A 5AM WAKE-UP CALL
Earl M. Furfine, CPA, PMP, CITP, CGMA
From the dawn of the healthcare IT revolution, 5AM Solutions has worked to provide the best service to its customers. President and COO Earl Furfine, who was brought in to save the day when 5AM needed some help, shares his exciting stories of company-wide change, true leadership in a time of need and 5AM’s now-bright future.
Q: Why did 5AM Solutions seek your expertise to help turn it around?
A: 5AM was in the final stages of a transition from primarily government contracting to private sector work. At the time I was recruited, they needed an individual who had familiarity with delivering software in both industries, as well as someone who had a mix of operational, financial and strategic skills for a small to mid-sized software firm.
Q: How has the company grown since you’ve been brought on?
A: 5AM’s revenue was declining and the income had been shrinking. We are now stabilized and have created an infrastructure to be able to support growth and double our current size without significant investment. The net income has increased from virtually break-even to us bringing in a respectable EBITA every month.
Q: As a seasoned executive, how was the transition coming into 5AM, after it had already been in business for so many years?
A: A successful transition in this case is all about the people. I knew after my several interviews with the executive staff that although there were significant challenges, it would be a successful transition due to the impressive team I was joining. I was also very careful to not institute change all at once, gain consensus for what were the priorities and pain points, and work closely with the individuals where we were adjusting processes.
Q: Could you share some challenges or an interesting anecdote about something you faced?
A: I think the biggest challenge I faced was that I did not have domain experience in life science and biotechnology. I sensed a slight degree of skepticism when I came on board. I must admit, it was a greater challenge than I thought it would be, and after seven months I believe I still have a long way to go. However, my approach was simple: I concentrated on streamlining those areas that were not domain specific and that could have an immediate, positive impact, like accounting procedures, recruiting process, proposal and contract management, standardization of delivery procedures. As I normally do, in the areas where I was not deeply experienced, I incorporated temporary contractors to handle the detailed work.
The most amusing story was that I noticed one of the staff members entering some spreadsheet data into the accounting system for cost allocations. I asked him how long it took him each month to do so. “Two days,” he said. When I asked why he did it he answered, “Well that is what we have been doing for years and I was told to do it this way.” I asked if we have any government contracts that require the allocations and he answered, “Not for a few years.” I then said, “Don’t do that anymore”. He said “Really?” and looked at me with a big smile and said, “You’ve just saved me two days of work a month — take the rest of the day off!”
Q: Did you leverage your past business relationships to help 5AM Solutions?
A: Of course. What is even more interesting is that I have forged new relationships from past friendships, given that I am working in an entirely new vertical industry (healthcare). I now have a chance to work with any number of IT and biotech professionals. The most ironic of all is that one of my Ironman racing partners is an executive at a large pharma company and, through a conversation of whether we would race IM Mont Treblanc or IM Japan in 2016, she asked, “What are you doing these days?” After I spoke of 5AM, we were invited to present to her company. I never underestimate the value of professional and personal relationships.
Q: What have you changed within the company and how do you see those changes impacting 5AM in the future?
A: One of the bigger changes was the institution of program planning and controls. 5AM is an extreme example of a customer-oriented company, and in many cases worked to meet customer needs without regard to scope creep and change management. We have successfully put in controls that allow us to serve our customers at the high level they are accustomed to while managing their expectations for delivery.
Q: You have an interesting managerial style. How have you applied that to 5AM, and what positive effects has it had?
A: I use a combination of staff empowerment and humor to diffuse tense situations. Whenever I get a new set of staff, I find they are always a bit reticent to embrace that empowerment. It can be a difficult transformation from “tell me what I need to do” to “here is what I think needs to be done.” What I try to instill in them is that there is no better person to know what needs to be done, so it is imperative that they embrace that and plan accordingly.
Q: What do you predict for the future of 5AM? Where do you see yourself in the business?
A: As in our name, we are at the dawn of the healthcare IT revolution. The integration of genomic sequencing, big data, IBM Watson Health, patient-physician engagement, clinical trial matching and any number of other initiatives provides a virtually endless set of opportunities for our company. We are a firm of scientists, bioinformaticists, program managers and expert engineers (some of whom are all the same person). Few firms have the deep domain, functional and technical prowess to bring technical solutions and innovations to our customers like we do. I see us moving to the forefront of innovation for pharma and into the center of the information exchange for all health-related initiatives.
Q: How is 5AM Solutions aiming to achieve better healthcare and health outcomes?
A: We seek to bring the opportunities offered by the internet, mobile computing, data processing and analytics to serve the needs of healthcare customers. These customers have witnessed the impact these technologies have had on virtually every other vertical industry. Focusing in this vertical allows us to extend our competitive advantage, built upon more than 10 years of delivering success in the industry, and opens new doors as healthcare as a whole faces the challenge of delivering improved outcomes at lower costs.