“Look,” Faulkner says, “we've got 3,000 people here. We've got too much going on for one person to make all the decisions,” citing a recent example of her not being informed of whether the company would use a Java-based or dot-net approach to going onto the Web (see sidebar below for more on that development). “But,” she adds, “I've always said that the role of the CEO is to make sure the company does the right thing. I can't imagine going to the board and saying, ‘Well, I thought this one thing was right, but the vote went the other way.’ It's like with children — as a parent, you're going to be responsible if your child runs into traffic, aren't you?”
Indeed, Faulkner has succeeded in creating an organization and a culture that reflects her to an exceptional degree. All of Epic's most distinguishing characteristics come out of her thoughts and early development work for the company, including:
the decision to eschew virtually all direct advertising and most marketing, with the notable exception of participation in the annual HIMSS Conference, as well as participation in one or two other conferences a year;
the decision to avoid hiring implementation specialists with significant healthcare experience, instead training Epic's own corps of young people and molding them to the organization's corporate culture;
the requirement that customer organizations have their IS staffs become certified in the understanding of Epic's products;
the strategy to never acquire other companies, but instead grow through internal development over time, a strategy that has been consistent from the company's inception;
the determination to remain privately held;
the uncommon strategy of regularly turning away business.
Faulkner has clearly been successful in creating a unified corporate culture. Speaking with Epic executives, one has an almost eerie sense of the exceptional degree to which Epic people tend to think similar thoughts. Perhaps not surprisingly, Faulkner remains sensitive to the frequent descriptions of the company as a “cult,” and continually emphasizes the diversity of opinions involved in establishing the company's direction. “It's more like we're rowing in the same direction instead of many directions,” she says and laughs. “We don't hold hands and sing ‘Kumbayah.’”
A formidable mystique
Still, despite Faulkner's protestations, the unified quality of thought and action under her at Epic, and the unusual set of corporate characteristics cited above, only add to the formidable mystique that has evolved around the company. Certainly, the other largest clinical vendors have their own auras: Atlanta-based McKesson Corporation has a reputation as an acquisitive behemoth that eats other companies for breakfast, and has grown huge as a result; Malvern, Pa.-based Siemens Medical Solutions has a special glamour, being European-owned and with imposing modality and software divisions; and Kansas City, Mo.-based Cerner Corporation has highly regarded core clinical products and a charismatic CEO. But none of those corporations has the singular identity that Epic does. And whether senior Epic executives admit it or not, industry observers agree that having a special mystique encourages sales.
With regard to the founder/CEO's vision for her company and how it has played out, one need only look at two interrelated strategies above all: the determination to remain private and the regular habit of turning business away.
“I always liked the philosophy that if you're making the kind of money you want to make, and you don't have to give up the ghost to get it, that's a great idea,” says Scott Grier, a director at the Nashville.-based Abrio Consulting. “In the old days, when Neal was having to go public and others were already pu blic,” he says, referring to Cerner's Neal Patterson, “the only way they could grow was through acquisition. And acquisitions are very expensive. But because Judy chooses to keep her head down and keep focused on the product, she doesn't have to turn to people for money. And her company being privately held, she has the luxury of turning away poor-prospect customers in a way that publicly held companies never could.”
Dave Garets, president of HIMSS Analytics, the data analysis division of HIMSS, echoes this analysis. “I agree, and that's why Judy's been successful,” he says. “It's a brilliant strategy, it's very simple. But it takes a lot of courage, quite frankly, to turn down potentially millions of dollars.”
The strategy to rigorously sift through potential customers and not sign all of them — a strategy that results in what could potentially be sub-optimal growth — conversely optimizes customer satisfaction, which has become Epic's calling card in the market.
Asked what makes Epic different, Melinda Costin, vice president of applications at the Dallas-based Baylor Health Care System, says, “Their attention to their customer is their outstanding characteristic. Now, this is easy for them because they're privately held,” adds Costin, who ran the Epic implementation practice at the former HealthLink (now part of the Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM Healthcare and Life Sciences).