First Coast Success: Mel Gottlieb, Martin Gottlieb & Associates
by Karen Brune Mathis, Managing Editor, Jacksonville Financial News & Daily Record
Mel Gottlieb is a business owner, philanthropist and health advocate. He started Gottlieb Financial Services in 1978 and sold it in 1993.
He now runs Martin Gottlieb & Associates LLC, a privately held medical billing company for emergency physicians in urgent care centers. It has about 200 employees.
Gottlieb took over that company after his son, Marty, died in 2004 after surgery.
In Marty's honor, Mel Gottlieb founded the Memories of Love Foundation to assist families in which a parent is suffering a life-threatening illness.
Gottlieb, 67, has been focusing on his personal health as well as the health of his staff. In January 2002 he suffered a serious heart attack, the one he calls the "widow maker."
Chest pains recurred several years ago and a heart scan found he had to change his diet and lifestyle, leading him to the Wellspring Heart, an immersion program.
He learned how to buy, cook and order healthy food and also focused on stress reduction and exercise. He since has immersed his company in the culture of health.
He and his wife, Debbie, have been married 43 years. Son Aaron Gottlieb is the owner and founder of the Native Sun Natural Foods Market.
Gottlieb has experience in the restaurant business. He went into the business in 1969 and opened a
second in 1971, leaving the industry in 1974. He then discovered the medical-billing industry.
The Daily Record interviewed Gottlieb for "First Coast Success," a regular segment on the award-winning 89.9 FM flagship First Coast Connect program, hosted by Melissa Ross. The interview took place at the station at 100 Festival Park Blvd. along the St. Johns River near EverBank Field.
The interview is scheduled for broadcast this morning and the replay will be at 8 p.m. on the WJCT Arts Channel or online at www.wjctondemand.org.
Following are edited excerpts from the full transcript.
You took over Martin Gottlieb & Associates during a difficult time. You took the reins after the unexpected death of your son, who was just 32, and then you weathered a serious recession. You also were battling your own health issues. When you look back over the past decade what do you see?
The thing that had the most effect on my life was, of course, the passing away of our son Marty.
At work, the thing that most affected the last decade is just, sadly, attitudes of people. It was interesting, being retired for 91/2 years and going back into business. When I was in business the first time, I did a lot of handshake deals and they worked out well.
Coming back into business, I found that people were so much more litigious. You really had to write it down, and write it down very specifically, because it seems the element of trust between people has diminished. That is what has affected the business the most in the last decade.
When you look at your personal situation the past decade, you have overcome a lot of challenges.
I have overcome them because I've got the strength of my wife behind me. Otherwise I know I couldn't have.
Going back to work and taking over the business and going in and sitting down in Marty's chair, I still don't know how I got through that. But I had Debbie and we got through it.
I have always had the ability to put everything aside and say 'what do I have to do?' and just go and do it.
That was the most difficult thing I have ever done, but I got through it because I had Debbie with me. If I didn't have the strength of my wife, there is no way it would have worked.
Talk about the Memories of Love Foundation.
When Marty passed away, we got a lot of letters and phone calls from people with suggestions on what we might want to do in Marty's memory.
His religion, being Jewish, we had the Solomon Schechter Day School (at the Jacksonville Jewish Center) renamed the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School.
No. 2 was emergency medicine, which we had always been involved in. We got involved in the Emergency Medicine Learning & Resource Center in Orlando in Marty's memory.
No. 3 was community, and we came up with the idea that there were organizations such as Make-A-Wish and Dreams Come True for children who are terminal or with a life-threatening illness, but we didn't know of any organizations that would do anything for the family if a parent had a life-threatening or terminal illness. We thought we would do that for the community in Marty's memory.
What we do is we send families that have a parent with a life-threatening or terminal illness on a five-night, six-day vacation to Orlando. Just a respite, just to get away from all of the medicine and the treatments and the talk about what's to be and to just have a good time and to create hope in the family. To date we have sent about 1,200 families.
The website is Memoriesoflove.org. It is an easy process.
You have overcome health issues, especially your heart attack. You have changed your lifestyle and the culture of the organization you lead.
I had a heart attack in 2002 and after that I thought I was living a healthy lifestyle. It was probably a little healthier lifestyle but not really a healthy lifestyle.
In 2009 I was having chest pains again and I went to the doctor and they did tests and they told me the good news was that my grafts from my open heart surgery were all in great shape, my arteries were all open, but the small vessels to my heart were closed and there was no procedure, that you have to change your lifestyle or things got progressively worse and I would end up either debilitated or dead.
My doctor recommended the Dr. Dean Ornish program and suggested I read the book, 'Reversing Heart Disease.'
I read it immediately. I became a vegetarian immediately. I always liked to exercise and I did that.
My wife, not being satisfied with that, decided there must be some program in the country that would really teach us how to adhere to the program more thoroughly. She found a program in Oregon, Wellspring Heart. I remember one of the facets was stress management.
I told her I will change my diet, I will exercise more but you are not going to change this A to a B. That's just the way I am.
Then we went out to Wellspring and surprisingly what I found to be the most helpful was the stress management. It is just amazing how much stress affects our health and heart.
Then we immersed ourselves. I bike just about every day. Last week I put 220 miles on my bike.
We are vegetarians. I couldn't do it if my wife didn't do it also. It's a family thing and we have learned to make tasty foods that are vegetarian.
After I did that I realized that we really needed to do something at the office. The first thing we did was we took the unhealthy snacks out of the vending machines and we put healthy snacks in them.
We found that people don't buy healthy snacks, so we started giving healthy snacks away. We found that they would eat the healthy snacks if we were giving them away.
Then we built a gym. We hired a trainer and we have a trainer come in from about 11 a.m. until about 2 p.m. We have classes and everybody works out and we have a group that goes for walks, a group that goes for runs.
We have a dietitian that comes in once a month and talks about healthy eating. We give out disks about stress management that they can take home and listen to.
So far it has gone very well. We have about a 40-45 percent participation rate. I wish it was much higher but I understand corporately that is an excellent participation rate.
So you have about 100 people who are now in the culture of health every day at the office?
That's correct. There are a lot of benefits that you don't realize. The camaraderie — they go out on weekends and do runs together. It's really great. The morale is wonderful, and I think people really enjoy it and appreciate it.
Do you have any tips on stress reduction?
The main thing is really learning how to just stop, breathe, and understand what you're really in control of and what you're not in control of.
You can't eliminate stress but you can handle it and you can determine how it's going to affect you. The stress factors are always going to be there; you just have to learn how to handle them and I think that is very important.
You also are very supportive of scholarships and education in Jacksonville. Can you share some of your efforts in that area?
We had a neighbor who passed away, he was the head of the voice department at UNF, and he came to Debbie many years ago and wanted to know if we would support a scholarship for a student.
We started with the voice department and decided to expand it and we went to the college of business. I remember meeting with (former University of North Florida President) Adam Herbert because we wanted all of our scholarships to go to minority children.
Adam Herbert asked me why and I told him at that time, and at a lesser degree today thank goodness, a lot of minority children are being told that they couldn't make it. That is how we started.
Our scholarship program expanded into nursing. We support nursing scholarships with St. Vincent's Hospital. Debbie was a registered nurse and that is how we got interested in nursing.
(The Debbie Gottlieb Center for Nursing Excellence was unveiled in 2005 at St. Vincent's Healthcare.)
The catalyst, though, was really Marty. When I had my heart attack and the nursing was so wonderful at St. Vincent's, Marty started the first program that we got involved with there. That was a nurses' appreciation program, which we still support today.
Where did you grow up?
I'm not sure I've ever grown up. I have aged. I was born in Jacksonville.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I think I am what I want to be. I am a happy husband and a happy daddy and a happy grandfather. I have a group of people that I get to go to work with every day and it is like family also. I am just very blessed.
You are an entrepreneur and you started a financial services company. What led to that?
Being the smart aleck that I am, I used to tell people that when I was a little boy, I always wanted to be in the medical billing business. That of course would be crazy. Nobody wants to do that when they are a little boy.
But I was in the restaurant business and I got held up 13 times and after the 12th time I decided I was going to get out of it, but they held me up one more time before I got out.
My brother-in-law was a urologist here in town and he asked me if I would come and manage his practice and at first I told him no. He wanted me to come and straighten out his practice for the end of the fiscal year.
I did that and it went so well that I ended up with him for four years. After four years I went and started my own business doing management for larger medical practices.
We never had a salesman and we never had a marketing department but by word-of-mouth we grew from three people to over 700 employees in town and we were doing billing all over the country.
One out of every 16 emergency visits in the country are billed out of our offices here in Jacksonville. We sold that in 1993.
What motivates you?
When I do something I have to be the best at it. I am always a little bit amused or chagrined when people say they are bored with their work.
If you're trying to make it better and you are trying to look for things to do to make what you do better, I don't know how you can get bored.
I ran a billing business. That sounds kind of boring. It always amazes me that there are times when we started doing billing that I had actually gotten phone calls from patients thanking me for billing them correctly and filing with their insurance correctly so that we didn't have any problems.
It is all how you look at things. My goal is to always do things right and then to make them better. That is my motivation. I couldn't stand not to do things right and not being the best that I can be.
Could you describe your leadership style?
I learned to laugh at myself a long time ago. I always made it a point to try to hire someone smarter than me. If I am the smartest one in the room, we are going to be in a lot of trouble.
A lot of people are afraid to hire someone smarter than them. They are afraid they will be displaced. I guess because I owned the business I didn't have to worry about that.
But I think my management style was hire the best people you can hire and then listen to them. If you are absolutely convinced after listening to all the information that you are correct, then you have to make the move in the direction you think is correct.
I am a participatory leader. But I do understand in order to lead you have to be out front.
What are your basic philosophies?
I think the two things that I try to concentrate on most, that are the most important in business and in life, are honesty and loyalty. Those two things will take you wherever you want to go.
Honesty is obvious. To me, business is who you are and what you do is who you are. I don't know how we would operate in society if we are not honest with one another.
Loyalty, the people who work with me, a lot of them have been with the family for 30 years. You have the same accountant forever and ever, you have the same lawyer forever and ever, you've been married for 43 years. I don't know that life would be meaningful if people didn't care about each another. Part of life is showing loyalty.
What is next for you?
I don't know if there is a next for me. I just want to continue doing what I am doing. I want to go in every day and work with the people that I care about.
I want time to be with my lovely family. My daughter is having a baby in July and she lives in Austin, so I figure once a month I have to go there for a weekend.
Read the article in the Jacksonville Financial News & Daily Record.