Darren Smith knew in college that he didn’t just want a job in business. He wanted a job in the health care business.
“I could see where the needs were and where the aging population was trending,” he said.
He worked in management for two national health care providers — Integrated Healthcare Services and Horizon Health Care. Then, in 1997, he met Mark Woolpert, founder of Compass Health, at a wedding.
“It seemed that what I had been doing, working in the health care field and, more specifically, doing turnaround, was something he was looking for,” Smith recalled. The following year, he joined Compass Health as vice president of operations. He remained in that position for about five years before becoming chief operating officer. After about eight years in that role, he became chief executive officer.
Smith recently talked to The Tribune about the company, his goals as its leader and the people who inspired him.
Q: What are some of the toughest challenges you face day to day as CEO? What strategies do you use to overcome them?
A: Meeting the expectations and needs of our employees is an important day-to-day challenge. I believe the key to a successful organization is a unified culture and a motivated workforce, and we have numerous employee-focused activities, rewards and programs that benefit the lives of the employees and their families.
Q: Explain some of the ways in which you reward employees.
A: We have an employee recognition program, and we do an annual employee summer party and an annual employee winter party. At the winter party, we will acknowledge specific employees with clinical excellence awards and team compass awards.
Q: What have been some of your key goals as CEO to help the company grow?
A: Some of the diversification is something that I have driven from the start, with our restaurant involvement and our construction involvement. We’ve almost doubled the size of the company since I arrived. A lot of our growth is locally focused because people within the organization just aren’t that interested in business travel. You live on the Central Coast because you want to be here, and you’re not interested in business travel away from home.
We’ve diversified to continue to expand our footprint without having to move outside of the county. I also have a background in restaurant management, and the company’s principals and I have been involved in construction. It’s something all of us are comfortable with.
Q: With such a diverse company, how do you manage the many facets of Compass Health?
A: Our primary business is health care, no question. However, the other facets of our company also require appropriate energy and attention so that the quality of services provided is always up to our standard. To do this, we have a group of great people that make up our management team, and we divide our operations amongst the group. Then, each person is a sort of specialist and can focus on his or her division of our business.
Q: Describe some of the most important lessons you learned on your path to becoming a CEO. What were some of the pivotal moments that helped to shape your career?
A: Wisdom is a word that better answers your question. Wisdom is a word that I think defines itself to each professional over time. For example, I understand human nature far better now than I did starting out in my career, and that has been a valuable thing in business.
A pivotal thing that helped shape my career was that I was fortunate to have been involved with such a quality group of individuals. The early mentorship I received at Compass Health truly allowed me to become a better person as well as a better professional. Mark Woolpert and Bill Gerrish, who has always been our chief financial officer, were mentors. They really helped me. Mark, more from an executive management level, and Bill from a financial one. I think our business relationship turned into a friendship and a mentorship without it being addressed as such.
Q: What do you like most about work and what inspires you to keep you doing your best on a daily basis?
A: There isn’t just one thing I like best about what I do for work. What inspires me is the impact of the health care we provide and how appreciative the recipients and their families can be of that, especially during what can be a hard stage of life. I also enjoy prospective projects or looking at an existing business and knowing there’s a way to create positive change.
Q: Who have been some of the most influential people in your life and why?
A: My parents were tremendous role models, always demonstrating to me the value of treating people with kindness and respect. They influenced my belief that it is possible to gain knowledge from everyone you interact with — supervisors, co-workers, friends and family. And that it is important to never believe you have all the answers, which is especially difficult during your early 20s when, without a doubt, we all believed we had all the answers.
Q: What have been some of your (or your employees’) best ideas to improve the company?
A: Some of the best business ideas have come from employees, friends, family and business partners or professionals in other industries. It is important to know you don’t have all the answers and recognize neither does anyone else. Exceptional ideas are usually a collaboration of many. We have employees who came up with the idea to start an LVN (licensed vocational nurse) training program, where we partnered with Cuesta College as part of their curriculum. The program has gained state recognition for our facilities. The one I like is Seniors Saving Seniors. Nursing facility residents make dog biscuits and they sell them. That helps to pay the adoption fees for older dogs at the shelter. We also have a farm at our Arroyo Grande Care Center. The residents who live there actually farm and garden in the back of the facility.
Q: Describe your overall philosophy for running a business. What are some of the basic rules to live by?
A: An important personal philosophy to me for running a business is to operate from a position of fairness. But I do think it’s equally important to be committed; if you say you’re going to do something, be prepared to see it through.
Q: Discuss any new ventures and where you would like to take the company in the next five to 10 years.
A: Right now, we’re looking closely at a couple of assisted-living facilities, and senior housing programs probably encompass what we’re looking at. There’s a growing need because of the aging population, and the way the baby boomer population is starting to come into their senior years. People are living longer and living at a higher level longer, so there’s more of a need to service those who still want to be active and have an environment that is stimulating. We are frequently approached with opportunities, many involve food service or building and development, and we will continue to grow in a controlled, reasonable manner.
Q: What words of wisdom do you have for young entrepreneurs/people who might want to follow a similar path?
A: Dream, set goals, accept personal responsibility and be prepared to work.
Q: Is there one accomplishment you feel particularly proud of?
A: The ratings of our health care facilities. U.S. News gave us a five-star ranking for all of our facilities. We met some quality benchmarks that I’m very proud we were able to achieve. Our restaurants have a good reputation in the area and seem to do very well and we have a good group of individuals who work for us — a very motivated, hardworking group that takes a lot of pride in being part of the company.