With the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, Spartan Medical was faced with an opportunity to reach beyond its corporate goals and traditional business model, and accept this 100-year challenge head-on. Rather than rest comfortably on an upward trajectory, Proffitt and his team asked what they could do to be of service, and Spartan’s COVID-19 testing and vaccine services were born. What has since followed has been a reflection of the culture created by Proffitt’s unwavering commitment to teamwork and effective leadership.
Spartan has never fallen into the box of “traditional” due to its military mentality and values, but historically, from a business standpoint, it did serve a traditional role as a medical device distributor. The COVID-19 pandemic changed that dramatically. Can you talk about what changes COVID-19 prompted, outside of the health and safety guidelines we all followed?
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we felt duty-bound to use our collective medical expertise and logistical skills to provide rapid-response COVID-19 mitigation programs to schools, colleges, businesses and government agencies. The comprehensive, turnkey mitigation programs that we created, helped our customers suppress COVID-19 outbreaks and keep their organizations operating, establishing Spartan Medical as a proven leader in the COVID-19 rapid response space.
As an Air Force intelligence officer, what you learn is that no two things are the same. There’s no standard operating procedure that fits every given scenario, whether you’re working with targets, threats, current intelligence, and so on. Adaptation and flexibility are paramount, coupled with expertise and a team ready to accept new challenges and committed to being the best at everything they do.
So, we thought to ourselves, ‘There are so many great people in this company, we can do anything because we’ve already done the complex.’ This was a different kind of emergency, a pandemic that hasn’t happened in our lifetime, and it was ever-changing – much like the military.
“The way we’ve organized this company and continue to reorganize, is to meet the needs of an ever-changing environment.”
As a group, we were constantly looking at the environment, and we picked up the best consultants — from immunologists to esteemed clinicians to people that have experience running test labs. With the Commander’s Intent not just to do something but to be the best at it, we began to develop solutions to problems, always thinking of how we could go beyond that, even if no one had asked yet. We created COVID-19 mitigation programs by asking the right questions. And so, whereas many of our competitors are out there, really trying to fix a problem as it sits, we are working through every permutation. In the military, people’s lives are at risk, and you can’t just say, ‘We’ll put tomorrow off until we fix what’s in front of us right now.’
You have to go back and say, ‘Why is it a problem, and how do we make it so it’s not a problem anymore?’ And although we can’t cure Coronavirus, what we can do is find efficiencies and best practices and ever-evolving procedures that can be put in place at a moments notice. If you can break things down in a way that the customer understands and communicate based on their genuine needs, you can keep people safe and create real-time situational awareness. You’re not going to ‘beat’ the virus, but if you have situational awareness, an organization can make timely decisions and stop a bad situation from becoming worse. So that’s what we set out to do, and it’s really not much different than what many of us have done in the military and in our civilian careers as well. And it’s not a full transition, our core business continues to grow as strongly as ever because of the superb Spartan Family.
What was it like making the decision to pivot to COVID-19 testing and vaccine distribution? What went into that decision?
I’m very much not a risk-averse person. I truly believe that if you do your full duty, the rest takes care of itself, and I’ve applied that philosophy throughout my life and my career. And truthfully, there haven’t been any catastrophic failures – we are always moving forward. So, when it came to this, it just never occurred to me that there was a risk we were taking. All I see is opportunity to help. The thing is, responding to the COVID-19 pandemic was in no one’s wheelhouse. So, if I have an incredible team, and we can do this, then we’ll make it our wheelhouse. There was never a concern about risk; our only concern was in making sure that we went all-in, asked the right questions, and continually perfected our solutions. That’s exactly what we did, and that’s how we created and managed award-winning programs across the country.
I think it’s important to add that the problem with this pandemic is that it waxes and wanes, and people don’t pay attention to it as much anymore. And if you’re going to have a strong mitigating strategy, you have to pay attention the whole time. I’m hoping that through the summer and heading into the fall, we as Americans realize that we don’t have to change our whole lives because of COVID-19 if we put proven reproducible strategies in place. If we wait until COVID cases spike before we act, that’s too late. Think it through first and put a system in place so schools, businesses and institutions aren’t forced to close their doors when an outbreak occurs. This fast-moving virus is going to win every time if we’re always starting from scratch, as opposed to using the strategies that have worked already, regardless of virus variations. That is a key part. And with our programs the cost benefit analysis is a no-brainer. We just need decision makers to engage.
What were the necessary structural and internal changes needed to keep up with the new workload?
Change is always hard. But you’ll always see that any time there is a challenge – when there’s a situation where we don’t exactly know what we are going to do – the most remarkable people rise to the challenge. And that’s exactly what my Spartan team has done. We’ve hired four times more people than we’ve lost. We lose people from time to time, people move on, and that’s completely fine. We support that. Any change causes consternation, but the status quo is never going to work when you’re in the worst pandemic arguably in human history, that can be controlled with the tools in our toolbox. In the modern age, we have to evolve, we have to adjust. And we’ve absolutely been doing that.
Spartan Medical has two distinct advantages; highly capable people that make good decisions and being a small business which allows us to quickly adjust and maneuver. We use the Principles of War as guiding principles, including the 10th that we created ‘Proffitt’s 10th Principle of War,’ which teaches us to ask the right question, again and again. We ask, ‘What are we doing here? How do we do it better?’ We continue to ask the right questions and keep finding solutions to problems, then rinse and repeat.
Spartan has had a great deal of success since its initial pivot in 2020 — not only has it been successful providing COVID-19 mitigation programs and expanding its core medical device business, it was just ranked 2nd for companies with over 25 employees on Washington Business Journal’s 2022 list of Best Places to Work. Where do you credit that success, and how does it relate to the current reorganization?
The key to our success, and to my own success as a leader in the military and in business, is putting people in the right places to maximize their personal and professional potential. It works every time, no matter what. And that’s exactly what we did — we put people in the right places at the right time. Given the opportunity to excel, even if they don’t have the knowledge, skills and experience yet, (which none of us did in this COVID-19 era), amazing people do amazing things. As Patton said, “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do, and they’ll surprise you with their ingenuity.” I’ve been a huge fan of that quote my entire career, because I know the right people rise to the occasion and do just that.
With a committed group of professionals that trust each other, you can tell them what the Commander’s Intent is, ask them to work through it, and then reconvene in a day and a half. And what these amazing people will deliver is always better than dictating orders. We have such a brain trust, that it makes no sense to micromanage and tell people exactly what they need to be doing. If they know what the mission is, my team will do it and they will come up with the best solutions. Then, we recalibrate as a focus group and figure out what modifications we can make here and there to improve. It’s also very important to ensure everyone knows that no one is going out on a limb alone, we catch each other no matter what.
The way we’ve organized this company and continue to reorganize, is to meet the needs of an ever-changing environment, and no project or problem is an unsolvable mystery for this group.
What has been the most rewarding part of setting off on this path? Where have you seen the biggest challenges?
We’ve got executives with 30 years of experience that had to transfer to completely different roles outside of their field to take on major nationwide projects. To see these people take on massive scale projects and technical nightmares, and grow and evolve and become the best in the business, is beyond rewarding.
It’s the ultimate reward to see people that are motivated to go above and beyond their own personal expectations of themselves, and evolve past that with the team that we set up and its support mechanisms. We can all stagnate doing the same thing year after year, but real growth comes from accepting new challenges, staring down the impossible, succeeding, and seeing the world in a whole new light. Nothing is impossible.
It’s astounding to see the dedication that people have to this company and to one another, and I try to remind them of how important this work is and how fantastic they all are. It’s something we manage daily not just as coworkers but as friends and peers. And when that dedication and belief translates daily to our work product, we actualize it, we become the best, and we end up winning awards.
What changes still need to be made, and what are the next steps?
Something we’re always doing is looking for impressive new talent, and people that share the same values. Our success breeds success, and we’re getting the word out about who we are and what we do, which allows us to attract the right talent.
What will never change is our mission, because that’s what drives this boat, and that’s why this is a Spartan family, and not a Spartan corporation. We’re not driven by venture capital or stocks or shareholders. We’re interested only in being the absolute best at what we do, and it doesn’t matter what that is. If we continue to support each other and do all the things that got us here with this phenomenal brain trust, if we continue to bring on new talent and make sure they understand the culture, what we’re doing here and what the mission is, however it evolves, then we will continue to be one of the most successful companies on this planet.