Today, I share another millionaire success story - Richard Zuschlag.
If you're wondering how successful people get where they are, Richard's story is phenomenal. I love rereading it and thinking about his personality and path. Enjoy!!
Founder, Acadian Companies. Currently serves as CEO & Chairman of the Board
Married, three children
Bachelor’s in Electrical Engineering
Colleen Andrus, wife of Millionaire 7 Vance Andrus, put me in touch with Richard. They had known each other for several years through the Lafayette, LA, community.
Tell me about your growing up years.
I was raised 60 miles north of Pittsburgh in the small community of Greenville, Pennsylvania. I’m the oldest of four children. My mom and dad were very hard workers. My dad delivered milk for a dairy. I used to help him in the summer time. My parents taught me the value of work. I used to bag groceries, weed shrubbery, paint, and take care of people’s yards.
I was 17-years-old painting the outdoors of a radio station when the announcer walked off the job. The boss man came outside and asked me if I would play records because there was no one in the station who could do it. I got started in a broadcasting career.
I learned how to do news, be a disc jockey, do classical music, rock-n-roll, country-western, and broadcast live remotes. My great grandfather was an auctioneer and I think that it helped me to learn how to be a promoter, somebody who could market or sell something.
In that hometown there was an ambulance crisis when the funeral homes quit doing ambulance rides. A gentleman who had returned from WWII remembered that in Belgium they sold subscriptions to underwrite the cost of parking an ambulance in a small community. They were selling subscriptions in my hometown to underwrite the cost of a good quality ambulance. The radio station was helping promote the sale of the subscriptions. I got involved in talk radio where callers would want to know why they needed to be a member of the ambulance company.
I later left Greenville to travel to Washington D.C., where I attended Capital College and got a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. I thought I wanted to be a broadcasting engineer. I was somewhat concerned about the Vietnam War when I graduated in 1970 and ended up taking a deferred draft draw with Westinghouse in Baltimore.
After being there for six months they told me they were going to send me on a field assignment to Saudi Arabia to teach them how to operate microwave systems, or to Lafayette, Louisiana, where they were experimenting with re-educating technical engineers like me on how to do social work so the company could receive federal money.
I chose Lafayette, Louisiana, and came down to teach disadvantaged young people who had not completed high school. When I got to Lafayette on July 22, 1970, it was the hottest day of the year. Being from Pennsylvania, I was not used to the humid, hot climate.
For the first several months I thought I made the worst mistake in my life. I thought I’d be better off if I had gone to Saudi Arabia because in Lafayette they all talked funny and had highly seasoned food, [the] mosquitoes [are] as big as houses, and they all went to school in flat-bottomed canoes. I was not really happy and I thought several times about quitting my job.
At the end of the one year assignment, when they got ready to send me back up to Westinghouse, I had fallen so much in love with the way of the Cajun people, the family atmosphere, and attitude of “let the good times roll” that I quit my Westinghouse job and founded Acadian Ambulance patterned after the membership program that I first learned about up in Greenville, Pennsylvania.
I started the company with $2,500 and two partners. We financed two ambulances through GMAC at 18 percent interest and I drove the ambulance for the first couple years in the daytime and dispatched at night.
I had this passion to save every life I could. I hired Vietnam medics. I thought it was a shame the cement truck and a beer truck had better two-way radio systems than the ambulances did with the hospitals. So I built a big part of my company based on a great communication infrastructure so that people could communicate with each other and knew what was going on.
And because I was saving lives, I had to create a sense of urgency. When somebody called and needed help, you had to move quickly.
When professors from the University of Tennessee came to study our company a number of years ago to find out why we had been so successful, one of their points was that we seemed to have taken this sense of urgency on saving lives and put it on the business side of the company, to where everything that we did created a sense of urgency to get everything done today and not let anything wait until tomorrow.
I look at this as an opportunity where a Yankee came south and fell in love with the area and the people and took the opportunity to organize some of these Southerners who had great loyalty and wanted to be able to help others. I just think I was at the right place at the right time.
I had a very hard work ethic. The first year I would sleep in a sleeping bag at the office. It was a lot of hard work. I believe that passion for the work and the sense of urgency helped a lot.
One of my weaknesses was I was not a very good planner. I have been forced in recent years to plan 18-24 months ahead. In the olden days, we were doers. Lots of people sat around and planned and never did anything. We were doers.
The phone rang and somebody was dying, we responded.
That’s the same way we ran the business part of it. The next-door county–down here we called them parishes–called and said, “We have a problem. We can’t afford our ambulance service anymore and you’re doing a good job in Lafayette. Will you come take over our ambulance service?” Rather than planning on what areas we should go to, we just went wherever the phone rang to go.
When you look back on it, it might not have been the best economic way to make money because some of the rural areas didn’t have enough patients for them to pay for the cost of the ambulance. The bank kept loaning me money and finally said, “You can’t keep breaking even. You have to make a reasonable profit to invest in future capital.”
I honestly think that the first 20 years if we had sat down and put a budget together to figure out how much money we could make we would have failed. But because we were so naïve and innocent and were trying to save every life we could and just wanted to break even and provide a reasonable salary for everybody, we actually became successful and made money.
I have been criticized as being too much of a micro-manager. That’s one of my weaknesses and I’m trying to let go of some of that, but it’s the minding of the details that makes the difference. Making sure that you’re getting those batteries for the defibrillators charged so you don’t have a mishap, acquiring diesel ambulances and not gasoline so you don’t break down on an emergency. If we make a mistake, we’ll learn from it and not make it over again.
I surrounded myself with some of the most loyal people a person could have working on their team. They may not have all had the formal education, but their work ethic, their loyalty, and their honesty were uppermost in our success.
I came down here as a Presbyterian. After five years of working around the clock, I finally met a nurse when I was driving the ambulance and got married. I converted to Catholicism. Seventy-five percent of the people in this part of the state are French Catholic and I truly believe that part of the success of Acadian is that 80 percent of my management staff graduated from Catholic high schools. Their morals, their forgiveness, their Christian attitude toward each other, and particularly their work ethic, were unbelievable.
You don’t find harder working people than down here. I used to admire how hard they would work, but then how much fun they would have when they got off of work. These people know how to live.
I always went out of my way to be very demanding, very much into everybody’s business to make sure things were being done right, but also to be a great giving person.
Those qualities of sharing with the employees and not keeping it all for myself helped motivate them to help me create a very successful organization that continues to grow. It’s gotten more formalized and there is more strategic planning now, but in those early days, we all stood in each other’s weddings, we’re Godfathers and Godmothers to each other’s kids.
If I were to write down all of the qualities that I had that made me successful, it would be hard to list them all because some of them are intuition, some of them were taught by my parents.
I had a pretty tough mom. When she told you to go make the bed, you’d better be moving in 30 seconds or the broom was coming after you. It’s the same way when the 911 phone rings: you better jump into that ambulance and get that patient and not dilly-dally around. She always had that sense of urgency that when she spoke you better move or she’s going to get after you. My dad was very hard working. They pretty much gave everything they had to raise the four kids.
I’ve stayed so busy that I don’t kick back, take my shoes off, and say, “Look where I’ve arrived and look what I’ve done.” I just don’t think of that, but I had a doctor say to me after we went duck hunting [one time], “Do you ever sit back and think the spark you started 40 years ago, what that’s done in terms of how many people are still walking around today that wouldn’t be if it hadn’t been for you?”
When I travel around the state people always come up and talk to me about us having done something with one of their relatives, and it just seems to me that almost everywhere I go somebody wants to tell me. I’m pleased to say that most of the stories have very good outcomes, or in the relative’s mind or the patient’s mind they think we did a good job. That gives you a lot of passion to have that kind of work.
One of my big challenges right now is to get this younger generation to have more responsibility and better attitudes. It’s hard to teach them why they have to be at work on time and why they have to have a clean ambulance and why they have to take time to be nice to their patients.
The management team places a lot of emphasis on coaching and encouraging this new generation of workers. It’s more difficult with the younger workforce today than it used to be.
What is your passion?
I don’t know how to explain this, but I get excited to come to work every morning. I love what I do. I’m 64-years-old and I just love getting up and coming to work.
I’ve enjoyed taking young people and nurturing them, training them, seeing them blossom, and getting them to move up in the organization to have a better quality of life for their family and for their children. I like to promote them being civic-minded and trying to help give back to the community that’s been so supportive of us.
I enjoy making a positive change in people’s lives. Lots of satisfaction comes out of that. As I’ve matured and grown older, I’m not quite as nit-picky or demanding as I used to be. I used to really push our people hard.
Your passion is to help improve people’s lives, but that was not why you started Acadian, was it?
The reason I started it was for me to stay here in Lafayette. After initially not liking Lafayette, I fell in love with it. I was simply looking for a business that would let me stay down here and work.
When I look back at the pictures of me being 23-years-old I wonder how I could have ever convinced the city of Lafayette to let me do this. One of the other two partners was older, and they both lived here. We were told no twice, that we were too young. The third time I sat in the mayor’s office from 4:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. I wouldn’t leave until I could talk to him. I got him to call the mayor in Greenville, Pennsylvania, to see how that membership program had worked.
I had so much persistence. I loved to finagle things and get things done that nobody else could do. It’s hard for people to tell me “no” because I find a way. I’m a very persistent person. I sometimes maybe go a little too far, but if what I’m trying to get is right for the community and it’s not self-serving to me, I can usually get it if I work hard enough at it.
How do you define success?
Creating a better community with better jobs, with happy people, and being able to make a decent living. I don’t think it’s all about money. I just worked real hard and the moneymaking came by accident.
It’s only the last eight or ten years that we tried to put together an annual budget and have a profit and loss statement. Up to that time it was just hard work every year and every cent I got was always spent on making the equipment better, paying the people more, and providing better benefits. I was always satisfied just to break even and make a decent salary.
I loved to have staff meetings with the top vice presidents and say, “It took a Yankee to come south and organize all you Cajuns.”
And a couple of them would say, “And us Cajuns made you some money.”
They’re exactly right. They did make some money for me and for themselves, too.
Whatever made you think before you started the company that you were going to be successful at it?
I never had any great plan for expansion or being successful. I just wanted to stay in Lafayette and have a little bit.
When I first started I thought if I ever had three or four ambulances and just had Lafayette Parish, I’d be content. I never really thought about trying to do all the other expansion. I just wanted to make sure we got enough money in to pay our bills. That was my success.
I was criticized later on for not having an organized plan for growth. We just answered the phone and when they wanted us to come, that’s when we expanded. We probably could have done it in a better, different way.
B: Who criticized you?
Other business leaders have gone back and said, “You should’ve done this differently.” “You should have done that differently.” Or “You should have had more planning” or “You should have been more on the offense and gone out and looked for strategic growth patterns and not just waited for the phone to ring to see where they wanted you.”
I tell you one thing, when they called and wanted you, it wasn’t too hard to grow because you didn’t have to fight any politicians. You just went in, opened up, and started providing service.
I am not perfect and I’m trying to learn some new methods and make minor changes in my behavior in the way I run this place, because I’m trying to be more of a consensus builder and leader rather than a dictator. But I’ve got a lot of mentors that say, “It’s OK for you to make minor tweaks, but all the things that you’ve done for 40 years can’t be all that bad; look at the success you’ve created.”
I did notice as I was running the show how many other people were trying to get started in different kinds of businesses and how much time they spent in planning sessions. They spent all their time planning and never getting anything done.
That was one of my bright spots; I was a doer. When I got up in the morning, I started doing.
I taught my people that you have to have your list of things to do written out early in the morning. You can’t go to work and just start rambling around looking for something to do. You have to be organized and know these are my tasks today and I’m not going home until I get them done.
Did you have a formal mentor?
No. These were elders in the community that I came to rely on when I’d get in a pinch.
I learned pretty early on that no one person was right and it was better for me to talk to three to five of them that I really trusted and then mix it together and formulate my own plan. They all had their weaknesses and strengths and I learned how to sort through those.
I would share concerns or problems I was having and get their informal advice on how they would handle it. That was good for me.
You were so naïve that you thought you could save every person’s life and that naiveté drove innovation and pioneering. You have become one of the world’s foremost authorities on delivery of ambulance service. You found your passion of saving lives and helping people. Is that fair to say?
Yup. That’s what happened.
I just have such great excitement to see young people grow with me, to see people who may not have had the chance for a formal education to run this company. The president of this company started out as an 18-year-old ambulance driver.
He is so organized, so fair with his people, so multi-task capable, very innovative; my best friend. It’s very hard to have a close friend like that. We work very well together. Better in our older age than our younger age. We used to spar a lot.
The guy that runs my air division is my best friend. He’s been with me for 37 years. There are just a lot of things that have happened when you look at the history of what we’ve done together.
As you were younger and then as you were building the business, did you ever expect or want to become a millionaire?
Did you ever have written down goals, concrete financial goals?
Did you ever have a system of success in mind that you followed or did you make it up as you went along?
Made it up as I went along.
How did you balance time with your family as you were building your business?
I didn’t. I did a very poor job. For the first 15 years of my business I very seldom saw my wife or kids. She raised the kids without me being around. She is a very good Catholic mother who did a great job, but I put my business ahead of my family. I get a little emotional talking about it.
I certainly have made up for it in the last several years. I put my family first now.
I think about me being so busy that I didn’t even go with my son for his golf match. When he was a senior he went to the state golf tournament and I did go to that.
My whole attitude changed while they were in college and I’ve been with them for everything. In fact, I think now they think sometimes I’m too much of a pest because I want to do too much with them.
If you were to go back, what would you do differently? What have you second-guessed yourself on?
I would’ve tried to spend more time with my family in the beginning and I would’ve tried to do a better job delegating responsibility. I tried to be involved in almost every decision that was made concerning the business. I wish I would have done a better job letting go of some of that responsibility and assigning it to others. It would have created a lot less stress for me and the others on my team.
The people who are with me now–like the in-house attorney who I love who has only been here 12 years or the doctor I hired who’s only been here 12 years–don’t have the same work ethic as the rest of us used to have. They want to spend more time at the ballpark and with their kids and I’ve learned now how to accept that with grace and not be bitter about it.
As you were building the business what kind of salary did you pay yourself?
First year, 40 years ago, I paid myself $800 a month. My goal was always to make my grandma’s age in salary–she was 96 when she passed–and I did not make it until 1988. I’d been here for almost 16 years before I made $96,000.
I didn’t get into the category I’m in now until three or four years ago. I used to not make more than $400,000 or $500,000 a year. In 2004, it started getting up to $750,000 and then the last couple of years it’s gone over a million.
What do you want to accomplish between now and retirement?
I want to help grow the company in an organized manner without going too fast.
I’ve got some people on my board, some of my younger people that would like to see me be more aggressive in growing. I like to keep my growth around 10 to 12, maybe 15 percent. I believe that growing too much too fast would comprise the high standard of service we provide. I’m trying to balance growth with quality – ensuring that the services we provide are the best they can be is paramount to expansion in my mind.
I want to see if we can make things a little bit more efficient and get through this healthcare crisis we’re in right now. I’d like to be creative and see if I couldn’t set up some medical taxi cabs that could respond to non-life threatening calls, do some screening, and take these people to the appropriate non-emergent clinic and not pile all these 911 people into the emergency room that are just using the 911 system to get access to healthcare and creating a real barrier for those dealing with life-threatening emergencies. I’d like to try some new models of how we transport patients and differentiate between those that think they’re emergent and those that are really life threatening.
I’d like to use tele-health and programs like that to be more technical in the pre-hospital care area. I’m looking at some other technology devices that will give us a better response to the real emergencies.
[I’m also] trying to keep current maps in the ambulances to give us more efficiency. Technology at a cost effective price is also important to me.
Do you think you would have experienced the growth you did if you hadn’t authored the ESOP [Employee Stock Ownership Plan]?
No. The ESOP drives employees to be more efficient and innovative in what they’re doing and I think they like being employee-owners. There is a real sense of pride in ownership and that pride permeates the workplace. And it probably has tempered me to be more conscientious on how the annual budget is determined.
I’m very careful about how we spend our money. I recognize there’s an obligation to 3000 employees and all their families, probably 8,000 people. I think about my employees and their families in almost every decision that I make at work. Their welfare is what’s most important to me.
What part of what you do is most enjoyable?
I’ve got too many parts that I like. It would be hard for me to put them all together.
I like the Tuesday morning executive committee meetings where we discuss all the major issues and try to build consensus on which direction we’re going to go with hospitalization for the employees or salary adjustments or growth or risk management.
I like the art of politics. I like being friends with the Democrats and the Republicans to place myself in the best position to maximize my Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements.
I’m fortunate enough to have a very nice duck lodge on the coast. I get great enjoyment out of entertaining people and bringing them together for camaraderie and fellowship, card playing and hunting. That’s a big joy of mine.
I will spend around 35 days at the duck lodge during duck season with employees who get a chance to come hunting because they won a contest; senior management; district attorneys; hospital CEOs; newspaper publishers; TV owners; and state and federal politicians. I get a big kick out of doing all that. That’s a lot of fun.
I love solving problems. Because I’m fairly good at it it’s helped increase the popularity of my company. Normally, a little ambulance company doesn’t get the kind of recognition we get.
Would you say your journey has been relatively easy or hard?
In recent years, easier. I was too hard on myself in the beginning. I pushed people too hard and caused relationship problems.
There were some times, not in the last 10 years, but in the first several, where I got discouraged and thought maybe it would be better for me to go back home to Pennsylvania and run that little radio station. That was my dream, to run that radio station. I’m glad I never did that.
I’m glad that I have learned how to have a better attitude. [An employee] taught me it’s important to get up in the morning and spend some time in meditation and prayer and to start the day out in a very positive attitude and convey that positive attitude to all the people you come around. Since I’ve started doing that my life has become a whole lot better.
I used to let things strangle me and didn’t handle them in a positive way and took it out on some of my co-workers. I’ve learned how to handle that in a better way now and I’m proud of that. That was a weakness I had.
I ran the place more on emotions than I did on data and I’m glad I’ve gotten away from that. I credit some of my co-workers for helping me through some of those difficult times.
What have you learned from your failures?
No matter how good you are at what you do, you’re always going to fail and I come back to my persistence. When I fail, it’s like the mouse in the maze; I turn around and go back the other way until I find my way out. Sometimes I’ll fail two or three times, but when I am determined I will stay after it.
Over the last couple years I’ve developed “Z’s Ps.” My Z’s [“Z” for Zuschlag] Ps are Persistence, Positive Attitude, Passion, Politeness, Practice, Patience, Pride, and Prayer, which all lead to Prosperity.
I love when I speak to talk about Z’s Ps because I can expound on each characteristic and how I learned it. While some of that came to me naturally, when I put it in writing I was able to practice some of the ones I was weak in, particularly patience.
What should people who want to be successful know?
You have to have a vision or a dream and be passionate about it. You have to go after your dreams more out of passion than financial motivation. Too many people today sit around and try to figure out how much money they can make and how fast they can make it.
You’ve got to make it the old fashioned way. You’ve got to get out there and work for it. If you’re not greedy and just go out and try to make a decent living and treat your people right in terms of sharing with them, then you can be successful.
Some people think success is all about money. Success is about being happy.
You say you have to have a vision and a passion to be successful. When you started your business you didn’t have either one of those.
You’re right. I wanted to stay here in Lafayette. When I started the company it was more of a job for me than it was for a company that was going to make a lot of money one day.
I did not have a vision – I had a passion to stay here and then I had a passion to do the work once I started it.
I had lots of people tell me, “You were lucky.” And I say, “Yes, but I made that luck by hard work.”
I was lucky and I had a lot of good breaks, but nothing could take the place of hard work. Washing the ambulances, fixing the ambulances, dispatching, driving, paying the bills – it was a lot of hard work.
What would you say your greatest success is?
Creating so many jobs for so many people in healthcare and saving so many lives.
When I look at the amount of people that we have saved or that are alive today, many of them wouldn’t be there without the capability and the extraordinary heroism of our employees to save their lives. So I think that would be the great accomplishment.
It’s probably easier to have passion for saving lives and making a better community than making bolts or cutting widgets. Not everybody can have that kind of a job, but whatever you’re doing you can figure out how that’s going to improve a situation even if it’s just providing good, economic, stable jobs. That’s good for our community, too.
B: These other folks I’ve interviewed have worked hard and have stumbled into their passion as well and have just as much passion for the things they do as you do for what you do. That’s the value of hard work.
Yes. Nothing replaces hard work.
Too many of our young people today are trying to figure out how to make it big without all the hard work.
I have a nephew who came to live with me 15 years ago, then moved to Atlanta. He told me before he left that he was going to find a way to make a lot more money than I had but not have to work so hard for it.
I asked him how he was going to do that. He said, “I hope to be a good investor. I want to sit at a computer and invest other people’s money.”
I said, “Good luck.”
Everybody’s looking for the short way out, the easy way out, the fast way out.