Company Born in an OR
Gene Robinson turned from salesman to precision manufacturer when he spotted a critical need in the operating room.
Gene Robinson, IMS Inc. founder
CEO Gene Robinson founded IMS Inc. (Integrated Medical Systems) in the late 1980s, based on what he observed going on in the operating rooms of hospitals. Working alongside scrub technicians, he saw how difficult it was for hospitals to ensure that the right equipment, in perfect condition, was ready on a surgeon’s schedule.
IMS was one of a handful of companies that started the new health-care segment of third-party repair of surgical equipment. The family-owned company now has a customer list that includes 2,500 health care facilities nationwide. It employs 300 workers in Birmingham and 850 nationwide. In the peak recession year of 2010, IMS’ sales grew 15 percent to a total of $92 million.
In addition to repair, the company’s services have grown to include on-site consulting and training and turnkey management of hospitals’ central sterile departments.
When I got into it, I was one of a few people around the country starting to do this—third-party repair and independent servicing of medical equipment. I started out as a Birmingham sales representative for Johnson & Johnson, selling spinal implants. I was always spending a lot of time in the operating room, providing technical assistance on the implants and the instruments that go with the implants. Just as with a car, every car has controls in a different place, and I was there providing technical assistance to the doctors and scrub techs. Just being in the operating room and seeing an instrument that is not performing the way it’s supposed to, because it has not been repaired on a timely basis, gave me a pretty significant insight into the business I started.
What was driving the business back then, in the ’90s, wasn’t so much cost as time. When a hospital has an inventory that includes so many drills and they send one out for repair, they want to know when it will be back in inventory. But they were sending them back to manufacturers for repair and six weeks later the hospital still didn’t know where their equipment was and when it would be back. Or the manufacturer calls and says the equipment is over five years old and they don’t service it any more.
From the beginning, we have been in the business of process improvement. First repair, then into the servicing of equipment, then consulting. It all has to do with the instrument-ready mentality. When the surgeon is ready to operate, the instrument is there and will work like it should. Most recently, we have gone into the management of hospitals’ central sterile departments. That’s where they clean all the instruments and route them into trays to be sterilized and then put into inventory to be ready for the next use. The hospitals outsource that process to us. We can take over the whole department. The employees become our employees. We also do management consulting and sometimes just education, seminars on the care and handling of equipment. You’re talking about fine German and Japanese-engineered instruments that are very delicate and have to be handled properly.
Hospitals are becoming extremely cost conscious and are addressing a lot of issues of efficiency, which is why we are now in 40 hospitals that are outsourcing their sterile processing departments to us, and why we’re getting more of these calls from around the country. New customers hear about us by word of mouth. Our latest referral call came from a hospital in Chicago. Many hospitals want to implement our Oracle database software, which gives them access to report on an instrument’s utilization. The same software can tell them where their equipment is when it is in our shops for repair and make it easy to see how it is being treated. We can even tell them where it is in our service facility, what bench, which technician. And when they get it back, they can analyze their cost. It allows them to better understand and project repair costs.
The people we hire as technicians are people who are very good with their hands. We take people who are gifted with their hands and put them through a structured training process to certify them in how to repair various instruments. Our engineers document the process and lay out what exactly needs to be done.
We’re very fortunate in that we have very little employee turnover. We are often cited as one of the best places to work and one of the healthiest. We have a fitness program, with three gyms in three locations. They get 30 minutes off, which they can combine with their breaks and take time to work out.
We need a lot of high tech, small precision parts that used to come from the original equipment manufacturers’ suppliers. But to supply our own needs now, we just bought two huge milling and grinding machines: multi-axis machines, high tech and high speed. There are only 12 such machines in the country, and only one other in Alabama.
Our prime directive, our mission statement, is to act as if a loved one is on the operating table. It’s out of that attitude that we came up with the Instruments of Mercy. Working with surgeons who were with Ships of Mercy, 15 years ago, I saw the need. I took a drill to Colombia, and I just didn’t have the heart to take it back home with me. I left it in Colombia. It showed me the need for instruments and scopes in these countries.
We work with the surgeons on the mission trips. Hospitals donate instruments to the surgeons, but usually they are not in a usable state. We totally refurbish them and send them to the surgeon to take on the mission trip. We have now sent instruments to over 40 countries. Our latest initiative with Ships of Mercy is to every year send a technician to work for a few weeks on the big ship Africa Mercy, which does around several thousand procedures a year. Our technician just got back from Sierra Leone.
We have 10 acres around our 32,000-square-foot service facility here in downtown Birmingham, and we have just acquired 55 more across the street that we plan to develop into a company campus, at the entrance to Sloss Furnace National Landmark—where the city is close to building a $5 million visitor center. We’re working with an architect and a landscape architect and the city to incorporate it into the Sloss business district. The railroad park the city is developing stops right in front of Sloss. When we looked at our campus development we had that in mind, thinking, what a great place to be on a lunch break—maybe take a bicycle ride through railroad park.