves and how we’re doing servicewise as perceived by our customers and clients. We pay an outside agency who surveys a sample of our members, our insured people, as to certain aspects of the service they’ve gotten from SafeGuard, as well as from our providers.

We seek (feedback) and we get a lot. We get letters now and then from clients or brokers or even providers or a member who says, ‘Jane Doe who helped me with this problem did an outstanding job.’ Once in awhile, we’ll get one that’s the other way that says there was a problem. And that one we’ll follow up on aggressively.

Be forthright with employees.
We communicate openly both to our people and to the other company’s people. When we did the acquisition of the Health Net Dental and Vision business, we met multiple times with all of the employees so that they knew along the way exactly what was going to happen, when it was going to happen, how it was going to happen, and there were no surprises.

Rumors are always the bad stuff, never the good stuff. We’re open and honest with the people in an acquired company. And if they say, ‘Will there be layoffs?’ if there are going to be layoffs, we will say yes.

And if they say, ‘Do you know who?’ we usually don’t know who early on, but we share that information. We have found that it’s better when people know, because the unknown is always worse than the known.

HOW TO REACH: SafeGuard Health Enterprises Inc., www.safeguard.net